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With corn prices at record-high levels, pork producers are searching for ways to control feed costs. An aspect of efficient swine production that often does not get enough attention is water management.

Even well managed hog farms fall short of feed conversion goals if water intake in inadequate. Water has been called the most important nutrient that animals require — yet it is often overlooked.

Water management is especially critical during warm weather months. Regardless of the mechanical cooling systems an operation has in place, water intake is the animals’ first line of defense against rising body temperatures. Breathing and evaporation are the two primary methods of keeping animals’ body temperature at an acceptable level and these two processes reduce the amount of water contained in the body. Therefore, the importance of adequate water intake during hot weather cannot be overemphasized.

When the environmental temperature rises from 54 degrees to 95 degrees, the water needs of a 70- to 80-pound pig increase by an estimated 57%. As pigs get larger, temperature has an even greater impact on their water requirement. The same temperature change as previously mentioned causes market weight hogs to drink 63% more water — if it’s readily available.

Water intake is even more critical to the comfort, health and performance of breeding stock. Gestating sows can drink as much as 5 gallons a day during warm weather, while a lactating sow needs to drink more than 10 gallons on a hot day to produce an adequate amount of milk for her litter. In addition to the water it takes to keep a nursing sow’s body reasonably cool in an environment that might not be conducive to her comfort, the milk she is producing is 80% water.

Recognize Water Deficit Warning Signs

How do you know when water intake is insufficient? One of the first signs is often reduced feed consumption. Unfortunately, it usually takes about 24 hours of less-than-adequate water intake before swine begin to refuse feed. By that time performance has already been hurt.

Because water and feed consumption are closely linked, a growing number of swine operations are using water meters to help monitor the health and performance of pigs throughout the feeding period. Spikes or sudden declines in water usage that have no apparent explanation can be an early warning sign of a developing health or environmental problem.

Take Proactive Steps

Making sure all animals have easy access to an adequate supply of clean, fresh water is the single most important factor to getting pigs to drink more. Watering systems should be routinely checked and cleaned. It is also extremely important to make certain all waterers are positioned and adjusted correctly.

One waterer is recommended for every 10 pigs in a nursery. That can be raised to 15 pigs in grow/finish and pen gestation settings. Thee height of nipple waterers should be checked frequently. They should be shoulder height for the smallest pigs in the group. Also evaluate the angle of nipple waterers by watching pigs drink. Growing pigs need to spend a total of 20 minutes per day drinking, so make certain they’re able to stand in a comfortable position. The position of the waterer is even more critical for lactating sows.

Flow rate is also extremely important in maintaining high water intake. All it takes to check flow rates is a measuring container that holds more than a cup and a watch. The flow rate from nipple waterers for young pigs should be 1 to 1½ cups per minute, growers need 2 to 3 cups per minute, while fi nishing hogs and breeding animals need 3 to 4 cups per minute.

If flow rates are inadequate, cleaning the nipples and connections is a good first step. If there are filters or screens within the water system, clean them and establish a schedule to make certain this is done routinely. It’s also possible that mineral deposits inside pipes are restricting water flow. Don’t go into the summer unaware if water flow rates are adequate throughout the operation.

Stray voltage in the water system can also reduced water intake and it only takes .5 to 1 volt to cause pigs to shy away from waterers. A good voltmeter can be used to measure electrical charge. If this problem is discovered, contact an electrician.

Water Quality: Another Key Factor

Don’t ignore the quality of the water being consumed. Water quality varies tremendously from farm to farm. Poor quality water can reduce water intake and feed digestibility. It can also open the door to chronic disease problems or even cause deaths. All operations should have their water supply tested regularly. Nearly 15% of all water samples taken from farms in the U.S. contain high levels of nitrates. A high level of sulfates is another common problem. If water is drawn from a deep well, annual testing is sufficient. However, if shallow wells or surface reservoirs are used for drinking water, quarterly testing is recommended.

This article is from the June 13, 2008 issue of Elanco Animal Health's Pork Profit Edge newsletter.