Myth: Milk Feeding Calves Don’t Need Water

Myth: Young calves in the milk feeding period don’t need water

Young calf being milk-fed

Today we are myth busting! The myth we’re examining?: Young calves don’t need water (specifically, calves in the milk feeding period). Upon first glance, I can see how this myth could form – I mean we don’t feed our human infants water, right? All the nutrients they need come from their mother’s milk, they don’t need water. Must be the same for calves! Seems logical! Well, it’s not… while it may be true for baby humans, it’s definitely not true for baby calves. Let’s take a look at why this myth persists, then let’s bust it! 

Why does this myth exist?Mother cow with her newborn calf

First let’s talk about how this myth came about… why do so many people think that young calves don’t need water? Well, a lot of it is based on what I already mentioned – if calves are on an all liquid diet (aka being milk-fed), it doesn’t seem necessary to add water, right? Wrong! Research shows that it is necessary for your milk-fed calves to have access to water! The other reason this myth is still going strong is because the common practice amongst US dairy farmers is not to introduce water until the calf is over 2 weeks old! According to the USDA, the average age that US dairy producers begin to offer their calves a water source is when they are 17 days old! Crazy, right? Most people think that US dairy producers are experts and must know the right time to introduce water. By continuing to wait to introduce water until after the milk feeding period is over, they are lending credibility to the practice. So, until the dairy producers are on-board with watering from day one of a calf’s life, the myth will probably stick around. 

Now, let’s bust this myth! What does the research say?

Let’s look at the research and bust this myth! What does the research say about introducing water on the first day of a calf’s life?… According to a study by the Journal of Dairy Science, calves who are offered fresh water from their first day had 38% more weight gain than calves who had no water offered. Wow, 38% is a big difference! If you want your calves to grow into big strong cows and bulls, water is essential! Growing bigger calves is not the only reason to introduce water… water also helps with rumen development (the rumen is the largest of the 4 compartments of a calf’s stomach). And guess what ruminal bacteria needs to grow? Yep, you guessed it – water! So if your calves don’t have access to water, their ruminal development will be slowed. The development of rumen in calves is very important! It helps with nutrient digestion and feed intake which is essential for their health. It also makes for a bigger calf! Lastly, we need to talk about dehydration. It seems obvious – if you don’t giveYoung calf laying down your calves water, they could become dehydrated, right? (Yes, it really is that straightforward!). Calves are extremely susceptible to dehydration – in fact, dehydration is the leading cause of calf mortality! Dehydration in calves causes scours (which is basically baby calf diarrhea). This is very common in calves and can be deadly! And everyone knows that diarrhea dehydrates you even more! So, the takeaway here is if you want to give your little calves the best start in life, offering them water from the moment they stumble into this world is the way to go!

So, what should we do?

Now that we have all the facts, how can we implement the information we’ve learned? I’m sure you’ve gathered by now that calves need access to water from the get-go. They drink more frequently than cows so water needs to be readily available at all times. But, not just any water will do… it needs to be super fresh and clean! Researchers from Utah State University have found that water quality is of the utmost importance for calves! The water that your baby calves are drinking should be free from any environmental contaminants – no dirt, feed, manure, or algae… So basically everything that’s commonly found in water troughs and buckets. So what are you to do? Well, you’ll have to constantly change the water to ensure it’s always fresh (which, honestly, sounds like a whole lot of extra work). Luckily, that’s not the only option – you can also get an automatic cattle waterer for your calves. An automatic cattle waterer will provide high quality water on demand for your calves whenever they need a sip! The Drinking Post has no standing water, which means those pesky environmental contaminants won’t be an issue. Learning the use the Drinking Post won’t be an issue either, they will learn from their mom immediately! As soon as their mom drinks out of it, they will follow suit and be an expert within the day! Easy-peasy! They will have access to clean and cool water for their entire milk-feeding period and will grow into big strong cows and bulls! And that’s the most important thing – a happy and healthy herd. The best part is, after the installation, there’s no on-going maintenance for you! You just need to make sure you choose the right size Drinking Post so the calves can easily reach it and then install it an area they will have constant access to. You might be thinking – won’t a Drinking Post sized for a calf be too short for the cow to drink off of as well? Actually no, the cow will have no issue with the size, she will simply bend down a bit further to drink, which won’t be bothersome for her at all. To figure out the best size Drinking Post to get for your calves, you can use the “What Size?” tool on our website.

Well, I think it’s safe to say we can classify this myth as BUSTED! Make sure your calves have access to plenty of clean drinking water from their first day of life and you will be setting them up to be happy and healthy! For more information on the health benefits of the Drinking Post automatic cattle waterer, you can visit the Cattle Waterer page on our website. Also, head over to our Facebook and Instagram for more cattle content!

Young calf using an automatic cattle waterer

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