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Are Your Calves Drinking Enough?


Have your calves got enough water to drink?

Calves in field | Mole Valley Farmers

Without drinking water, rumen development is slowed down.


I recently read an article in the March 2017 Beef and Sheep News, courtesy of SAC Consulting, on the subject of the importance of water availability for calves. It is a very topical subject and seems obvious but it is good to refresh our memories.

We have all heard of the calf’s oesophageal groove, which is triggered to close when the calf starts suckling, to divert the milk directly into the calf’s fourth stomach. This means it does not enter the rumen, which at this stage is not sufficiently developed.

Farmers are often inundated with information about lots of differing products which help to ‘develop the rumen’. However, what we do not hear enough about is the importance of drinking water in starting the rumen to develop.

Without drinking water, which has no effect on the oesophageal groove, no liquid enters the rumen and rumen development is slowed down. As a result, intakes of dry feed and straw are reduced. This is particularly critical where calves are housed and fed extremely dry feeds such as concentrates, hay and straw.

Research has shown that ad lib water will result in an increase in dry feed intake and will ultimately deliver a heavier calf. The trial work, undertaken by Stick et al back in 1971, showed that an extra 56g of growth rate is achieved for every extra litre of water drunk. This gives an extra 3kg at five weeks of age – not an insignificant number.

In a trial specifically designed to investigate the impact of drinking water on the performance of bucket reared calves, Kertz et al had one group which were denied access to water.

Although to some farmers it would seem absurd to deprive calves of fresh water, there are some farms where the water in the milk replacer is believed to be enough to supply that calf over a 24 hour period.

On average the calves that did have access to water drank 0.65 litres per day. Over the four week rearing period calves offered water ate 40% more pellets and grew 35% faster. In a further trial carried out by Simon Marsh at Harper Adams University looking at various intakes of milk replacer, the study found calves receiving three litres of milk per day drank

1.15 litres of water per day, whilst those fed four litres of milk per day only drank 0.59 litres per day. Both groups of calves were fed 600g/ day of Milk Replacer.

In conclusion all calves suckled or bucket reared will benefit from fresh clean water at all times.

Effect of providing water on the performance of calves to four weeks of age.




Water intake litres



Number of calves



Initial weight kg



Gain to 4 weeks kg



Concentrate kg



Kertz et al. Journal of Dairy Science 67 2964

For more information, please speak to our Red Meat Team for advice or call your local contact Lachie.

Source Details

Lachie Maclachlan, Red Meat Team.

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