Canadian Poultry Magazine

Ask the Vet: Water management

By Tom Inglis   

Features Ask the Vet

Is my water quality acceptable and, if not, what can I do about it?

Inferior water quality can have a greater negative effect on bird performance than feed quality. ALLTECH PHOTO

There are several trends in the management of water delivery systems for poultry. One of the biggest ones includes a better understanding of the challenge biofilms in water lines present to bird health. On that note, there are new technologies that monitor water lines for biofilms, the goal being to maintain water quality.

Another trend is an increased administration to birds by water of so-called alternatives – phytogenics, essential oils and prebiotics. These are emerging as the poultry industry embarks on antimicrobial use reduction strategies.

Yet another trend is that climate disasters seem to be happening more often. Flooding, droughts and the like have serious implications for water quality for poultry.


With flooding, there is an extreme risk that underground water basins will become contaminated from run-off water, creating a public health disaster for humans and birds alike. Hence the need to secure wells against the risk of flooding. With drought, the chemical composition of well water can change adversely with certain minerals reaching toxic levels for bird health.

In light of these trends, in this article I’ll cover the importance of water quality, how to measure it and how to remedy problems.

Importance of water quality
Water is the most important nutrient in the body of birds. It helps remove wastes, lubricates joints, is a major component of blood and a necessary medium for many reactions that form meat and eggs.

In addition to being a nutrient, water also softens feed and carries it through the digestive tract of the bird, aids in digestion and absorption and cools the body as it evaporates through the bird’s lungs and air sacs. Substandard water quality – water with adverse mineral content or contaminated with microorganisms – can have an adverse impact on poultry performance.

In some aspects, inferior water quality can have a greater negative effect on bird performance than feed quality because it is a well-known fact that birds consume approximately twice as much water as feed.

It is important to know that water is a variable input in the management of poultry. Water in the watering system today may be different from the water present two weeks or two months from now. Variables include changes in source water (e.g., flooding, drought) and changes in the system itself, examples being buildup of minerals and biofilms.

Biofilm is generally present in all watering systems and the only good way to suppress mature biofilms is to aggressively shock water lines with an appropriate cleaning and disinfection program between flocks, and by using a sanitation program to prevent build-up of mineral deposits and biofilms when birds are present.

Measuring water quality
To have confidence in your water quality, it is necessary to conduct three laboratory test procedures on an on-going basis.

Microbiological testing: This detects the presence or absence of the range of organisms that might flourish in water lines. Water samples must be taken at source (well head) and directly from various locations from water lines in the barn when birds are present. Source water must be negative for microbiological growth.

The standard for potable water for humans is 0 colony forming units (CFU) per ml of water. It is difficult to have a negative result with inline testing of water in poultry barns because of contamination occurring while samples are being taken (e.g., dust). While the goal is to have as low a CFU count as possible from in-line testing, what is more important is knowing what microbes are present.

In addition to testing water lines via water samples, the newest advancement in poultry management is physically taking samples from water lines to remove biofilms, which in turn are used to identify microbes present and their sensitivity and resistance to disinfectants and antibiotics.

It’s important to remember that biofilms can carry drug resistant bacteria from flock to flock as well as organisms that cause disease. You can use inspection cameras that can fit in a water line and hook up to your phone for video and recording so that water lines can be checked for dirt.

Mineral content and chemical characteristics: The mineral content of water can have an impact on bird health and barn conditions (e.g., litter quality and ammonia level). Water that has a high content of certain minerals like sodium, iron, magnesium and sulfates can result in reduced performance, contribute to the incidence of certain disease and trigger gut health problems.

High iron content in water causes leaking drinkers and promotes the growth of E. coli, salmonellae and pseudomonas and has been linked to botulism. Calcium and magnesium are the primary culprits of scale and over time scaling can reduce pipe volume, clog foggers and solidify cool cell pads. It also reduces the effectiveness of cleaners and disinfectants by protecting bacteria in the biofilm created.

In addition to mineral content of water, it is important to know how acidic or basic water is; this can be measured by pH. A low pH indicates a high acid content and a high pH indicates a low acid content. One important point about pH is the success that many producers have experienced when they have adjusted a high pH of 8 or more to below 7. A pH lower than 7 increases the efficiency of chlorine as a disinfectant. Water treatments that go as low as pH 4 are used to control certain bacteria.

