Poor quality drinking water is often overlooked in free-range egg production and can lead to reduced productivity and an overreliance on antibiotics.
“There is an assumption that, as water is predominately mains-sourced, it is safe for birds to drink,” says Stephen Bowen, technical poultry specialist with Potters Pullets. “The issue, however, is often with the water lines running into the drinkers.
“Water sitting in pipes in warm sheds offers an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, algae and other microorganisms. Also, some water tanks are high up in the shed or in the bird area, raising temperatures further.”
The nature of free-range production also raises the risk of water contamination, says Mr Bowen, who ran a free-range poultry farm for more than 12 years. For example, birds coming in off the range will have pecked mud, faeces and dust, and then go straight to the drinkers.
“Substandard water is relatively common and can have an adverse impact on poultry productivity. Producers will often look at feed if any performance challenges arise, although a bird will consume twice as much water as feed.
“Ensuring water is suitable for consumption is absolutely key. As with other vital aspects of production, such as nutrition, health and light control, this requires close attention to detail and robust flock management.
“The only way to ensure a crop is receiving suitable drinking water is to carry out regular inspections,” says Mr Bowen.
“Once a month, drain some water from the last point of the drinker line and visually inspect it – ask yourself ‘would I be prepared to drink this’? Also send samples of water for testing at least twice a year, as bugs like pseudomonas are not visible to the naked eye.” (See Top tips for water testing)
The key area for producers to focus on is water sanitisation, says Mr Bowen. This should be a monthly, weekly or even daily occurrence. “If you intend to do it monthly, programme it for the first Monday of every month,” he advises. “Make management techniques as simple, effective and memorable as possible, to ensure that they get done.
“Acids should not be considered as sole sanitizers,” he adds. “Lowering the pH level of your water will stop the bacteria flourishing but will not fully sanitise the water. If a test result comes back less than perfect, draw up a programme to treat the problem, then test the water again to help ensure complete water sanitisation has occurred. Inorganic acids can also be used as these have a role to play in lowering the pH of the gut and favour a good gut flora.”
If a flock is showing signs of stress, or reduced productivity, unsatisfactory muck composition, even loss of feathers, then there most certainly is an on-farm issue that needs to be resolved, he continues.
Top tips for water testing
- Inspect the water at least once a month with the naked eye. Hang a clear plastic water jug on a nail near the end of your nipple lines, to jog your memory to run some water off.
- Carry out a water test twice a year. You will need to get a sterile testing kit from your vet or preferred testing laboratory, and take the sample from the end of the water lines. Run the water for 30 seconds before filling the sample bottle.
- Always get the results interpreted by your vet. There is a whole range of variables, such as water hardness and mineral deposits, that will have bearings on the results and the correct treatment of the water.
- If you source water from a borehole, test for trace elements such as iron and manganese.
“Poor water quality can trigger all of these problems, leading to an increase in antibiotic use – a label our industry doesn’t want. Identifying the source of the problem first, by carrying out a water test, will help mitigate any problems and ensure productivity stays on track. This is especially important in the early weeks of lay.”
Working with Potters Pullets allows Mr Bowen a unique perspective into bird behaviour and performance.
“It is useful to compare sister flocks on various farms to see what production challenges might be occurring and if there are any similarities between units. I encourage all producers to have regular contact with their pullet specialist for advice, to identify what areas need attention on farm and to find out if sister flocks are experiencing similar challenges.
“More often than not farms will have individual challenges to overcome, and water quality is increasingly an area of concern. I have certainly seen a reduction in the use of antibiotics and consistently higher egg production numbers on farms that take water sanitisation seriously.”
Egg numbers up after treatment
John Rylands keeps 12,000 free-range laying birds at Bridestowe on the edge of Dartmoor in west Devon.
Farming free-range poultry since 2005, he is now on his eighth flock – the most successful to date, with productivity peaking at nearly 95% and mortality down to 3.5%.
“Ensuring a clean supply of drinking water was an area that needed greater attention,” he says. “With our previous flock the birds were stressed, with increased feather loss and a noticeable dip in productivity. We worked with a vet to carry out post mortems and blood tests to try to isolate the issue.
“It was at this point, following advice from Steve Bowen, that I completed a water test that revealed the presence of pseudomonas. Fortunately, we identified this in early lay, utilised a course of antibiotics and set up a new water sanitisation programme. The birds responded well, picked up and went on to produce good egg numbers.”
With concerns around antimicrobial resistance and the high cost of treatment, a key aim for Mr Rylands was to reduce the farms’ reliance on antibiotics. “I have ensured that we disinfect and sanitise the water lines correctly and this has greatly improved the quality of water, contributing to further increases in productivity for our latest flock, without using any antibiotics.”