Water: An Essential Element for Calf Growth

Written by: Minnie Ward, Form-A-Feed Calf & Heifer Specialist

Watering is almost always listed as the least favorite thing to do when feeding calves.  Young calves don’t drink much, and older calves drink too much of it. It grows algae in the summer and freezes in the winter.  It’s heavy to carry in pails, or the hose is clumsy to drag around. Those hassles make managers and employees want to skip the task although.

So WHY do we do it?

RUMEN DEVELOPMENT.  Lack of water slows down the fermentation process of calf starter in the developing rumen. The growth of the rumen lining depends greatly on the bio products of grain fermentation. The less fermentation, the slower the lining develops.

LOWER FEED CONVERSION.  Lack of water reduces the level of feed conversion.  This refers to the number of pounds of dry matter intake required for a calf to add a pound of growth.  Studies have shown that calves require roughly 4 lbs. of water for each pound of feed (2 qts. of water for every 1 qt. of calf starter).

As you can see in the chart below, free-choice water makes a world of difference in calf growth.

Effect of Free–Choice Water on Calf Performance


Water (Free choice)

Water (None)

Daily gain (grams)



Calf starter intake (kg)



Scour days per calf



Source: Kertz, Ruettzel, & Mahoney. 1984. J.D.S. 67:2964–2969.

Having an adequate water supply for calves is more than worth the added hassle it creates. To help you out this summer here are a few tips for managing your calves’ water consumption:

• Clean, palatable water promotes increased water consumption.

• Change water at least every other day.

• Try rotating pails so calves always have a clean, fresh pail for water.

For more advice on calf management, contact Form-A-Feed’s Per4Max Calf & Heifer Specialist, Minnie Ward.