H2 Oh So Important! By Todd Thurman

Water Quantity and Quality and Its Impact on Pig Health & Performance

Todd Thurman, SwineTex Consulting Services

Water is often referred to as the forgotten nutrient. It’s easy to forget water, especially since in modern pork production systems, it’s often out of sight and out of mind due to the widespread us of automated demand-based systems. We keep cattle at our small farm at home and we use float-regulated water troughs. Last summer I had a float fail and due to supply chain disruptions, it took several days to get a replacement. So, for about a week, I had to manually fill the trough. It is extraordinary how much water just a few head of cattle will consume in a day, especially during a hot Texas summer.

With our demand-based water systems, it’s easy to forget how much water our pigs are consuming. While it’s great to have systems that provide unlimited access to water, it makes it critical that we monitor these systems effectively to ensure sufficient water is being provided. I often talk about the importance of fundamentals. In the realm of animal husbandry, little is more fundamental than sufficient water supply. It remains one of the more common issues I identify when I visit farms. I want to touch on four important water-related topics: water quantity, water quality, water wastage and water’s role in animal health.

Water Quantity

The first and most critical aspect of water management for livestock is availability. The standard is simple, we want fresh water available to all animals at all times. The major factors to consider are number of water sources, water volume and water pressure. The first step to ensuring enough water sources are available. In animals housed individually, it’s simple…at least one water source should be available at all times.

In group housed animals, the number of sources is dependent on the number of pigs in a pen. Our general guidelines at SwineTex are one water source per 10 pigs during the nursery phase and 12-15 pigs per water source for finishing and breeding animals. We recommend a minimum of two water sources per pen regardless of number of animals. Waterers should be mounted at a height appropriate for the type of drinker and size of pigs. Adjustments may be necessary as pigs grow. When using wet/dry feeders, we recommend one or more additional water sources (aside from those in the feeders) in each pen.

In addition to water sources, we must ensure that appropriate flows (volume) and pressure are achieved. To ensure flows are adequate, we recommend keeping a container in each room for water flow measurement (a 250 ml container for nursery, a 500 ml container for finishing and a 1000 ml container for sow farms). Volume testing is easily conducted by opening the water source and ensuring that the container is filled in a minute or less. For nipple style waterers, water pressures should not exceed 20 psi. Pressures higher than 20 psi may discourage water intake, especially in younger animals, and increase wastage.

We recommend that waterers are tested for function every day when workers do their daily walk through. We also recommend a daily schedule of testing the water volume and pressure that ensures all waterers will be evaluated at least once per month.

Water Quality

Water quality is an important topic and is also an area that needs more research. Information about the impact of water quality metrics on performance is very limited. We do have some general guidelines available, however, that can provide some direction for producers. First, water should be tested at least once per year, more often if issues have been identified in the past. Standard water quality testing is usually sufficient. Water testing is available at a variety of laboratories and is quite easy and inexpensive. Be sure to follow directions closely when collecting samples.

Water for livestock operations is usually supplied from one of three sources…ground water, municipal/rural water supplies, or surface water. Ground water (well water) should be routinely tested and may need to be treated if problems are identified. Municipal/rural water systems are usually regulated, and regulations require human water quality standards which are more than sufficient for livestock. Annual testing is still recommended to identify any issues such as water hardness and pH that may have an impact on some aspects of management. Surface water should always be treated prior to use with livestock. We recommend quarterly testing if surface water is used, and we recommend never using moving water sources such as streams and rivers. Regardless of the water source used, it’s always good to have a backup source in case of emergency or temporary availability disruptions.

Again, data on standards for livestock are limited but links to a few good resources are included at the end of this article. The main areas of concern are viral/bacterial contamination, pH, total dissolved solids and any potential toxicity. In general, coliform bacteria should be zero. The presence of coliform bacteria is an indication of fecal contamination and can be used as a proxy to identify risk other potential viral/bacterial contaminants. Water pH can have an impact on animal performance is something every producer should be aware of. If necessary, pH can be adjusted with water additives. Total dissolved solids is a general indicator of overall water quality. If total dissolved solids is identified as a problem, water treatment and/or filtration may be required. A variety of toxicities may be identified including minerals such as arsenic, copper, mercury and nitrites and nitrates.

A complete discussion of water treatment is beyond the scope of this article, but frequently water treatment is recommended to address concerns identified in the testing. Consult a water quality expert or your veterinarian to discuss treatment options. The most common treatment protocol is to use chlorine, but other additives may be used and other options such as UV treatment, reverse osmosis and other systems are available.

Water Wastage

As we continue to focus more on sustainability, water usage is increasingly seen as an important component. Unnecessary water wastage is expensive. Even if you’re not using water that you must pay for, pumping and handling the water is costly. Wastage of water means you’re also wasting anything that goes into the water such as medication, vaccines and additives.  Water wastage can cause problems with manure management reducing the effective holding capacity of manure storage systems and requiring the handling of a higher volume of manure with no added nutrient benefit.

There are several ways to reduce water wastage. Perhaps the simplest is to ensure that water systems are maintained properly. A leaking waterer can waste 5-10 gallons of water per day or more with no benefit to the animal. Producers should also consider switching to different types of waterers to reduce wastage. Wet/dry feeders frequently have been documented to reduce water wastage by 20-25%. Bowl drinkers have been documented to reduce water wastage by ~25% compared to nipples and even switching from mounted nipple waterers to swinging nipples in pens has been documented to reduce water wastage by up to 15%. A final consideration is water wastage from washing. Careful consideration of equipment and practices used when power washing can significantly reduce water wastage.


Water’s Role in Animal Health

Before I wrap up, I want to touch on the role of water in animal health. This is an area that is ripe with opportunities for research. While we may be short on details, the impact of water on animal health is obvious. For example, water intake is a very reliable indicator of an impending health issue. When animals are becoming ill, one of the first things they do is reduce their water consumption. Simply adding a meter system and monitoring it daily can give you a 24-48 hour heads up that a health challenge may be coming. This gives you extraordinarily valuable time to identify and define the challenge and begin implementing measures that can reduce the impact of the challenge.

Water quality and contamination is also a serious biosecurity and animal health concern. While specific data on this risk is limited, it is believed that improperly treated water may have been a factor in several widespread disease outbreaks including the PED outbreak in the US and the recent African Swine Fever outbreak in China and SE Asia.

Lastly, water medicator systems have become a valuable tool in modern productions systems. Increasingly, water delivery systems are the preferred method of treating animals with antibiotics and medications, delivering water soluble vaccines and executing other animal health related management strategies such as water acidification, electrolytes and even vitamin/mineral supplements. As we increasingly focus on manipulation of the gut biome, water quality and water delivery of additives will likely be significant considerations.

Water’s reputation as the forgotten nutrient is well deserved. Anywhere between 50 and 80% of the body weight of a pig (depending on stage of development) is made up of water. Water is one of the most critical aspects of management and has a major impact on animal performance. Given that level of performance, the lack of focus on this topic is absurd. The best systems that I work with ALL are focused on water management and you should be too. There is a lot of easy money to be captured.

Links to Water Quality Standards:



About the Author: Todd Thurman is an International Swine Management Consultant and Founder of SwineTex Consulting Services, LLC. SwineTex is a US-Based provider of consulting and training services to the global pork industry. To learn more about SwineTex Consulting Services, send an email to info@swinetex.com or visit the website at www.swinetex.com