Think about drink: Is it draining profit potential

By Jane Jordan, ThePigSite Editor. Measuring water consumption in commercial pig production is a valuable management tool. However, water intake in relation to livestock production, is a relatively unexplored territory. There has been is little academic research or commercial investigations into this area of 'nutrition' and its significance within the production system.
calendar icon 7 December 2007
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Speaking recently at Nottingham University's Feed Conference Nick Bird, environmental specialist with Farmex, reviewed the integral role that water has within high-tech livestock production systems. His observations demonstrate that producers, and their technical advisers, rarely appreciate the vital role that H2O has within nutritional programmes, health and welfare regimes and/or the efficiency of a livestock business.

"Life is water. It makes up the greater part of body tissues, and is the greater part of dietary intake of farmed animals, but much of the information is largely qualitative and interpretative," said Mr Bird.

Water is not expensive, and in most cases commands little value. However, dip below the surface and producers, scientists, vets and nutritional companies might be very surprised by the impact this 'low grade' element has on overall productivity and margins.

"Water intake is a biological indicator. It's a bit like a nurse checking your heart rate. It gives some level of indication about the vital signs - what's going on inside - without being there," says Mr Bird.

And, it's relatively easy to measure if you have the right kit. The basics are pretty straightforward and you can learn quite a lot from the data.

Farmex's Barn Report, an internet supported environmental recording system, shows that water consumption has a massive influence on food intake and overall feed efficiencies (FCR. The relationships between environmental factors, water and feed consumption are infinite. When managed and controlled effectively, they can enhance herd productivity and have a considerable bearing on profit margins.

Growth monitor
Water consumption is an excellent growth barometer - in simple terms if pigs are growing, they will be drinking a little more each day.

"A low or restricted water intake will compromise more physical ideals and so pull down livestock performance," says Mr Bird. "This isn't rocket science, but by monitoring intake you can see if there are gaps and interruptions," he adds.

For example, water intake data can be used to detect, or pre-empt, important production and efficiency, criteria:

  • detecting acute issues such as water and feed system failures
  • detecting maintenance issues such as leaking drinkers
  • monitoring growth and batch to batch comparison
  • detecting illness
  • assessing performance and suitability of feed and water delivery systems
  • impact of housing including lighting
  • monitoring labour

Farmex observations show that interruptions usually happen when pigs are not fed, or food supply has been restricted. What's more, this is a common occurrence and usually goes undetected, says Mr Bird.

Aqua - adequacy

In today's more environmentally conscious livestock sector, farmers are anxious about pollution and meeting regulatory requirements. What comes out of the animal, rather than what goes in, tends to be the focus.

Is water quality good enough to keep pigs interested and drinking their fill?

Also, it tends to be assumed that if the water supplied to livestock is of 'adequate' quality and is 'adequately' available, then everything will be OK. But that is not the case.

Many on-farm observations have found that improving flow rates will increase the pigs' willingness to drink. Low flow rates mean that they have to spend longer at the drinker and in most cases the pigs rarely drink their fill. They get bored and/or they are pushed away by other pen mates. Providing the correct flow rate - at all times - will optimise intakes levels and encourage pigs to drink more readily.

Also, get it right and water supplies are an excellent and effective means for administering medication.

Taste and quality are also significant and farms that have installed water filtration systems often report substantial increases to water use following the investment.

And, measuring a farm's water consumption offers advantages.

However most metering of supplies tends to miss the most important information, says Mr Bird.

In commercial production, "utility" type meters, with "pulse" output is cost effective and adequate means of measuring water consumption. More specialist meters, such as turbine "flow meters" and ultrasonic detectors, are available for more specialist applications - such as measuring for small groups of animals in pens - and are useful at monitoring the efficiency of supply.

But the manual recording of water use is practically worthless, especially in pig production. From a diagnostic perspective, electronic recording is the only means of collecting reliable data that has relevance to business management and productivity.

"In basic terms the "pulse" contacts on the water meter are connected to a data logger, which counts up each unit of consumption. Recording the rate at 15 minute intervals appears to be adequate for detection of data signals - it yields meaningful figures without excessive volumes of data," explains Mr Bird.

However, figures for water use have little relevance unless they are analysed against other data such as temperature, number of pigs in the system, weight and age of animals and the type of feeding system used. Therefore, the logging systems used on pig farms need to include other data recordings, too.

"On-screen" displays of current readings can be used to check if sensors (for water, temperature, etc) are functioning. A data logger suitable for long term use in agricultural surroundings costs from around £1000 for eight input channels, and a further £200 per additional eight inputs.

In practice, the cost of a data collection system is usually determined by the installation cost, namely the length wiring runs, which can prove costly for some farm layouts. Effective wireless data networks for agricultural situations have yet to be developed, although a system is expected in the near future, says Mr Bird. Farmex is currently exploring the potential of wireless networks for farms through a part-Government funded research project.

