Improving the quality and delivery of water to pigs may not be the answer to perfect herd-health, but it can lead to healthier pigs and more efficient production.

Water is one of the more important nutrients that pigs require, says John Carr, with   Iowa State University’s Veterinary and Production Animal Medicine department. It also may be the most overlooked nutrient.

He points out that “the pig industry has lived with water deprivation for years.” Past studies have shown that cystitis and pyelonephritis account for 20 percent of sow deaths, Carr notes. However, greater awareness of sows’ drinking and urination patterns in recent years has made the condition less common.

In his consulting work, Carr has studied water systems in pig facilities throughout the world. He hopes his work will help veterinarians, animal scientists and producers ensure that there is no impairments in supplying pigs with high-quality water.

His research shows that many of the faults reported are classified as common – occurring on more than 20 farms out of the 200 involved in the study. “Out of the 68 recorded problem areas, 47 were classified as common, 8 uncommon and 13 rare. To date, there has not been a farm examined where no fault in the water supply could be found,” notes Carr.

Those faults were noted throughout the water-distribution system. Most of the problems are “intra-room” problems, such as faulty header tanks, distribution pipes and drinkers.

Here are some examples of common water problems that Carr has observed:


- Inadequate flow. Associated with material, such as sediment in the drinker; wrong drinker for the system; wrong flow adjuster; and simply not knowing or worrying about adequate water flow.

- Drinkers positioned too high. This restricts water intake especially for small pigs because they can’t properly activate the drinker. This also results in increased water waste.

- Drinkers positioned too low. The pigs have difficulty drinking, which increases water waste and time spent at the waterer.

- Incorrect angle. Again, this causes access problems, wastes water and increases drinking time. It causes excessive wear on the drinkers, which reduces their lifespan. Over time, pigs using a poorly adjusted drinker can end up with facial distortion that resembles atrophic rhinitis.

- Not enough drinkers. This reduces water availability, particularly to pigs at the low-end of the social order.

- Drinkers too close, causing one or more pigs to dominate the drinker.

- Poor location of drinkers. Limits accessibility – for example, if the drinkers are placed too close to a wall or feeder.

- Wrong drinker for age of pig. If adult drinkers are used for piglets or vice versa, this results in poor drinking position, increased water waste and drinking time.

- Leaking drinkers. Results in wasted water, wet lying areas and increased disease risk.

- Poor drinker maintenance.

- Variation in drinker type. A variety of drinkers in the same pen and between pens in the same building can cause water flow variations.

Here are some problems that Carr’s research has shown are specific to specific drinkers:

Nipple drinkers

- All of the previously noted problems can occur.

- Pressure flow is too great for the drinker design. This can cause drinking difficulty for pigs of all ages.

Bite drinkers

- The wrong angle can result in poor drinking position, increase waste and the drinking time for the pig to obtain adequate water.

Nose drinker

- Water spray not directed into trough. A nose drinker is intended to spray water into the trough, but it is not intended to provide water directly to the pig. If set up incorrectly, it can restrict water availability, increase water waste and create a wet lying area.


- Blocked with bedding, which results in poor water availability.

- Presence of fecal material contaminating water supply.

- Inadequate depth of water requiring pigs to increase time to obtain water.

- Slope variability along trough, resulting in uneven water depths and localized overflow, creating water waste.

- Presence of stale feed, which contaminates the system and reduces water intake for some pigs. It increases the risk of mycotoxins if feed becomes moldy. It also attracts rodents and flies.

- Holes in troughs, caused by rust from improper

While improving water quality and distribution will not guarantee high health on any pork operation, “improving the water on many of the studied farms improved overall herd health, and reduced clinical problems,” says Carr. “In particular, in all 20 farms examined with chronic or acute pyelonephritis, the condition disappeared after improving the water supplies.”

   6 Take-Home Messages

John Carr, DVM, Iowa State University, offers these take-home points about water delivery systems and meeting pigs’ needs on your farm.

1. Stock people know that water is essential for pigs to survive, but they have little awareness of pigs’ water requirements. He believes current water recommendations are generally vague. More detail is needed to provide adequate guidance to stock people. Consult with your veterinarian, university swine specialist or waterer company to work out quantities for your herd and waterers.

2. Just because you see a dribble of water after activating a drinker doesn’t mean the drinker is working properly.

3. In many cases, the water supply for piglets is better than for the sow. Yet stock people still insist the reason for sows going off feed is a disease agent rather than the lack of water.

4. Production-system managers need to adopt proactive protocols for cleaning, maintaining or repairing the water supply apart from repairing or replacing drinkers when they don’t work.

5. Most stock people believe the most common sign of water deprivation is that pigs go off feed. That indicates stock people are not paying close attention to the water system, because it takes 24 hours without water for a pig to refuse to eat.

6. In many cases, buildings have not been constructed with the intent of monitoring the pigs’ environment, including water quality and delivery.