Biofilm testing: This can be conducted from swabs or even parts of the water system such as pipe. Innovative technology we at Poultry Health Services in Alberta tested allows producers to run disinfectant sensitivity tests on biofilms cultured from their barns. Individual biofilms are made up of different types of bacteria that may react differently to disinfectants together than they do independently. By submitting samples, producers can get an idea of what type of disinfectant will be helpful in eradicating biofilms from their water systems.

How to fix poor water quality
The first thing to do is determine whether the cause of poor water is due to water at the source having excess content of certain minerals (and possible microbial contamination as well) or if biofilms in the water lines are the problem. Note: the minerals calcium and magnesium, in addition to being of significance to poultry nutrition, also aid formation of biofilms by the scale they produce.

A mineral content problem: Excess minerals can be treated by technologies that are specific for particular minerals:

  • Iron, manganese and sulfur are best removed through oxidation and filtration.
  • Sodium and chloride levels may be managed by reformulating diets (always share water analysis reports with your nutritionist) or, if necessary, can be removed with reverse osmosis.
  • If water contains more than 90 ppm combined calcium and magnesium and more than 0.05 manganese and 0.3 ppm iron, a water acidifier will be needed in the line-cleaning program.
  • High nitrate levels are a reason to be concerned! What’s the source? Is it fecal contamination? That can be removed with reverse osmosis or anion exchange resin.

Microbiological contamination in water source: The questions are where has the contamination come from? Fecal coliforms or the presence of nitrates isolated indicate the security of the well platform or well casing has been compromised. Is the well’s location lower than the surrounding area? Has there been flooding?

What should you do? Finding the source of contamination is the highest priority. It may be necessary to shock chlorinate the well. Next, it is necessary to install new filters in the water line as it enters the barn. An acid:chlorine sanitation program is needed in the barn when birds are present.

In-line contamination: With birds in the barn, an acid:chlorine program that delivers 3 to 5 ppm free chlorine residual at the end of the line or drinker farthest from chlorine injection is necessary in cases of in-line contamination.

Between flocks, it is time to aggressively shock water lines to dislodge biofilms in the entire water system. The basics to cleaning water lines include:

  1. After birds are removed from the barn, flush lines with water using a high-pressure flush if available. Remove and discard filters.
  2. Acidify the water to a pH of 4 (let stand for eight to 24 hours). This helps dissolve the mineral complexes in the biofilm and the water line. Flush.
  3. Add hydrogen peroxide in a final concentration of 0.8-3 per cent (let stand for 12 to 72 hours). This step disrupts the organic component of the biofilm. Flush. Note: Peroxides produce gas when they contact biofilms so the system must be open to prevent bursting the water line!
  4. Add a disinfectant that is approved for water systems and let stand for 20 to 30 minutes. This step is to kill any remaining microbes that may have been exposed but not killed by the peroxide. Flush.
  5. Replace filters. Fill line with water and let stand until several hours before arrival of baby birds. Flush.
  6. Start birds on fresh sanitized water with 3 to 5 ppm free chlorine residual at the end of the line or drinker farthest from chlorine injection.

Practice tips

  1. Acids and chlorine sources should never be added directly together to create stock solutions. Prepare separate stock solutions and proportion directly into the water system.
  2. Do not add chlorine when administering vaccines, vitamins, alternative products or copper sulfate. Do not mix chlorine and other products in the same solution.
  3. Mix stock solutions well! Do not assume that just adding water will result in the ingredient being distributed evenly throughout the stock solution. Water at room temperature is better for making stock solutions than cold water.
  4. Keep containers used for preparing stock solutions clean and covered. Dust and flies in the stock solution will contaminate water lines!
  5. Pilot test any new product being administered by water by adding the product at recommended use rate to water in a Mason jar. Mix well and let sit at room temperature and observe over an hour-hour period. Two Mason jars are recommended: One with water from source and the other with water as the birds are drinking.
  6. When it comes to dispensing antibiotics through the water system, each antibiotic has special requirements. (For example, when you are administering penicillin and sulpha drugs, turn off the water acidifiers. A pH above 7 works best.)
  7. As products used to sanitize water lines are caustic, eyes and skin should be protected. Materials should be kept away from children. Directions should be followed.

Water is the most essential nutrient birds receive. Yet, producers often take the quality of drinking water for granted. Providing flocks with a clean, wholesome supply can make a difference in performance. Investment in regular microbiological and chemical testing of water, along with the new technologies to monitor biofilms in water lines is money well spent! Water is a variable input in poultry production. It deserves to be managed just like any other input.

Tom Inglis is managing partner and founder of Poultry Health Services, which provides diagnostic and flock health consulting for producers and allied industry. Please send questions for the Ask the Vet column to

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