It can seem difficult — or almost impossible — to keep water in front of calves in cold weather without having to deal with frozen buckets. Yet, water serves an important function in rumen development, and it may be even more important in cold weather.
“It comes down to promoting starter intake,” said Sarah Morrison during the December Hoard’s Dairyman webinar. Starter intake, in turn, promotes rumen development. When a calf’s rumen is functioning more like that of an adult cow, it is producing more metabolic heat, and the calf has a greater tolerance for extreme weather conditions, she explained.
Morrison, a research scientist at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute, shared a rule of thumb that calves should drink four parts of water for every one part of starter consumed. For example, a calf that is eating one pound of starter daily should drink 4 pounds or one-half gallon of water each day.
Calves’ water needs rise with age. Morrison shared that a preweaned calf should be drinking 1.3 to 2 gallons of water per day. By 3 months, water intake should be between 2.1 and 2.6 gallons per day, and at 4 months of age, a calf should be drinking 3 gallons or more a day.
Without water in the preweaning stage, calves will have slower rumen development. It also reduces their feed conversion rates.
Having water in front of calves all day in the winter simply doesn’t work in many housing environments, but Morrison said, “If you can get water in front of calves a couple of times a day, that is a benefit.”