Even though temperatures are cooling down, continue to provide free-choice water for dairy calves. Calves are not born with a functioning rumen; they can’t digest forages until the rumen begins to develop. It is known that grain helps rumen development and baby dairy calves are commonly offered grain as a calf starter at an early age. Donna Amaral-Phillips, Dairy Specialist with the University of Kentucky says that starting at 4 days of age calves should also be offered free-choice water along with their calf starter.
Offering water increases starter intake and weight gain. In a research study that compared calves provided with free choice water to calve without water, starter intake was decreased by 31% and weight gain was decreased by 38% in calves without water. In addition, calves that have free-choice water with calf starter get a boost in rumen development compared to calves not offered free-choice water. Even though calves are getting water when they are fed milk that milk does not enter the undeveloped rumen, but rather milk goes directly into the true stomach or abomasum. In contrast, water enters the rumen and provides a moist environment that stimulates bacterial growth in the rumen.