It would be a rare dairy manager that would choose to limit water as a cost saving management decision.  Managers know the key role that water plays in order for their herds to thrive. Water is the most important essential nutrient behind feed intake, not only of lactating cows, but also promotes growth and development in young calves and older heifers.

The most basic understanding of the health needs of cattle, dictates that dehydration is a negative.  The very nature of the lactating cow requires that sufficient quantities of water must be provided to facilitate milk production.   This is also true at every stage of bovine growth.

Let’s start with how water contributes to the growth of healthy calves because of the way it promotes early and rapid rumen development.  For some water may seem somewhat unnecessary when considering that calves consume milk or milk replacer.  However, a high percentage of milk and milk replacer end up in the abomasum and not very much milk replacer ends up in the rumen.  On the other hand, nearly all the water that calves drink goes into the rumen, where it contributes to fermentation and the grain & water slurry that promotes early papillae growth.

The All Day Calf Cafe

  • It is especially critical for their future growth that water is available to calves throughout the day. Of course the challenge isn’t simply to provide it, but to do so regardless of the weather.  Extremely cold temperatures and the resulting frozen buckets must be dealt with to provide water to calves in hutches in the winter. Under heat stressing conditions water needs are increased 1.2 to 2 fold.  In addition, Dr. Simon Peek, University of Wisconsin, emphasizes that timing is also important.  He urges that water be provided immediately after feeding, even in the winter months.  In general, preweaned calves usually drink about a quart of water for each pound of starter consumed.  This is in addition to their milk or milk replacer.

The benefits of free-choice water for calves:

  • At 4 weeks of age calves with free-choice water drink roughly 95 pounds (12 gallons) of water.
  • Free choice water calves also consume more pounds of starter grain.  One study reported roughly forty-four percent more grain in the first four weeks for calves that had constant access to water.
  • A 1984 study reported that for each extra liter of water consumed there was a corresponding increase in weight gain of 56 grams per day. Weight gains prior to weaning have been shown to lead to greater milk production as a cow.

Nevertheless the real challenge is making sure that the calves actually drink the water. When it is provided at close to body temperature during cold weather, they are more likely to drink. The extra work required to empty and refill water buckets through the day is well worth it because of the benefits of hydration and increased starter ingestion.  Although there can be variation from day to day it is far better to overfill buckets rather than have a situation where calves run out of water. As well, it has been shown that separation of feed and drinking water eliminates contamination and will increase feed intake and body weight gains by as much as 13 and 20%, respectively, compared with having the buckets side-by-side.

Eat, Drink Water and Be Milky

Free choice water for calves may be a newer priority however dairy managers have always recognized that it is important to provide lactating cows with water.  It is not only essential for milk production, growth and healthbut also impacts rumen function, nutrient digestion and absorption.

Every pound of milk a cow produces requires five pounds or three litres of water.  For high producing cows that totals up to 200 litres of water every day.  Reduce the amount of water and you reduce the amount of milk produced.

It is known that cows drink 30 to 50 percent of their daily water intake within an hour of milking.  Clean fresh water must be easily accessible to all cows. An easy benchmark for water palatability is this: “If you won’t drink the water in your barn, neither will your cows.” Water quality and water intake are closely related.

Of course, clean water bowls or tanks are a given.  Basic best practices are as follows:

  • Water bowls should provide 20 litres per minute for cows
  • Water tanks should supply 30 to  40 litres per minute
  • One water trough is needed for every 20 cows
  • Two water sources per group are needed to avoid stress situations for lower ranked cows
  • Water tanks should be easily accessible
  • 2.5 to 3 m of open space around troughs are needed to minimize pushing and shoving

Test the Waters

Toxicity is an issue to be avoided at all costs.  Palatability comes in high on the priority list too.  If the water that is presented fails to pass the taste test, all the benefits are lost.  For these two reasons alone, it is worth considering having the water supply to your dairy tested.  A treatment system may be necessary to reduce sulfate and chloride levels. Visible problems with algae are easy to see and hopefully eliminate.  It is important to minimize algae levels.  There are six types of algae that are toxic to cattle.  Use 35% hydrogen peroxide (8 ounces per 1000 gallons of water) to control algae populations.  It would seem logical to use chlorine to treat water for dissolved iron, magnesium and hydrogen sulfide.  However chlorine concentration over 1000 ppm can result in milk fat depression and reduced water intake.

Is Enough Water Enough?

Once you have determined its safety and palatability, it is critical that you know if your cows are getting enough water for their age and stage of lactation.  The following are indications that water isn’t meeting the needs of your animals:

  • Firm, constipated manure
  • Low urine output
  • High packed-cell volume or hematocrit in blood
  • Considerable drops in milk production
  • Drinking urine or pooled water
  • Cows bawling even when adequate food is present

Causes for Low Intake

  • Corroded valves, clogged pipes, buildup of slime or scale
  • Stray voltage
  • Stress free access
  • Dirty bowls or water tanks

Water as a Sustainable Resource

No discussion of water can be complete without considering the resource itself.  On a dairy farm, water use can range from 12 to 150 gallons per cow per day. This huge difference depends upon who cares about and monitors how much water is used.  Farms that metre their water use and set standards have very little water use compared to farms that don’t, without restricting the needs of the herd.  Best practices for water usage in milking parlors, wash pens and evaporative cooling systems (in warm climates) are the reality of the future. When all is said and done, responsible use of this finite resource will have a direct impact on the sustainability of the dairy industry above and beyond the life-giving value it has in providing nutrition, growth and milk production.

As an example of how water can become a crisis situation today, it is only necessary to look at the current drought in California.  California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency last month.  Hundreds of thousands of acres will not be planted this spring. Farmers have been refused the water they requested from a federally controlled system.  Farmers who manage the 1.5 million cattle in California are very aware of the dwindling supply of both surface water allocations and groundwater sources.  The state has identified 10 rural towns with less than 100 days of supply remaining. Added to the problem of supply is the increasing problem with contamination.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Any restriction on the availability of clean, fresh, and high-quality water can limit calf development and impacts cows’ milk production quicker than a deficiency in any other nutrient. Water intake also regulates feed intake. Thus, understanding the importance of water and how to effectively manage your dairy feeding system to provide adequate water intake is very important.

Water is crucial to your dairy management success. Set up a comprehensive water program, not only for its role in cattle nutrition, but for every point water touches your operation from access to delivery, to cleanup and reuse.  Overlook this liquid asset and you will be left high and dry.



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