We see it all the time. The constant reminders to not only provide our cows with water, but quality water from a clean trough, bucket, and so forth. We see this in articles, blogs (kind of like this one), and we hear it in dairy industry conversations. And rightfully so.
You know what we don’t see a great deal of? Big posters that hit us on the forehead screaming, “Hey! Don’t forget to water your calves! ALL of your calves!”
According to Sam Leadley’s Attica Veterinary Associates’ Calving Ease series of “Water: The Magic Growth Promoter,” we should be providing clean water to dairy calves from the day they’re born.
The common argument for not offering free-choice water is that the milk or milk replacer we feed our calves also has water in it. A calf’s rumen wall depends on solid feed and water that are fermented in that stomach for maturation. The esophageal groove action stimulated by the suckling reflex and milk protein causes milk and/or milk replacer to divert directly to the abomasum. Therefore, the water included in the calf’s liquid meal may prevent rumen development. Even in freezing weather, free-choice water is still crucial in supporting fermentation in the rumen.
On average, U.S. dairies report that they begin to feed water to dairy calves at 17 days of age. Research has found that growth rates for calves with access to water from day one are superior to those calves that have to wait.
Tips to remember:
- Schedule and enforce regular water pail cleaning and sanitization
- Use float-controlled flow into bulk water tanks especially in cold weather
- Don’t carry water if it can be pumped through a hose or pipe
- Transfer water in bulk if possible and necessary
- Take advantage of a calf’s habit-driven behavior by feeding at the same time each day
Although taking a few extra steps to establish that all calves are able to drink water might take some extra labor, the opportunity available could validate the decision.
Sarah Thomas grew up in Pittsboro, N.C., showing and raising dairy heifers. Thomas attends Virginia Tech, majoring in dairy science with minors in agricultural economics, communication, and Spanish. On campus, she’s involved with Dairy Club, Sigma Alpha, and has been a member of the Virginia Tech dairy judging team. Thomas is the current National Junior Holstein Advisory Committee Chairperson and is the 2019 Hoard’s Dairyman summer editorial intern.