Water is essential for all life and both water availability and quality should be a vital consideration on all dairies. Mainly we think of the importance of water for our lactating cows, as milk itself is about 87% water.

However, making milk isn’t the only thing that water is essential for. Water is required for digestion and metabolism of energy and nutrients, transport of those nutrients, excretion of waste, maintenance of fluid balances, as well as generation of new tissues. It is important to think of not only the lactating cattle in our barns, but the growing heifers as well. Water plays a key role in driving feed intake to promote growth and development in young calves and older heifers. It is just as important, if not more important, to ensure that these animals have adequate access to water as it is for lactating cows. Water intake is even more crucial during periods of cold weather.

In periods of extremely low temperatures, it can be particularly difficult to provide water to calves in hutches with rapidly freezing buckets, but it is critical that water be offered to calves throughout the day. At a recent dairy management conference, Dr. Simon Peek from the University of Wisconsin stressed the importance of water and providing it immediately after feeding, even in the winter months. When asked why water should be offered after feeding when drinking the milk or milk replacer should quench their thirst. Dr. Peek responded with his own question: “How many people are thirsty and end up going to get a drink after eating ice cream?” This was an interesting analogy, and made a lot of sense. Unfortunately there is not much research available to reference looking at offering calves water, and more specifically looking at the time of delivery or preference for when calves will drink.

Regardless of delivery method and time preference, access to water is necessary for calves. In a neonatal calf, water makes up 85.8% of its body weight. Many believe that the water in milk replacer is adequate for calves, but supplemental water is required to maximize the growth of these animals.

A 1984 study showed that with no supplemental water provided to calves, dry-matter intake decreased by 31% and weight gain decreased by 38% when compared with calves offered supplemental water in addition to milk replacer. This is a substantial decrease showing that for each extra liter of water consumed there was a corresponding increase in weight gain of 56 grams per day. In accordance with a summary of data from Cornell University, gains prior to weaning ultimately lead to greater milk production later in life. To provide our calves with the best opportunity to grow into healthy and productive animals, supplemental water must be provided.

Although it might be difficult, ensure that calves have access to water all throughout the day even in the winter months. Providing your calves with water will ultimately provide you with better growth, healthier, and more productive animals.