Why it pays to conduct regular water-quality checkups

May 14, 2021
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Water is as important for the growth and health of pigs as feed. As such, it makes sense to test a hog unit’s water just as frequently as the feed, according to Jim Kober, DVM, water quality-consultant, Holland, Michigan.

But water testing often doesn’t occur until a problem like reduced pig performance develops. An investment in regular water tests to spot problems early can save time and money for the farm. Kober offers recommendations for the water tests.

Signs of poor water quality

“One thing we see is simply low water flow,” Kober said. “Over time, water flow or pressure may get less. It might be [due to] a coating of rust, or a slimy coat of biofilm. If that stuff is growing in the waterline or rust is accumulating, it’s going to affect water flow and livestock performance. Remember that milk is primarily water, so adequate flow during lactation is critical.”

Another sign of a water problem is scours in weaned pigs. Coliforms growing in water lines can include Escherichia coli and Salmonella bacteria, which infect susceptible neonates and newly weaned pigs.

“I’ve seen nurseries with E. coli scours after weaning, and we find there are actually coliforms in the water,” Kober said.

Other times, the problem isn’t obvious. “If a hog farm is having a problem that doesn’t make sense and they’ve done a lot of diagnostics but can’t get to the bottom of it, water is a good place to look,” he added. “Sometimes the water will taste bad to the animals, or the flow is so bad that it will actually affect animal performance.”

Testing panels

“The water test panel I like to do has 10 or 11 different things, starting with the pH of the water and then micronutrients like calcium, sodium, manganese, magnesium, chloride, fluoride,” Kober explained. “In west Michigan, many of the water samples are quite high in pH, and many samples have high iron levels. That iron will build up in the pipes over time, and the pH will actually negatively affect intake.”

He recommends targeting a water pH level for pigs between 6.5 and 7. Keeping pH below 7 will help reduce bacteria loads while offering the best taste for pigs.

The water test also should be thorough enough to include testing for coliforms.

Kober suggests when collecting water samples to start as close to the well as possible to make sure the water coming into the facility is good quality. Then take another test at the farthest point away from the well to see what happens in between. For a single-site finishing barn, take the sample at the end of the barn. On farrow-to-finish sites, take samples at the end of each stage of production.

Cleaning water lines

If a water test indicates the water flow issue is a biofilm, many products are available to cleanse waterlines, according to Kober. Some products are used when the building or room is empty, while others can be used with animals in the building.

“The first thing is to clean the waterlines,” he said. “If we find out through water tests that there’s an ongoing problem, like iron or sulfates, then we may need to install a system to treat continuously so the water stays good.”

If the water test indicates a problem at the well, the well can be shocked to clean it. But if a well is really bad, Kober said a different long-term solution may be needed.

In the end, the key to handling any water issue is to first do regular tests and know the problems before they become big enough to affect pig production, he added.