How much water should dairy calves drink?

How much water should dairy calves drink?

*Dr. Al Kertz is a board-certified, independent dairy nutrition consultant with ANDHIL LLC based out of St. Louis, Mo. His area of specialty is dairy calf and heifer nutrition and management. To expedite answers to questions concerning this article, please direct inquiries to Feedstuffs, Bottom Line of Nutrition, 7900 International Dr., Suite 650, Bloomington, Minn. 55425, or email [email protected]

SOMETIMES, I think producers don't place a high enough value on water for dairy cattle because it seems to be "free" or costs little compared to other feedstuffs.

If that is the reason, then there is no excuse for not providing clean water for dairy animals.

It all begins with calves. Why is water so critical? It is the nutrient needed in the greatest quantity — much more so than other nutrients such as protein and energy.

When a calf is born, its body content is around 70% water. That is the greatest it will ever be. In addition, its body content of fat is also the lowest it should ever be, at about 3-5%.

There is a classic paper (Reid et al., 1955) by my former professor at Cornell University that establishes that there is an inverse relationship between body water and body fat. So, as an animal grows and deposits more fat, the fat displaces body water.

Another critical factor for young calves is that if they get diarrhea, they lose body water. If they lose about 4%, increased water consumption can make up that difference as osmo-receptors then cause the calf to drink more water. However, if that body water loss increases to 8-10%, the calf also loses electrolytes, and an electrolyte solution and further treatment may be needed to keep the calf alive during a major health problem.

So, why is providing water for young calves such an issue? Here are reasons why others have told me they do not feed water to calves: it causes diarrhea, calves don't need it, calves get it through their milk replacer, it freezes in the winter, calves don't need it in the winter and it's a hassle.

Those reasons do not really "hold water." When calves begin to have diarrhea, they will begin to drink more water — not the other way around (Kertz et al., 1984). Yes, they get water through their milk replacer, but that is not enough to fully facilitate calf starter intake. Calves do need water in wintertime because when you can see their breath, it means they are exhaling more moisture into the drier, colder winter air than they inhaled and are losing more body water with each breath.

Dry matter intake is directly related to water intake. Limit water intake, and you also limit calves' dry matter intake. Calves need four times more water than dry matter intake — a 4:1 ratio.

If the water is dirty, calves will drink less water and eat less too. Perhaps the water is clean when fed to calves, but if there is not a physical separation between the water and starter containers, calves will dribble water into the starter and starter into the water. This makes for wet starter and dirty water, which will lead calves to consume less of both.

More than 30 years ago, when I was at Ralston Purina, I had an "aha" moment that led to a study (Table) that found that calves drank less water, ate less starter and decreased daily gain by 0.28 lb. when their starter and water containers were not separated to keep calves from dribbling back and forth.

Those numbers may not, at first glance, look like that 4:1 ratio, but remember, it is 4 lb. of water per 1 lb. of dry matter starter intake, and it was 4:1 when separation was provided.

In a study and Figure 1 by Quigley et al. (2006), note that while the ratio of water to dry matter intake was only about 2:1 before weaning (which included water intake from milk replacer), by the end of 35 days, the ratio increased to 4:1 after full weaning. The different colors represent three milk replacer treatments.

Note that there is considerable variation in these data, which is typical in studies of young calves. This indicates the need for a large number of calves per treatment in a study. There were 40 calves per treatment in this study, which is two to three times more than used in most calf studies (Kertz and Chester-Jones, 2004).

Another factor is that calves like warm water, especially in the wintertime. Cows even preferred warm ambient water (50 degrees F versus 86 degrees F) in the hot summertime based on a study done at Texas A&M University (Wilks et al., 1990). This fits well with many dairies that place a water trough at the milking parlor exit using the warm water from the milk plate-coolers.

The main reason I think cows prefer warm water is because the water does not perturb the rumen fermentation temperature and function.

In a study done at South Dakota State University (Dracy and Kurtenbach, 1968), it took around an hour for the rumen temperature of calves to return to near normal following a 20 degrees F drop after calves drank 46 degrees F water (Figure 2). Drinking water at temperatures of 63, 81 or 99 degrees F produced progressively lesser rumen temperature drops, but it still took about an hour for rumen temperatures to return to near normal.

Another benefit of feeding warm water is that during winter, calves will not need to use additional energy to warm colder water to their rumen temperature.

What's interesting, heifers and cows also drink about four times more water than dry matter intake. There are not many heifer studies that measure water intake, but the ratio of water to dry matter intake was about 4:1 in a Pennsylvania State University study (Lascano and Heinrichs, 2011) in which heifers were fed two different levels of forage and four different levels of corn stover.

