ABF Poultry Production Best Practice Series: Water Quality

Left side of a chicken's head with infographic.

In poultry production, water is considered the most important nutrient by far, yet water quality is often overlooked. Broilers typically consume at least 1.5 pounds more water than they eat in feed, so it’s important to have water that is low in microbial contamination with acceptable mineral levels. Monitoring water quality is particularly important in antibiotic-free (ABF) production systems to keep birds as healthy and profitable as possible. Here, we take a closer look at what our industry experts consider water quality best practices for ABF poultry producers, as part of our series on strategies for producing antibiotic-free poultry.

Testing Water Quality

Samples should be collected regularly to assess water quality, as the status can often change. Our industry experts recommend testing water at least annually to determine if is safe for birds to drink and if there are any issues that need correcting. Water quality should be assessed regardless of the source (i.e., municipal, well, pond), as even city water could have issues that can affect bird performance. Both the microbial contamination (e.g., E. coli) and mineral content (e.g., iron and sodium) of the water sample should be tested.

Microbial Contamination

Water can be a vector for bacteria and other pathogens, leading to significant health issues and production losses. A poultry house water line provides ideal growing conditions for pathogens as the water is often nutrient rich and in a warm environment. The risk of microbial contamination can also increase if flood water enters ponds or wells. Wild geese and ducks could also be a source of pathogens, if the water supply is from surface water (a pond).

Microbial contamination can lead to the formation of biofilm (slime) on the surface. Biofilm is an aggregate of microorganisms connected by an extracellular matrix that is attached to a surface (e.g., pipes and storage containers). As well as a health issue, biofilm can also block nipples and reduce water flow.

Mineral Composition

Excessive mineral content, particularly sodium and iron, can be an issue with some water sources. Too much sodium can cause flushing in the birds and iron can form deposits and clog the water lines. Hardness of the water (calcium and magnesium concentration) can also cause scale to build up in the lines and cause issues such as leaking nipples. Water leaking onto the litter can create further problems such as increased ammonia production.

If minerals levels are high, nutritionists may be able to formulate for mineral imbalances. However, this is usually more expensive than treating the water, particularly for large production companies where producing a specialty diet for a single location is not economically feasible. Sand filters could be used to remove some of the iron, however reverse osmosis or a larger filtration system may be needed for removing other minerals.

Cleaning Water Lines

Water lines should be flushed regularly, particularly after using water-based supplements. The lines should also be thoroughly cleaned between flocks to remove biofilm and scale buildup. Typically, hydrogen peroxide or chlorine-based products are used. The selected products should be appropriate for the application and the manufacturer’s directions followed to ensure adequate cleaning and to prevent damage to the water lines. After cleaning, the lines should be flushed well. Water storage tanks should also be cleaned regularly to prevent mold and other pathogens growing in them.

Water Consumption

Water consumption should be monitored carefully as the amount of water consumed directly affects weight gain and feed conversion. If water intake decreases, feed intake also decreases, and productivity declines.  A decrease in water consumption may indicate an issue with water quality.

Other Water Usage

Availability of good quality water is also important for non-drinking purposes, such as cool cells used for evaporative cooling. The water lines supplying the cooling cells need to be clear and flow fully to allow the cells to work correctly. Evaporative cooling is addressed further in our next post on best practices for ventilation in ABF poultry houses.

Protect Birds From Pathogens and Biotoxins

To defend against waterborne pathogens, birds need a healthy intestinal environment that can mount an effective immune response and prevent pathogens and their biotoxins entering the circulatory system, causing disease. As well as health issues, pathogens can also cause morphological changes to the intestinal lining, decreasing the surface area available for nutrient absorption. Fortunately, natural alternatives to AGP are available to support a competent immune system, maintain intestinal integrity and promote performance.

Using high-quality water in poultry production systems is essential to keep equipment running smoothly and maintain bird health and performance. Amlan is dedicated to developing next-generation technology to help poultry producers keep birds healthy and maintain productivity for life. Download a helpful, printable guide that summarizes the above best practices here and keep checking our Education Center for other posts on our ABF production best practices series.