Clean, high quality water is important for calves of all ages

Daily water needs for calves depend on many factors including age, diet, environmental temperature, and health status. Cattle with an insufficient supply of water will limit their solid feed intake. While it is typically assumed that calves get enough hydration from their milk/milk replacer and do not need water during the first days of life, studies show milk replacer is not a sufficient water source for young calves.

A 2018 study by Wickramasinghe et. al. reported that newborn calves drank about 0.75 litres/day (L/d) of water during the first 16 days of life. After day 17, calves were drinking about 0.82 L/d. Once calves were fully weaned (49 days of age), they consumed about 5.3 L of water daily. Older calves around 180 kg can also drink up to 30 litres of water daily, making monitoring water quality parameters and ensuring free-choice water is available essential for calves of all ages.

Offering fresh water to calves can be difficult in the winter, when freezing temperatures may make this task more challenging. Methods to ensure water availability in cold weather include electrical heaters, non-freezing water bowls, nipple waterers, and frequent water feedings.

The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Veal Cattle water requirements are: 

  • Cattle must have daily access to clean water in quantities to maintain normal hydration and health, taking into consideration factors such as environmental temperature and diet.
  • Neither ice nor snow are suitable as a sole source of water.
  • Water quality must be tested at least annually to ensure its suitability for cattle, and corrective action must be taken if an issue is identified.
  • Feeding and watering equipment must be in good repair, functional, and maintained free of manure and mold.

It is very important that water is safe and palatable not only for the animals but for the safety of family and employees. Water needs to be free of contamination and have appropriate levels of chemicals and minerals.

Water quality must be tested annually, and experts recommend testing in the spring and fall. If the results of the water quality test indicate contamination, it may be prudent to repeat the test. If the second test is positive, consult a water quality specialist at the Canadian Water Quality Association in order to determine the best way to the address water quality issues, especially if it is the same well for the house and barn.

Water quality can be impacted by the source of the water. Testing should be done whether it comes from a drilled well, a municipal source, or surface water. Drilled wells greater than 24 metres (80 feet) usually provide good quality water. Shallow dug or bored wells are more prone to ground water contamination and higher nitrate levels. Municipal source water is usually tested for chemicals and bacteria by the municipality according to the provincial regulations. Surface water is another viable water source option, however when surface water from ponds, lakes and streams is used, water treatment is necessary to ensure high quality water is offered to cattle.

Water with a high pH level (alkaline) impacts the effectiveness of chlorination as well as other disinfectants. It is also important to note that some water-soluble medications are also affected by a high-water pH causing them not to go into suspension. Similarly, water-soluble medications and some disinfectants in acidic environments (low pH) have reduced effectiveness. Milk replacers dissolve the best in neutral pH of about 7.2.

Calves drink a significant amount of water as early as one day of age. Water intake can translate into improved growth performance before and after weaning by enhancing rumen development and nutrient utilization efficiency. After weaning, water intake increases along with starter intake. Providing calves with access to fresh water from the first day of life is one of the easiest and cheapest management practices to encourage calf growth.