Nearly 23,000 cow observations were accumulated over a one-year period from 193 Holsteins, with cows ranging from one to nine lactations and from six to 230 days in milk and on three different experiments (Kramer et al., 2009). In this German research herd database, the overall ratio of water to dry matter intake was about 4:1.

In an Illinois study (Murphy et al., 1983), the best estimate of water intake was related to dry matter intake, milk production, sodium intake and minimum ambient temperature. This formula was used to calculate water intakes at 45 degrees F for six different milk production levels. The ratio of water to dry matter intake was 4:1 (Van Amburgh, 2011).

As ambient temperatures increased to 65 degrees F and 85 degrees F, predicted water intake increased by 13% and 26%, respectively, and this percentage increase was lesser within each water temperature increase when cows were producing more milk and, of course, eating more dry matter.

Why this ratio of 4:1? It may be as simple as the fact that the water-to-dry matter ratio in the rumen is even a bit greater than this — at between 6:1 and 7:1. Rumen liquid turnover rates are about 6-12% per hour (Hartnell and Satter, 1979). Thus, cows cycle a lot of water through their system. They produce much urine — an average of 5 gal. daily, with a range of 2-12 gal., as reported in an extensive Ohio State University summary (Weiss, 2004).


The Bottom Line

Cows, as ruminants, consume about four times more water than dry matter. This begins as calves are weaned and extends through the heifer growing period.

This 4:1 ratio provides a simple reference point to estimate the dietary water needs of dairy animals. We know, especially from calf studies, that limiting water intake will limit dry matter intake and resultant performance.

Also, to help increase intake, make the water warm for calves, especially in colder weather.



Dracy, A.E., and A.J. Kurtenbach. 1968. Temperature change within the rumen, crop area and rectal area when liquid of various temperature was fed to calves. J. Dairy Sci. 51:1787-1790.

Hartnell, G.F., and L.D. Satter. 1979. Determination of rumen fill, retention time and ruminal turnover rates in ingesta at different stages of lactation in dairy cows. J. Anim. Sci. 48:381-392.

Kertz, A.F., and H. Chester-Jones. 2004. Guidelines for measuring and reporting calf and heifer experimental data. J. Dairy Sci. 87:3577-3580 (invited review).

Kertz, A.F., L.F. Reutzel and J.H. Mahoney. 1984. Ad libitum water intake by neonatal calves and its relationship to calf starter intake, weight gain, feces score and season. J. Dairy Sci. 67:2964-2969.

Kramer, E., E. Stamer, J. Spilke, G. Thaller and J. Krieter. 2009. Analysis of water intake and dry matter intake using different lactation curve models. J. Dairy Sci. 92:4072-4081.

Lascano, G.J., and A.J. Heinrichs. 2011. Effects of feeding different levels of dietary fiber through the addition of corn stover on nutrient utilization of dairy heifers precision-fed high and low concentrate diets. J. Dairy Sci. 94:3025-3036.

Murphy, M.R., C.L. Davis and G.C. McCoy. 1983. Factors affecting water consumption by Holstein cows in early lactation. J. Dairy Sci. 66:35-38.

Quigley III, J.D., T.A. Wolfe and T.H. Elsasser. 2006. Effects of additional milk replacer feeding on calf health, growth and selected blood metabolites in calves. J. Dairy Sci. 89:207-216.

Reid, J.T., G.H. Wellington and H.O. Dunn. 1955. Some relationships among the major chemical components of the bovine body and their application to nutritional investigations. J. Dairy Sci. 38:1344-1359.

Van Amburgh, M.E. 2011. Formulation and management of rations for high producing dairy cattle. In: Proceedings of 2nd International Symposium of Dairy Cow Nutrition & Milk Quality, Beijing, China. p. 117-128.

Weiss, W.P. 2004. Factors affecting manure excretion by dairy cows. Proceedings of Cornell Nutr. Conf., Syracuse, N.Y. p. 11-20.

Wilks, D.L., C.E. Coppock, J.K. Lanham, K.N. Brooks, C.C. Baker, W.L. Bryson, R.G. Elmore and R.A. Stermer. 1990. Responses of lactating Holstein cows to chilled drinking water in high ambient temperatures. J. Dairy Sci. 73:1091-1099.


Performance difference due to lack of physical separation of starter and water containers for calves during the month after weaning




Weight gain, lb./day



Starter intake, lb./day



Water intake, lb./day




How much water should dairy calves drink?


Volume:86 Issue:10

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.