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Water intake is essential in calf development

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup


Spring calving is winding down across the region. Calves are growing, which means their diets are changing. One of the most overlooked components of a calf’s diet is water intake. 

According to University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Cow/Calf Systems and Stocker Management Extension Specialist Karla Wilke, “Water intake is important in the nursing calf because it prevents dehydration and promotes rumen development.” 

Rumen development 

Rumen development starts early in a calf’s lifetime. The best way for young calves to develop their rumen properly is to give them continuous access to dry feed and water. As solid feed intake increases in an animal’s diet, so does water intake. 

Naturally, calves consume milk for the first part of their life. Milk aids in the development of their skeletal growth and provides calves with the needed nutrients from their mothers. The milk bypasses the calf’s rumen and goes straight to the abomasum through the esophageal groove – giving very little nutrients to the rumen. 

By the first month of age, calves will start consuming solid feed, such as cow feed and grass. Solid feed intake is a direct correlation to water intake – the more solid feed consumed, the more water needed. 

To ensure weight gain in calves, it is important to have a healthy rumen. The best way for calves to develop a healthy rumen is to have adequate water intake. 

Wilke explains, “Almost all suckled milk intake enters the abomasum via closure of the esophageal groove, allowing the highly digestible protein and energy source to go straight to tissue growth for the rapidly growing calf.” 

Early calf growth translates to higher post-weaning growth. This all starts while the calf is still on the cow. 

“Rumen development now is very important for the calf when they are weaned,” she continues. “Having the calf set up really well to digest feed, having a good functioning rumen they can take solid feed in and utilize those nutrients when they do wean, actually starts now.” 

Importance of water 

Right now, checking water for calves is not the first thing on most producers’ minds, but it should be noticed. Bunking tanks is usually not done in early spring. However, Wilke suggests checking tanks to ensure calves can reach water. 

Easy access to water for the calf increases their total water consumption. 

Wilke also encourages producers to watch how fast tanks are flowing. Checking float systems only aids in easier access to water. It is hard for calves to get enough water but by keeping water levels high, producers should notice a difference. 

To better understand the importance of water in a calf’s diet, Wilke looked into Iowa based dairy research. She shares the research showed in 70 degree weather, calves consuming 0.7 gallons of milk replacer and 2.2 pounds of starter feed consumed 0.66 gallons of water per day. 

Spring calving comes with spring-like weather. Although it is not the middle of summer heat, calves still need enough water to stay hydrated and healthy. 

By starting to focus on young calf rumen health in the spring, fall weaning can become more profitable to the producer. Water intake is a very important factor in a healthy, developing calf rumen and it all starts now. 

Savannah Peterson is an intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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