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Nursery calf water intake is dynamic

Noah Litherland for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016

Feeding water to nursery calves can often cause frustration for producers. Water intake by nursery calves is dynamic and has a degree of variability, making it a little difficult to judge how much water they will drink.

Key factors impacting water intake include changes due to growth and body size, environmental temperature variation and calf health. I often hear producers say, “Calves do not drink much water early on, and it is really difficult to keep drinking water in front of calves during winter months due to freezing.”



During the summer, the conversation switches to a need for three daily water feedings due to heat stress.

A calf’s water intake typically increases with size and age, with the greatest increase occurring at weaning. Additionally, calves struggling with health challenges often have both low starter grain and water intake.

So how much water do calves drink? The answer is: It depends.

We measured water intake (Figure 1) for calves fed milk replacer (20-20 fed at 1.5 percent of birth bodyweight and mixed to 12.5 percent solids) and offered calf starter in winter months in a trial my lab group completed at the University of Minnesota.

Average daily intake of drinking water, milk replacer water, total water drinking


Calves were housed in hutches and bucket-trained at 3 days old. Warm water (105ºF) was offered within 10 minutes of offering milk replacer. Refused water was weighed before the next feeding of milk.

A few key items to note:

  1. During the milk feeding phase, water from milk replacer was a substantial source of water intake by the calves, but that source of water decreases during the weaning process.

  2. Drinking water intake in calves less than 1 week old is modest but significant, averaging about 4 pounds per day (0.5 gallons) and increasing steadily up to 10 pounds per day (1.2 gallons) by day 49.

  3. Water intake and starter intake curves mirror each other, with calves consuming about 6 pounds of water intake per pound of starter intake from day 14 to 49.

  4. During the weaning period, from day 42 to 49, total water intake decreased, which might have restricted starter grain intake and calf growth.

Results from this study give us an indication of how much water calves can drink. This study would have been more insightful if it ran for the standard 56-day nursery phase.

Another serious limitation of this study was our inability to keep thawed water in front of calves due to freezing conditions. We left buckets of water in front of calves for the entire 12 hours between feedings of milk.

However, we quickly learned that if calves did not drink water within 30 minutes of offering, they were not likely to drink much water due to drop in temperature and eventual freezing.

We would expect greater water intake in warmer conditions. Based on subsequent studies, we project starter and water intake would continue to increase, resulting in an estimated 6.5 pounds of starter and 13 pounds of water per calf per day by day 56.


Research into drinking water for calves is not new but still an area of great importance. It is recommended water be provided free-choice to calves receiving liquid diets to enhance growth and feed intake.

Research in 1939 showed that up to 40 percent of milk and about 95 percent of water intake can enter the rumen.

Researchers in 1984 reported calves offered water free-choice in addition to the liquid diet gained faster and consumed dry feed at a younger age than calves provided water only in their liquid diet.

Research in 2006 determined that starter grain intake is strongly correlated with water intake. Greater amounts of starter grain intake are associated with enhanced rumen development, more efficient growth and improved calf health. Higher-fiber calf starters might simulate increased water intake.

Water temperature seems to be important

A study conducted in Finland evaluated drinking water temperature impact on water intake by calves pre-weaning (day 20 to 75) and post-weaning (day 75 to 195). Calves were offered warm water (63ºF) or cold water at well temperature (45ºF). Pre-weaning water intake was greater for warm water (6.2 pounds per day versus cold at 4.2 pounds per day).

This effect carried through post-weaning, with water intake averaging 35.9 pounds per day and 33.7 pounds per day for warm and cold water, respectively.

There were no significant differences in dry matter intake or growth between treatments. Warm water was stored in a poly tank while cold water was fed directly from the well. It is plausible the bacterial counts could have been greater in the poly tank, contributing to a lack of increased growth with increased water intake.

Water quality is also important

I recently received a question from a calf grower struggling with calf health and growth. The consultant collected a water sample and submitted it for quality analysis. The water sample came back as fairly high in sulfate, iron and copper.

Age of calf and suggested amounts of water

These values are not atypical of water samples in the region. Elevated sulfate and iron will often decrease water palatability and decrease intake. Hard water certainly reduces the efficiency of detergents for cleaning equipment.

We recommended a water softener or reverse-osmosis system combined with a heavy-duty iron filter to improve water quality and stimulate water intake.

Before investing in these tools, however, we recommend a simple study to test their potential effectiveness. Bring in quality water from off the farm. Offer it as drinking water and mixed with the milk replacer for at least two weeks to gauge the impact on calves.

Then consult a trained and qualified water technician to make a complete assessment of the situation and determine if well depth and capacity are adequate. This technician can also provide expertise into the best water treatment and filtering options to explore before you make the investment. PD

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Noah Litherland
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Tips to increase water intake

  1. Offer warm water to calves year-round.

  2. Offer clean, fresh and warm drinking water within 10 minutes of feeding milk to maximize water intake.

  3. Do not over- or underfeed water. Calf feeders often get frustrated with calf water intake because they are unsure of how much water calves should be drinking.

  4. Aim for targeted feeding amounts of drinking water (in addition to milk). A simple rule of thumb is to multiply the calf’s age in weeks by two to get the targeted pounds of water intake per day up to weaning.  PD