Ball bite water drinkers spill less, save more

By Alberta Pork. An Alberta producer has found that big efficiencies can be achieved by making a small change to a barn’s watering program.
calendar icon 20 August 2006
clock icon 8 minute read
Alberta Pork

A recent study conducted by a High River, Alberta pork producer suggests that ball bite water drinkers can save as much as one-third of an operation’s annual water expenses just by limiting the amount of water pigs spill. Over the course of one year and six batches of 250 pigs each, Dennis McKerracher compared the spill rate of ball bite water drinkers to standard water drinkers. He discovered that the ball bite groups used 35 percent less water over the year — a total of 133,149 litres — with 50 percent less water used in the summer.

The study, supported by Alberta Pork, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD), Climate Change Central, the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program and the Canadian Pork Council, was unique in that it confirmed the findings of previous research over an extended period of time. It has even captured the attention of the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario; the noted agricultural think-tank is conducting an independent study of McKerracher’s findings.

“I really wanted to find out how they performed year-round under different weather conditions,” says McKerracher. “Although there was some daily variation, water wastage was consistently lower with the ball bite drinkers throughout the year.”

The benefits of ball bite drinkers spun off into nearly every facet of McKerracher’s 500 head, all-in, all-out grower operation. “I was initially concerned that less water would lead to a build-up of solid waste, but that hasn’t been a problem,” he says. “As a result, I don’t have to spread manure as much as I used to, which saves me money and helps keep the neighbours happy. And that’s just one of the efficiencies this change has brought about. In fact, I have yet to find any disadvantages to using ball bite drinkers.”

His three-tiered monitoring system, consisting of a water meter, a water monitor and daily record-keeping, also generated some side benefits. “Ultimately, the water told the story,” says McKerracher. “If there was any problem in ventilation, feed, health — you name it — we knew it immediately because of the difference in water consumption.”

Trial process

McKerracher’s goal was to control as many variables as possible in order to isolate the range of efficiencies the ball bite drinkers had to offer. “The basic parameter was to conduct the trial over the course of 12 months to account for seasonal and weather variations,” says McKerracher. “We wanted to make sure all the pigs coming into the barn had never been exposed to any kind of water drinker previously; that way, they would have no preference of one over the other. We also wanted all of the pigs to come from the same suppliers.”

The trial occupied the full capacity of McKerracher’s 500-head barn at any given time over the course of the year, with the six batches of 500 pigs divided into two groups of 250 pigs each — the trial group on the ball bite drinkers and the control group on the standard drinkers. Both groups were under the same feeding regime.

Variables in the barn were accounted for as well. “The barn was divided into one group on the west side and the other on the east. It made the two groups equal in the ventilation department,” says McKerracher.

A visual example of the difference between standard water drinkers (above left) and ball bite drinkers (above right).

Monitoring was conducted on three different levels in order to provide backup to all the data recorded. A water meter measured the amount of water entering and exiting the building, while a water monitor measured the amount of water the animals consumed. On top of that, written records were kept every day. “It didn’t matter if it was Christmas or New Year’s Day — the data was recorded by someone every day,” he says.

In addition to measuring for water consumption and wastage, the effects of the two types of water drinkers on behaviour, performance, manure management, barn management, economics and greenhouse gas mitigation were also analyzed.

Instant efficiencies

The economic efficiencies among the ball bite group were numerous, varied and instantly recognizable, says McKerracher. Substantial differences in water use between the two groups manifested themselves on a daily basis, with the ball bite group consistently consuming between a third or a half less water than the control group. “Just the electrical savings of not having to pump so much water could pay for the conversion in a couple of years,” he says. The most dramatic savings came in summer, says McKerracher. “Water usage skyrockets in the summer, and so does the waste percentage,” he says. “On some particularly hot days — in the range of 30 C — the ball bite drinker group used 50 percent less water than the standard drinker group.”

A ball bite water drinker is activated when the pig bites down on a ball which pushes a lever that releases the water.
This high degree of monitoring allowed McKerracher to discover a wide range of efficiencies. However, he says differences could be observed even without the monitoring. “The drop in how often we pumped manure told us we were saving money,” he says. “Having said that, I would still recommend installing a water meter in the barn because, from a barn management point of view, you’re not getting the full benefits if you’re not recording consumption.”

Not recording also robs producers of several side benefits. “Water levels were often able to tell us there was a problem in the barn before we were able to observe it ourselves,” he says. “It got to the point where I could tell the feed bins were getting low just by the amount of water being used. I could tell the temperature of the barn just by looking at the numbers. Monitoring and record-keeping became two very powerful barn management tools.”

The overall reduction of water flow did not complicate the removal of manure from the barn, says McKerracher, and in fact improved the process significantly. “We were concerned that the viscosity and consistency of the manure would change to the point where we would end up adding water to the slurry in order to pump it out, which would have defeated the point of the entire trial,” he says. “As it turned out, this was not a problem, as there was no significant build-up of solid waste in either group.”

Production was one area in which there was no apparent difference between the two groups. “Even though one group went through 35 percent more water than the other, both groups averaged the same amount of production,” says McKerracher. There were also no discernable differences in behaviour. However, McKerracher quickly learned not to give the animals a choice between the two drinkers. “It seemed like they would gravitate towards the standard drinkers if given a choice — most likely because it was easier, or maybe they liked to use the excess water for cooling purposes.”

Future possibilities

McKerracher believes there are more opportunities for the study of ball bite water drinkers, especially in the context of finisher barns. “I did this trial on grower pigs — they came in weighing 50- 60 lbs and went out in the 120 lbs range.” The ball bite pigs in the latter weight range were using as little as three litres per head per day, compared to eight or more litres in the other group. “If we were able to continue the trial in a finishing barn, I would assume that the savings would be just that much more.” Another potential benefit is the possibility that ball bite drinkers wear out less quickly than standard drinkers. Although McKerracher did not measure wear in any empirical way, he observed a difference in the replacement rate between the two types of drinkers.

“Since I started the trial, I’ve never had to replace any ball bite drinkers, but I have had to replace some of the standard ones,” he says. “There were also fewer incidents of ball bite drinkers sticking, dripping or leaking. These are anecdotal examples, but they’re factual.” McKerracher thinks the mechanics of the ball bite drinkers may account for this extra hardiness. “With the standard drinker, the part the pig pushes in or down to access the water is exposed. That part is covered in the ball bite drinker — the animal bites down on the ball, which pushes a lever that releases the water.” In summary, McKerracher is pleased with this change and plans to convert all of the water drinkers in his barn to ball bite. He enthusiastically encourages fellow pork producers to do the same.

“Your standard drinkers are going to wear out eventually anyway, so it makes sense to make the switch, as long as you don’t try to use both at the same time,” he says. “It costs about $6.90 to buy a standard drinker while a ball bite drinker costs about $12.60. It’s a change that packs a lot of punch for a difference of less than six dollars per unit.”

May 2006

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