Feeding free-choice water to preweaned calves has been proven to improve rate of gain from birth to weaning by 33%, compared to calves receiving no water.
New York calf and heifer specialist Sam Leadley said part of this increase is due to an accompanying increase in calf starter grain consumed by calves with access to water. That increase in nutrients in turn, supports rumen development and immunity, allowing calves to more effectively grow and fight off disease.
With all these benefits, feeding water is somewhat of a “no-brainer.” But it becomes a little more challenging to put into practice in the winter months, when water pails quickly become Popsicle® molds, and emptying them after freezing is a tedious-if-not-impossible task.
Still, Leadley said, it’s important. “Calves have no less need for water in the winter compared to the warmer months, even though they might drink a little less,” he stated.
In addition, cold temperatures call for an adjustment in water temperature. Calves need to divert energy from growth to maintenance of core body temperature as the ambient temperature declines. For newborn calves, that threshold for environmental temperature is 60˚F; for month-old calves, it’s about 40˚F. “You don’t want to add to that burden by feeding cold water that their bodies must warm up internally,” Leadley advised. “So it makes sense to feed water close to their body temperature – about 102˚F.”
The consultant shares two practices he has seen farms use to effectively deliver water to calves in the winter:
Feed close to predicted consumption – This approach ensures there are few “leftovers” to freeze in water pails. Leadley said the volume of water calves will drink has a fairly direct correlation to the amount of starter grain consumed, so younger calves need less water. “With a little trial and error, you can predict fairly precisely how much water each calf needs daily based on age,” he said.Develop a “feed and dump” routine – This approach delivers water in a finite timeframe, to which calves usually become quickly accustomed. “On some farms, they feed water, feed grain, and then return and dump any leftover water,” explained Leadley. “Others feed water before noon, take a lunch break, and then return to dump the water.” He said in either case, it is important to establish a routine and stick with it. With consistent implementation, calves learn to drink the water as soon as it is delivered and consume what they want before it is dumped. Also, be sure to dump water into a larger receptacle and dispose of it away from the calf site, to avoid hazardous ice build-up.
With either approach, a valuable side benefit is that fresh water is presented daily. Leadley cited research that showed calves with daily water changes, regardless of season, had a 5% weight-gain advantage compared to calves whose water was changed once a week; and 11% compared to calves with every-other-week changing.