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Importance of Water Quality to NAE Production

Filed Under:
Publication Number: P3400
A gravel road leading to six poultry houses in the distance.
Figure 1. Poultry houses may grow more than chickens.

Water has always been the most critical, but also the most neglected, nutrient in terms of flock performance in the poultry industry. For many years, as long as water was available, we really didn’t worry much about what was in it, how it might be affecting the health of our flocks, or even whether it was a safe drinking water supply. We drilled our wells, plumbed everything in, hooked it all up, and voilà—water for our chickens. We didn’t think about it after that.

However, “no antibiotics ever” (NAE) programs are changing our thought processes. NAE programs are forcing us to realize that the quality of poultry drinking water is much more important than we previously realized. Most integrators today are growing at least some percentage of their birds under the NAE banner without the use of antibiotics. How is that affecting the way we look at the water quality of our flocks?

NAE Changes Everything

In the new NAE world where many integrators and growers work today, the absence of antibiotics has revealed several underlying issues. Many of these issues have likely been present for some time but were being masked by antibiotic use and were either unknown or thought to be unimportant. Several ways that underlying issues with water can affect our flocks include:

  • Disease issues flock after flock
  • Poor flock performance (low weight gain; high feed conversion ratios)
  • Enteric issues (feed passage, gut sloughing, loose droppings)
  • Low water consumption
  • High mortality

Were antibiotics our “fix” for poor water quality? Did we medicate our way out of poor water quality in the past? On many poultry farms today, the answer to these questions is most likely yes. You may wonder, “What does removal of antibiotics at the hatchery and in the feed have to do with my well water? It’s the same water I’ve always used.” The answer is, “More than you might think.”

Antibiotics at the hatchery and in the feed have been a powerful tool to help protect flock health for many years. However, mounting consumer concern regarding antibiotic resistance and increasing demands for chicken raised without antibiotics are changing the poultry production landscape. As a result, there is a flood of new products coming on the market with hopes of filling up that empty space. In addition, integrators and growers are searching for additives/supplements that can enhance bird performance and recapture some of what was lost with the removal of antibiotics. The drinker system is often the easiest delivery method for many of these supplements. Consequently, we are seeing a tremendous increase in water line issues.

NAE production is changing the way chickens are grown. It’s as big a change as going from curtain-sided, naturally ventilated houses to solid-walled, tunnel-ventilated houses. We have to rethink everything and learn how to grow chickens all over again. NAE programs are not very forgiving and do not allow mistakes without paying the consequences. NAE production is still fairly new for many integrators and growers, and it’s still a learning process. Because it’s new, we don’t yet have all the answers. Not every new thing that comes along is going to work. Some new things fail. It’s a fact of life and we are still learning what to keep and what to toss in order to make NAE work.

Good growers want to do what is best for their birds and are open to trying new things. However, don’t overdo it. Try one new thing at a time. That’s all you can possibly hope to manage at once. If you try two or three new things on the same flock and something works, you won’t be able to determine which one worked and which ones didn’t. Or, if you try two or three new things at once and nothing happens, could it be that none of them work, or could it be that all of them work well individually but not in combination? You can only successfully track one thing at a time, so don’t get carried away.

Again, growers are trying a multitude of supplements, including essential oils, probiotics, prebiotics, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and organic acids, to take the place of antibiotics. Even though many of these supplements have shown promise in terms of flock health programs, there is a down side to running them through the water system.

For example, probiotics are live bacterial microorganisms intended to provide health benefits, but adding them to the water line is a bad idea. Granted, these are good bacteria, but all bacteria can clog your drinker system. Prebiotics are carbohydrates or plant-source nutrients used to enhance growth of bacteria in the gut. However, when given in the water, prebiotics will enhance bacterial growth in your water lines, as well.

Many companies are using essential oils as a natural alternative to antibiotics. There are hundreds of essential oils and combinations of essential oils being tested and used in the poultry industry today. While their performance may vary from location to location or flock to flock, one thing is always true: they are all slimy, sticky oils and, if delivered through the water system, are some of the most difficult supplements to remove. If essential oils are given through the water system, you must have a thorough water line cleaning program between flocks.

Vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes are often given to encourage and improve bird health. However, these products also improve bacterial health in the water lines and worsen clogging.

The Basics

First, there is no such thing as pure drinking water. There is always something in the water, and it’s important to know what it is. If you don’t know what’s in the water your birds are drinking, have it tested and find out. You can’t fix something until you know it’s broken. Your poultry drinking water has a mineral profile that may or may not be harmful to your chickens.

Minerals occur naturally in most water sources and are necessary nutrients for life. However, particular minerals can affect bird health and water line performance. Minerals are often overlooked, but they can have a huge effect on many areas of water quality.

For example, iron itself does not necessarily cause bird health issues, but it can be a source of food for bacteria—particularly E. coli. In addition, most iron-reducing bacteria produce slime that can build up in pressure regulators, reducing screens, filters, pressure tanks, water lines, and nipple drinkers.

Sulfur can be yellow (natural color) or black (indicates breakdown by bacteria; look for precipitate in the water filter canister) in the water. It can damage a bird’s intestines, causing “flushing,” feed passage, and a lack of nutrient absorption. Bacteria break sulfur down, creating hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide gas is extremely corrosive. This can happen in the well, in the water lines, or in the bird.

