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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Don't forget to "water" your calves

Dairy Pipeline: July 2006

M. Chase Scott
Extension Agent, Southwest Virginia

Water is the most important nutrient; it makes up 70-75 percent of the weight of a calf. We are very careful not to limit water availability to lactating cows, dry cows and heifers, but pre-weaned calves seem to be often overlooked in respect to water requirements. One week after birth, calves should have access to free choice fresh water. In an effort to maximize growth and health prior to weaning, some producers invest in higher quality milk replacers and calf starters. Likewise feeding milk to calves is expensive even when milk prices are low. So why invest in milk, milk replacer and starter and then limit the single most important nutrient? Water!!

Complications from dehydration are a leading cause of calf mortality. Calves are susceptible to digestive upsets due to their immature immune and digestive systems. Providing fresh water to calves helps keep them hydrated, which in turn assists in treatment. Research has shown that calves with access to free choice water (in addition to milk replacer) consumed more starter grain and had a higher weaning weight than calves fed no additional water.

Calves need fresh water, not three-week-old swampy water and it shouldn’t be contaminated with feed or manure. It is a good practice to dump water buckets daily, during feeding, and clean them if needed. Between feedings, some producers opt to offer water in the same buckets in which the milk is fed. While better than no water, this practice leads to dirty milk buckets with the potential to harbor bacteria since they are never allowed to dry.

How much milk or milk replacer do you feed each day? One gallon? How does that compare to the recommendations below? So when investing in calves don’t forget water, it’s not expensive but it is vital.

Holstein Calves
1 month
1.3 - 2.0
2 months
1.5 - 2.4
3 months
2.1 - 2.8
4 months
3.0 - 3.5

(Adapted from: Adams, R.S. 1986. Water Quality for Dairy Cattle. Penn State University.)


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