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The importance of water to calf growth

Tom Earleywine Published on 22 May 2015

Water may be the most overlooked aspect of many calf-raising programs. Research has shown that it takes 15.3 days for the average U.S. dairy to first offer calves water. However, most experts agree that calves should be offered water at 1 to 2 days old to encourage calf starter intake.

There are two keys when it comes to encouraging water consumption:



1.Quality – Water should be high-quality and kept fresh.

2.Quantity – Enough water should be offered to promote healthy growth and rumen development.

Why is water so important?

  • Rumen development – Calves are born without a functioning rumen, which is developed by fermentation of grain and water.
  • Improved grain fermentation – Milk replacer consumed by a calf is directed into the abomasum which, early in life, is the calf’s largest stomach compartment. When calves drink free-choice water, it is directed to the rumen and aids in the fermentation of calf starter.
  • Better starter intake – Calves offered free-choice water consume more calf starter and begin to grow at a faster rate.

How much and when?

  • By 1 or 2 days old – Young calves may only drink a pint or two, but it’s important to have it available.
  • Consumption depends on milk replacer feeding level – Research by Dr. Jim Quigley, technical and research manager – calf and heifer at Provimi North America, found that calves provided 2 quarts (0.5 gallons) of milk per day would consume about 3 quarts (0.75 gallons) of water per day. Likewise, those being fed a little more than 3 quarts (0.75 gallons) of milk replacer per day will still potentially drink about 2.5 quarts (0.625 gallons) of water per day.
  • Older calves need more – By the time calves reach 2 months old, they should be drinking 10 to 12 quarts (2.5 to 3 gallons) a day.
  • Calves will drink more in hot weather – Expect water consumption to go up by 33 percent or more as temperatures reach the high 70s and low 80s, and anticipate it may double as temperatures pass 90ºF.

Fresh and clean is everything

Providing calves adequate water supply is an important part of raising healthy replacements. Ensuring the water is fresh is equally important.

  • Separate buckets – Feed buckets should be separated from water buckets to prevent grain from being dribbled into the water and vice versa. Land O’Lakes research shows that separation improves both starter and water consumption.
  • Routine cleaning – A study conducted at Utah State University found that frequent rinsing of water buckets for hutch-raised calves increased daily bodyweight gain by more than 7 percent during a 60-day pre-weaning period and through the next 100-day growth period. Twice-daily cleaning of buckets is preferred, and intervals should not exceed seven days.

Providing calves with free-choice water from their first few days of life is one of the easiest and cheapest strategies to employ for improved rumen development, average daily gain and preparation of calves for a smooth weaning transition.

Water quality is a critical element

Calves do not tolerate poor-quality water. However, poor water quality can result from several factors, including elevated mineral levels in water, microbial and environmental contaminants, and total solids present.


Poor-quality water can impact calf water consumption and starter intake, calf health, rumen development, the quality of milk replacer and electrolytes, as well as the ability of washwater to clean and disinfect calf-feeding equipment.

Watch out for elevatedmineral levels

Findings of a nationwide water analysis show mineral levels in water can be quite excessive. All of the minerals examined, with the exception of zinc, exceeded levels desirable for livestock in at least one or more of the 3,618 on-farm water samples collected. The analysis showed water mineral levels can also vary considerably, even on the same farm.

Excessive mineral levels in water are a particular concern with calves because they are more sensitive to elevated mineral concentrations than adult cattle. For example, some water tests will show 2,000 ppm sodium in water is acceptable for cattle, but calves can only tolerate 50 ppm.

Softened water often exceeds this level. Calves are also not tolerant of iron, manganese, magnesium, sulfur and microbial contaminants.

Research studies that document the effect of elevated mineral levels in the water fed to calves are limited. However, minerals in water can affect water palatability and intake, which can negatively impact calf starter intake and rumen development. On-farm reports also suggest the overall performance and well-being of calves is affected by elevated mineral levels in water.

Routine water testing needed

Water quality issues, such as the presence of elevated mineral levels or microbial contaminants, are a good reason to regularly test the water given to calves. At a minimum, the water fed to calves should be tested annually for minerals, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH, as well as contaminants such as bacteria.


Local health departments or commercial analytical labs can test the water fed to calves. However, since calves are more sensitive to water-quality issues, ask for a calf suitability test.

What should a water test include?

When submitting water samples for analysis, ask for an assessment of:

  • Total soluble salts or total dissolved solids, which measure the salinity or amount of soluble salts in water, including calcium, magnesium, sodium, chloride and sulfate salts.
  • Hardness – Calcium, magnesium, iron, aluminum, zinc and manganese all affect water hardness.
  • Nitrates
  • Iron
  • Microbial contaminants such as coliforms E. coli and Salmonella

At a minimum, water should be tested annually. PD

Tom Earleywine has a Ph.D. in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and is director of nutritional services for Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products. For more information, contact him at (800) 618-6455 or by email.

tom earleywine

Tom Earleywine
Director of Nutritional Services
Land O’Lakes