Iron and sulfur both support bacteria that thrive as the water gets warmer. In addition, the less disturbed the water environment is, the more established the bacterial population becomes. The first few weeks of the flock, when the chicks are small and the water is at its slowest and warmest, are the most critical. Monitor 7-day mortality and weight gain. Birds behind on weight at 7 days will never catch up later in the flock. Other minerals that can affect performance include:

  • Sodium + chloride: flushing and diarrhea
  • Nickel: damage to heart and liver
  • Lead: developmental issues; long-term performance loss in broiler breeders
  • Arsenic: carcinogen; developmental issues
  • Magnesium: laxative effect; feed passage
  • Zinc: astringent taste

Zinc is likely in the coating on the sheet iron of the chicken house to prevent rusting. How close is your well to the side of the chicken house? Is there a possibility that rainwater off the roof can move down the wellhead and reach the aquifer, particularly if the aquifer is shallow—let’s say 150 feet or less? If minerals (particularly Ca and Mg) are an issue in poultry drinking water supplies, it is important to descale water lines once per year. Use an acidic solution that will get the pH in the water line to 5 or below to dissolve scale. Allow it to sit for 24 hours, then flush all lines thoroughly with fresh water, and trigger the drinkers.

A note about acids: Growers use acids for a variety of different issues on the farm, including:

  • “Tightening up the gut”
  • Improving feed/water intake during a feed change
  • Lowering the pH of the water
  • Descaling the water lines

However, long-term use of acids with no water treatment program promotes the growth of acid-loving algae, fungus, molds, and yeasts. It is critical to follow acid use with some type of water treatment program. If necessary, consider installing or increasing filtration of the incoming water supply (cotton, carbon, sand, or media filters; or reverse osmosis, which is expensive). Also, depending on the condition of your water source, consider a daily water treatment program with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine.

Second, poultry houses (Figure 1) can grow other things besides chickens, particularly inside the water lines, such as:

  • E. coli
  • Salmonella
  • Campylobacter
  • Pseudomonas
  • Staphylococcus
  • Listeria
  • algae
  • molds
  • yeasts
  • parasites
  • viruses
  • enteric bacteria

Algae and fungi can build up in the drinker lines and restrict the flow of water and clog the nipples. Bacteria can make the flock sick. Bacteria in the water line can come from a variety of sources in the chicken house, including:

  • Disturbed litter
  • Ventilation system
  • The chickens themselves
  • Other living creatures in the environment (litter beetles, flies, rodents, etc.)
  • The previous flock

With the focus on removal of antibiotics, additive/supplement use has increased as integrators and growers look to solve health and management issues in other ways. As a grower, do not run any additive/supplement on your flock without first clearing its use with your service technician. The key to the successful use of any additive/supplement is to make sure water lines are clean before, during, and after its use. Understand the products you are using: What are they? Why are they being used? Are they really needed? What are potential side effects for the birds or to the drinker system?

Water Treatment Options

The two most common water treatment options are chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. Understanding the various forms of chlorine is important:

  • Liquid chlorine: Often misused because of the pH issue. If pH of the water is too low (<6.0), chlorine will escape as a gas, decreasing effectiveness and increasing equipment corrosion. If pH is too high (>8.5), the amount of hypochlorous acid formed will be greatly reduced, and the water will not be disinfected.
  • Chlorine dioxide: More effective than liquid chlorine but requires mixing time and special handling.
  • Gas chlorine: Most effective, but chlorine gas is dangerous and requires special handling.

If liquid chlorine is used, be aware that it can damage rubber components of the drinker system, particularly the rubber seals on nipple drinkers. Try to maintain a chlorine level of around 3 ppm at the end of the drinker line. Also, bacteria can build a resistance to liquid chlorine products over time. If you determine that chlorine is not doing as good a job as it used to, switch to an alternative product (i.e., hydrogen peroxide) for a couple of flocks to correct the problem.

Hydrogen peroxide products are on the market in several different percentage strengths, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent. Check with your service technician to find out what is recommended by your integrator. Certain products have additives that significantly enhance the active stability of hydrogen peroxide. In most cases, generic, technical-grade, and most food-grade hydrogen peroxides do not contain these added ingredients and may not be as effective.

One thing NAE production is teaching us is that we must be proactive, rather than reactive, with water treatment programs. However, understand that simpler is often better. If you don’t need to run something through your water system, don’t do it. Safe, clean water (minus any additives/supplements) is often the best drinking water for the birds. Also be aware that any program that provides clean, safe water is actually two programs:

  • A set, specific method for cleaning water lines when the houses are empty.
  • A set, specific method for treating water when there are birds on the farm.


Water quality on poultry farms has been taken for granted for far too long. NAE production is focusing increased attention on drinking water quality on many poultry farms today. A water sample analysis is a necessity in today’s NAE environment. We must know what’s in the water our chickens are drinking and what we can do to help our birds perform at their best. Pay particular attention to mineral content, bacterial load, and pH. At a minimum, thoroughly clean water lines between flocks, and have a treatment program in place with birds on the farm that will ensure a clean, safe water supply for them. Ask yourself this question: “Would I drink the water my chickens are drinking?” If not, you’ve got work to do.

Department: Poultry Science
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