top of page

Moos News

Calf Health

If Canadian farms are anything like the American dairy’s surveyed in 2016, many farmers don't provide drinking water to their calves from day one. I can understand why, as even when it is provided, they will often drink very little, so how much can it be worth? When you take into account some common misconceptions around providing pre-weaned calves with drinking water include that it could cause diarrhea or reduce their milk intake, it makes even more sense as to why it gets skipped. A 2019 study looked into these and other factors and found some results that might surprise you!


When assessing length of illness, fecal scores, and even blood parameters, there was no evidence to suggest feeding water contributes to the development or severity of diarrhea. For mild diarrhea, having the option of an additional source of hydration beyond milk/replacer can even be beneficial! That being said, Dr Jeff wrote an excellent piece about calf electrolytes in the last edition of Moo’s News that we should keep in mind. Pure water is not the only important component that is lost in a calf with diarrhea and we can’t leave drinking water to fill in all the gaps on its own.

When considering fullness, the calves provided drinking water in the study actually drank more milk than those without by 300g! In practice, some calves may drink a large volume of water when they are first presented with it and as a result, drink less milk at their next feeding. This behaviour is rare to persist when they are consistently provided with water at a young age as the calves quickly learn it won’t nourish them the same way milk does, but it is important to be aware of as not to get discouraged right off the bat.

With more milk consumed, it may be easy to assume more starter would also be eaten when provided water. I will concede that this is not necessarily true. For calves fed high volumes of milk, such as those on robot feeders, there is unlikely to be an increase in starter consumed when water is also provided. For limit fed calves, being provided with drinking water encouraged them to consume more starter. The majority of dairy calves fit into the limit fed category and thus are likely to see increased starter intake if provided drinking water from an early age.

The reasoning behind providing drinking water is that it is an important component in developing the calf’s rumen. Starter is only one piece of the puzzle to turn a calf into a ruminant and providing it without water won’t get you as far as you may hope. A healthy rumen is essentially three ingredients: water, microbes, and food. The calf handles the microbes and we know to provide the food, but we also need to consider that the other two won’t work without water.

Milk feedings are ideally going into the abomasum due to the esophageal groove blocking the path to the rumen when suckling. Therefore, while you are already feeding your calves a significant volume of fluid, it isn’t relevant to the rumen the way drinking water is. In a pre-ruminating animal, it is important to create an ideal environment with each of these ingredients in order for the rumen papillae or surface area to develop. Greater surface area means more efficient absorption of nutrients from fermented feed. Calves start with a fairly smooth rumen wall and need time to develop papillae in order to effectively transition to solid foods when weaned.


Image taken from article by Dr Katie Bradley for Purina.


If you’re still in doubt, what if I told you that calves provided drinking water from day one actually achieved higher body weights faster than their counterparts who did not? And these results were found when the calves consumed the same volume of starter! This goes back to the rumen developing benefits that drinking water has. For the same feed at the same intake level, the calves are able to more efficiently digest the food and thus grow more effectively. 


So how do we make this a reality, especially in the season of snow and ice? Calves typically prefer to drink warm water, similar to their milk meals. Drinking cool water can also cause them to waste energy warming it up themselves, which is a scarce resource in the cold. Providing warm water at a consistent time of day can train calves into drinking their fill when it is warm and available. Once you come to know how much calves of different ages tend to drink, you can provide only slightly more than what they are likely to drink and minimize excess frozen water that way.

Another important consideration when providing water is that water buckets should be dumped at least two to three times per week to keep the water clean. Once the weather warms up, the dumping frequency should be increased. The total volume of water provided can also be increased in the summer to help reduce hydration losses in the heat, especially if you are noticing empty buckets during your next fill time.

Before I continue to talk your ear off about water like a weather reporter, let’s review the main whys and hows.

Why provide water from day one?

  • Better rumen development → increased feed efficiency on starter → greater growth on the same volume of feed

  • Likely to see increased starter intake → greater growth and easier weaning adjustment

  • Will not reduce milk intake or cause diarrhea

  • Additional source of hydration during losses (e.g. hot weather)


How to effectively provide water?

  • Calves prefer clean water → try to keep it separate from the starter or place a barrier between the two to prevent mixing

  • Dump water buckets at least twice per week, increasing frequency in hotter weather

  • If struggling with freezing, find a consistent time daily to provide warm water

  • Young calves prefer warm water → we don’t want calves wasting precious energy to warm it themselves in the winter

  • Provide more water during hot weather, especially if buckets are empty at next filling


Source: Wickramasinghe, Kramer, & Appuhamy. 2019. Drinking water intake of newborn dairy calves and its effects on feed intake, growth performance, health status, and nutrient digestibility. Journal of Dairy Science 102(1).

bottom of page