Data processing: What's useful?

In practice, most water intake data is processed off-site. Therefore, remote connections via modem (using land line modem, cellular, or broadband) and remote presentation of data are essential.

Modern control and regulation systems (such as Dicam®) have the facility for data logging and this offers a very cost effective method. However, data logging capability varies considerably from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Key factors
Data Signals are information or factors within the data that affect the measured value - that is, a change in the measured value indicates a changed parameter or circumstance. Signals have varying frequencies.

The main signals are:

  • Feed intake
  • Growth
  • Body clock and lighting
  • Temperature
  • Feed type and taste
  • Health
  • Feed availability
  • Socialisation, behaviour and habit
  • Water quality
  • Water availability
  • Leakage and dribbling

For example, larger pigs drink more, so increased consumption is an indication of growth. However, this takes place over a long period of time, so has low frequency.

The body clock means that water intake varies considerably over each day. This higher frequency is super-imposed on the lower frequency growth data. The measured data is therefore a waveform of greater or lesser complexity.

The following graphs show typical intake pattern for poultry and pigs (for two days)

Medication merits

To date, not many vets have developed a great deal of interest in monitoring water as a diagnostic tool - even though it's one of the few things you can readily measure.

Curiously enough - and given the move to in-water medication - very few producers (and may be vets) seem to know how much pigs actually drink. And so how much of the medication given actually goes through the pigs, explains Mr Bird!

"Basically, there's a whole lot of information there that is telling us about the pigs on a day to day basis. To my mind, it seems a bit dumb to give up the chance to measure something that's so easy and relatively simple to do. It just takes a little understanding and a willingness to learn a few new skills," he adds.

Commercial proof

Farmex has one US client who has been using water intake measurements pro-actively within his health care regime.

The starting point was an investigation into five occurrences of Swine Flu that happened each year within its 40 finisher barns. Managers checked back over their water monitoring data and found that at approximately one week or so before each flu outbreak occurred, the water intake had started to recede - that is, the graph ramped down instead of up.

As a result and with veterinary guidance, the unit developed it's own treatment protocol. Now, if water intakes decline for three clear days, and the reason is not related to a mechanical or physical fault such as feed failure or blocked supplies, then a medication regime using a with a low-value anti-inflammatory and/or a low dose anti microbial, is implemented. The system works well and swine flu is now completely controlled.
Water monitoring is good indicator of pig health. It's also an excellent medium for drug adminstration.

"I'm not saying this simple protocol would work for everyone, nor that their actions are right every time, but this unit has saved a lot of money as compared with treating only after an outbreak or opting for persistent prophylactic treatment," explains Mr Bird.

However, he is quick to point out that this is a symptom, not a diagnosis.

"The point about Barn Report is that it's a continuous measuring system, day in day out, year in, year out. Although this US producer did use it in a historical sense - because they looked back at data for the previous year to establish the relationship between Swine Flu and water intake patterns - the ongoing use of this system relies on the analysis of current data and picking up the signals," he adds.

And it's not just about disease either - it's a holistic approach to pig management. "How do you know if the pigs are doing well? If they are drinking regularly with a normal pattern, and taking in little more each day, then that's a good sign. If they're not then you need to ask why, and address the problem," says Mr Bird.

Practical Pointers for Water Meters

In practical terms, most meters used on farms are 'integrating' meters and they measure total (accumulating) volume and not rate of flow. Typically, the unit of measurement (resolution) is 0.5 or 1 litre. By comparison turbine flow meters can take readings down as low as 0.01 litres - so they are more accurate.

Water meters have a limited dynamic range, and cause a pressure drop. The higher the flow rate, the greater the pressure drops. For this reason, they must be chosen carefully so that flow rates fall in the correct range and, in practical situations, must be at mains pressure.

Significant issue
"The first question should be is the water system working properly?, says Mr Bird. It may be simple observation, but in many cases supplies are not working well and so give false a representation of what's really happening (or needs to be), on the farm. Also, below their minimum flow rate, meters typically register 'no flow' and this is a significant issue. Standard float valves are only rated for 200,000 operations and as many water systems can be worn, then this can lead to large reading errors.

"It's advisable to maintain systems and replace float valves if installing a metering system. Accuracy within the specified range is not generally an issue," said Mr Bird.

Scaling and silting up are also a common cause of failure, since farm supplies are usually from a bore hole. Filters or settling tanks are a useful option, but for some reason many UK farms are very reluctant to use them. Most North American units have integrated water processing systems to reduce contaminants, standardise quality and ensure supplies. They are both necessary and valuable.

For more information on monitoring systems visit

December 2007

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