Shortly after the agway heifer farm in western New York opened its doors in december 1998, personnel knew something was wrong with the calves. They looked like they were drunk, recalls Jeanne Wormuth, manager of the facility which is now owned by CY Farms of Elba, N.Y. The calves would stumble, hang their heads; ears would droop.

An investigation ensued. A veterinarian familiar with the symptoms diagnosed it as a water-quality problem. A water test confirmed his suspicions — sulfate levels were nearly five times the threshold level of 250 parts per million (ppm).

By the summer of 1999, they were trucking in water for the calves while they awaited the construction of a reverse-osmosis system, Wormuth says.

Elevated sulfate levels in water are a legitimate concern for calves. Other minerals in high concentration have the potential to cause problems, too. Here’s why you should pay attention to the mineral content of the water offered to your calves.

A discounted nutrient

Going into the Elba facility, they knew sulfate levels were elevated, Wormuth says. A water test two months prior to opening showed a sulfate concentration of 625 ppm — certainly above acceptable levels, but not necessarily high enough to generate concern.

A subsequent water test, done four months after the facility opened, showed sulfate levels had increased to 1,225 ppm — almost five times higher than the upper limit of 250 ppm.

Levels for older animals can reach 500 ppm without causing significant problems, says Jim Linn, extension dairy nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. Cows can adapt to water with a moderately elevated sulfate concentration. They may break with diarrhea initially, but generally become accustomed to the off-flavor and resume drinking it.

The Elba facility certainly didn’t anticipate a water-quality problem. Most operations don’t. It is said that water is the most important, yet perhaps the most overlooked nutrient in the diet. Only when it causes problems do people take notice.

A visible difference

The Elba facility is coming up on 10 years of operation. A lot of things have changed during that time. That makes it difficult to quantify the impact of an improvement in water quality on parameters like starter intake, calf growth and health.

In the research world, the impact of water mineral composition on calves and other dairy animals is not well-documented either.

That doesn’t mean you should discount the impact of high mineral levels on water palatability, feed intake and overall calf performance and health.

CY Heifer Farm saw a visible difference in calves affected by the sulfate content of the water.

The effect was most apparent in the weaned-calf barns. That’s when calves were solely on water, Wormuth says. In the wet-calf barns, milk replacer tended to disguise the palatability issue, though they still noticed the same drunk-like symptoms in those calves. “It would really physically affect them,” Wormuth recalls. From a health perspective, calves were weak. They seemed to fall prey to health problems rather easily.

Calves didn’t eat starter like they should either. “We thought they should be eating more grain,” Wormuth recalls. Again, it’s difficult for her to say the sulfate levels were solely to blame for unsatisfactory intakes. At the time, other factors may have contributed to the problem.

The situation vastly improved when they installed a reverse-osmosis filtration system. “We don’t have those same issues anymore,” Wormuth says.

Vigilance required

High sulfate levels have taught personnel at CY Heifer Farm that they must always be on guard.

About two years ago, the calves seemed to be in a slump again, Wormuth says.

They didn’t immediately recognize it as a water-quality problem. Normally, the reverse-osmosis system keeps sulfate levels at about 50 ppm, Wormuth says. Only after the process of elimination did they realize that they had not tested the water in awhile. Sulfate levels had started to creep up again. The filters needed attention. Once they fixed the problem, the calves “instantly popped back,” she says.

Now they know that if the calves don’t “goof off” or bob their heads in and out of the pail when fresh water is delivered, something’s up, Wormuth says. A hint of the “rotten-egg” smell also is a subtle reminder to monitor mineral levels in the water.

Minerals matter

The maintenance — not to mention the upfront cost of treatment systems, like reverse-osmosis — can be hard to swallow. In the end, though, lackluster intakes and poor performance hurt your bottom-line.

One study, still regularly cited more than 20 years after it first appeared in the Journal of Dairy Science, shows a 31 percent decrease in dry matter intake and a 38 percent reduction in weight gain in calves that did not receive supplemental water.

Could water made unpalatable by mineral levels cause a similar response?

It’s hard to say. “Research that shows the effect of sulfate or other trace minerals in the water fed to dairy calves is limited,” says the University of Minnesota’s Linn. “Of all the research, the effects of sulfur are the best documented,” he adds.

Though on-farm problems are difficult to document, the experience at CY Heifer Farm is proof that problems can occur when sulfate levels are greater than 250 ppm for calves.

“I’m a strong believer that water is extremely important,” Wormuth says. Make that conviction for your calves, too.

Drinking Water Standards

EPA = Environmental Protection Agency

NAS = NationalAcademy of Sciences

NE = No limit established

What should I test for?

Your local health department or a commercial analytical lab can test the water fed to your calves. An initial assessment should include the following:

  • Total soluble salts or total
    dissolved solids. This measures the salinity or amount of soluble salts in water, including calcium, magnesium, sodium, bicarbonate, chloride and sulfate salts.
  • Hardness. Calcium, magnesium, iron, aluminum, zinc and manganese all affect water hardness.
  • Nitrates.
  • Iron.
  • Microbial contamination, such as coliforms, E. coli and salmonella.