Skip to: main navigation | main content | sitemap | accessibility page



Call +44 (0)1392 872932

Out of sight out of mind - is your water quality up to scratch? 

At this year’s BFREPA Conference, Commercial Manager Layers Charles Macleod presented on Water: Unavoidable necessity or vital nutrient.

In this article, Charles sets out the importance and benefits of good water hygiene.

Across the industry, poultry producers continue to focus on improving bird health and welfare. Coupled with the desire to drive efficiencies, productivity and maximise the returns of layer flocks, there is an ever-increasing focus on good water hygiene as a relatively simple and cost-effective way of achieving this. 

As Commercial Manager Layers Charles Macleod explains

Water quality is a vitally important aspect of poultry husbandry that many producers unfortunately continue to overlook. We know that water is the largest nutrient by weight consumed and for every 1kg of feed, birds will drink 1.8 kg of water. This equates to birds consuming approximately 6,400 litres of water a day, on a site with a 32,000-bird flock. The financial returns in terms of improved bird health and productivity, shouldn’t be underestimated, and means that water hygiene should be an absolute priority for all producers.

Benefits of good water hygiene include:

  • Improved feed utilisation
  • Drier litter
  • Improved egg production/quality
  • Increased resistance to disease
  • Reduced bacterial challenge
  • Antibiotic reduction

From the start of a chick’s life and as they reach maturity, the focus is on getting the right foundations in place to develop healthy birds that can sustain longer laying cycles. Good water hygiene contributes to this, by supporting the development of good gut health (microbiome), the immune and digestive systems, muscle and bone development amongst other things.

Fundamentally, how water is then managed throughout the rest of a hen’s productive life, will have a big impact on the quantity and quality of the final product too – the egg. This is not least because the egg is made up of around 76% water, that if dirty is purified by the hen. For this alone, it is important that the water consumed is of high quality.   

Threats to the bird’s health and welfare, due to poor water hygiene such as microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and protozoa, also need to be considered. Pathogens, typically Pseudomonas, E.coli, Salmonella and Klebsiella can flourish in contaminated water supplies and will directly interfere with the bird’s complex gut microbiome, overall gut health and immune status. This can compromise egg production, and lead to behaviour and stress levels in the flock.  

Charles continues

Looking at the financial value of the water contained in the eggs produced, puts things into perspective. Looking at the example below, despite the water having a small relative cost in production, the value of this water over 7 days is well over 1000 times its cost.

The financial value of water in eggs

* If purchased from a water company, less if from a bore hole 

What determines good water quality? 

It is important to understand that all sources of water, whether bore hole, well or mains, or a combination, can be or can become contaminated once it reaches the poultry house.

Whilst the supply may be of good enough quality, in many cases it is the many meters of pipework that connect to the house, as well as storage tanks, pump systems and the drinker lines, that are the major source of water contamination. 

adds Charles.  

Water quality is determined by both biological and chemical parameters and can fluctuate during the year depending on whether water is mains or privately sourced. It is important to consider the sources of infection, and the variables that can impact on the quality of your water when working out the best possible solution to achieve high levels of cleanliness. Here are a few key areas to consider:

  • pH: The pH can influence taste and the potential bacterial burden. Water with a high pH can affect the efficacy of antibiotics and vaccines, while very acidic water can be unpalatable and will corrode equipment.
  • Water hardness and softness: Higher levels of contaminants such as iron, manganese, calcium and nitrates will influence water pH, palatability and biofilm development. For example, high chloride and sodium levels can lead to wet litter, as can a combination of sulphate and sodium or magnesium and sulphate. In rebalancing this, it is important to not raise the sodium content to dangerously high levels.
  • Systems using well water may become contaminated with surface water when the water tables are high. The supply may also collect river water if positioned on higher ground with wells or boreholes sunk deep into the ground. Mineral content may also change with drought.
  • Equipment: Drinking equipment in the house – can be a challenge to clean internally and externally, regulators and pressure vessels with rubber parts and old metal pipework can harbour bacteria if not subjected to deep cleaning during turnround.
  • Biofilm: A slimy green or brown layer within the water infrastructure, biofilm is a complex matrix of bacterial cells. Once present, these cells are free to multiply quickly, meaning the water rapidly becomes a source for bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella and Pseudomonas

Given the many variables, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach that we can apply to water hygiene and therefore it’s important that producers address this on a site by site, or even house by house basis

concludes Charles. 

Water hygiene options

There’s no doubt that implementing an effective water hygiene regime, that forms an integral part of a flock management plan, will save significantly more money than it does to establish and operate long-term” say Charles. “Obviously it’s advisable to start addressing this before there are any flock health issues that can be attributed to water. However, whether there are issues or not, it’s a good idea to involve your vet from the outset and integrate a water hygiene programme into your veterinary health plan.

There are a number of effective water hygiene systems and products available and those that are most commonly recommended to support layer flocks are outlined below. It can be quite a challenge to determine the quality of individual solutions, as well as often seeing products failing due to incorrect application. Ultimately, each site requires a customised approach, so seek advice before purchasing. The most appropriate combination will be determined once a baseline for the existing water condition has been established and a longer-term goal(s) e.g. removing the biofilm in the drinker lines, have been determined. It may be that in order to achieve these goals, a combination of systems may be required or issues with the water source or supply may need to be resolved for the in-line sanitiser to work effectively.

Disinfectants such as chlorine will effectively kill waterborne microorganisms but have a significant diminishing efficacy. They have a very limited effect on algal biofilm and are heavily influenced by water composition.

Hydrogen peroxide
Enriched and stabilised hydrogen peroxide products have a good all-round action against both biofilm and free-living microorganisms and are widely used in the poultry industry. They are applied manually or via a dosing system however to sustain a good level of sanitisation, often a high level of chemical is needed.

Chlorine dioxide
An example of a complete water sanitisation chemical is chlorine dioxide (ClO2), that is a highly effective biocide and excellent at removing biofilm at very low concentrations. Applied using the right equipment, it is highly effective at a low a concentration, that reduces the chemical costs and can be used over a wide pH range. It also has no taste or odour in water.

Approach to water hygiene

To determine the long-term objectives for water hygiene and to identify any existing issues, it’s important to carry out accurate diagnostic work” explains Charles “Sampling and testing costs are minimal compared to the costs that will be incurred from infections/production loss and should be done regularly. It’s particularly important for producers using bore hole or well water, as this can not only become contaminated, but the mineral content tends to fluctuate also. However, regardless of the water source, all pipework, storage tanks and drinker lines should undergo testing on a regular basis – at least every quarter.

Once the cleanliness and make-up of the water has been established, any issues that pose an immediate risk to flock health should be tackled, and longer-term objectives identified.

This is where seeking advice is invaluable, to identify what solution and approach will best meet the short and long-term objectives. It will also ensure that any products used are complementary, as some combinations can work against each other or cause more problems. Your vet can also make sure that it won’t compromise the effectiveness of any medicines or supplements that the birds are receiving.

Says Charles

As well as factoring in routine testing to the ongoing plan, producers should also include the following:

  • Drinker line flushing: At least two or three times a day
  • Training: There should be proper training and refresher sessions for teams on site that should include protocols, monitoring procedures and equipment maintenance
  • Water consumption must be recorded regularly each day and graphed to highlight any variances that must be investigated
  • Record keeping: Detailed records should be kept that include water quality tests, treatment measures and any incidents related to water supply or contamination

Learn more about water hygiene

Producers need to recognise the importance of having a water hygiene plan in place. Not only does it promote better bird health and welfare, but it also makes financial sense, especially when considering rising costs and other challenges the industry has been facing.

Browse by category