Why water?

Outlines the importance of water in raising healthy calves Water intake promotes early and rapid rumen development

Not too long ago I was asked, "Can we raise preweaned calves without feeding water?" My answer was, “Yes.” Of course, it depends on what one means by “raised.” If it means “Just keep most of the calves alive until they can be weaned,” then why worry about water? If it means, “Keep the death and sickness rates low and growth rates high,” then water is an essential ingredient for success.

Impact on Rumen Development

The development of the rumen lining is necessary prior to successful weaning of preweaned calves. A mature lining is covered with a multitude of tiny fingers or papillae. They provide the extensive surface area needed to absorb nutrients from the “soup” in the rumen.

The pre-ruminant calf’s rumen lacks these papillae. Only after she begins to eat solids do they begin to grow. Fluid-fed calves such as special fed veal calves never develop them in their rumens. Research in the 1990’s demonstrated that papillae growth is tied closely to the presence of a specific substance that is released in small quantities when starches and sugars (carbohydrates) are broken down in the rumen. Grain is the most concentrated source of these carbohydrates This substance, butyric acid, acts on the rumen wall to stimulate papillae development.

What’s the role of water? On one hand, when calves consume milk or milk replacer a very high percentage of it ends up in the abomasum. Only a small amount goes into the rumen to mix with starter grain to initiate fermentation. This process is limited by the small amount of liquid.

On the other hand, when calves drink water nearly all of it goes into the rumen. The water and starter grain form a slurry that when blended with starch digesting microbes in the warm rumen environment releases the needed ingredient for papillae growth. Milk replacer provides fluid for overall body growth. But because it goes directly to the abomasum, it’s in the wrong place to promote early and rapid rumen development.

Impact on starter grain consumption

A study compared water and grain intake for calves offered either no water or free-choice water.

At only four weeks of age the calves fed free choice water had already drunk ninety-five pounds (nearly twelve gallons) of water (See Table Below). Compare the starter intake levels. Free-choice water calves consumed eight more pounds of starter grain. That’s about forty-four percent more grain in the first four weeks.

Expect wide variation among calves

In a summary of studies involving 672 calves completed between April and October in Iowa Quigley reported daily water intakes (CalfNote #68 at http://calfnotes.com). They varied from nothing to eighteen quarts. On the average daily water consumption was about 2.4 quarts.

Expect starter intake and water intake rates to go handin- hand. In general for each pound of starter consumed preweaned calves usually drink about a quart of water in addition to their milk or milk replacer. Hot weather? Expect higher water consumption rates. Cold weather? Expect lower water intake rates. Providing water that is close to body temperature is one way to encourage water consumption in cold weather especially among young calves. They may only drink a pint or so before it gets cold. But, only a few cups are needed to form a grain:water slurry in the rumen that promotes early papillae growth. In practical terms, most calf raisers that watch water consumption notice variations even from day to day for individual calves. I always figure it’s better to overfill water buckets than to guess wrong and have calves run out of water.

Calf Feeder’s Tip

Only a few calf raisers have climate-controlled facilities or live in climates that never freeze. The rest of us care for calves in facilities that get freezing cold in the winter months. That means water can freeze in buckets. In winter weather many calf raisers try to dump buckets before the water freezes. For those days when schedules just don’t cooperate and ice forms in buckets try keeping a rubber mallet handy. These rubber mallets are purchased at auto supply stores. Until the ice forms a solid mass a few smacks with a mallet usually will crack it out. Compared to a stick, stone or frozen ground a rubber mallet is much less likely to dent metal pails and crack plastic ones. And, having tried breaking the ice out with my hand I know that a mallet certainly saves on the hands. The only disadvantage of buying one for use with calves is that the guys from the shop tend to “borrow” it and forget to return it.

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