How is Your Water Quality?

Water quality in your operation can't be overlooked.

High quality drinking water is an essential component for the health and efficient production of pigs,” says Eric van Heugten, swine nutrition extension specialist at North Carolina State University. “If there is any doubt concerning the quality of the drinking water, samples need to be collected to analyze the water and verify that it is acceptable for animals.”

He says many factors can affect the quality of water, including microbiological, physical and chemical factors.

There are a variety of microorganisms that can be contained in water, van Heugten explains.

“Bacteria using inorganic ferrous iron as an energy source can be particularly problematic, because they produce a reddish slime that can block water lines and nipple waterers,” he says. “Pathogenic protozoa (coccidia) and eggs of intestinal worms could also be encountered.”

A high level of microbial counts in water can be a sign of contamination from outside sources, for example surface runoff that enters poorly constructed wells. High levels of coliform bacteria are an indication of fecal contamination of the water source.

“As a guideline, drinking water for animals should contain fewer than 100 total bacteria per milliliter and fewer than 50 coliforms per milliliter,” van Heugten says. “If levels of contamination greatly exceed these guidelines, the source of contamination needs to be eliminated or a new well needs to be constructed. Low levels of contamination can be managed by using disinfectants (shock treatment with chlorox for example).”

Physical measures include color, odor, flavor and clarity. Water should be clear and odorless. If the water appears cloudy, frothy, colored, or has an odd smell or taste further testing needs to be conducted because a potential problem with quality may exist, van Heugten points out.

Regarding chemical measures, he says a variety of chemical tests are available to determine water quality.

“Of these, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), pH, iron, hardness, and nitrates/nitrites are a good initial screening,” van Heugten says. “If any of these tests prove unsatisfactory, further analysis needs to be conducted to specify the nature of the contamination.”

Knowing water quality in your production units is important to your bottom-line profitability, and too many times this factor is overlooked.

Making the decision that improving water quality at a production site is the first step in any water treatment program.  The next immediate step needs to be determining exactly what the current water the animals are drinking contains. 

Several considerations must be taken when sampling a site for water quality, says Jesse McCoy, a business unit specialist in water treatment with Neogen Corp. 

“The first is the sample must be the best representation of the water coming in to the facility. That means taking a sample prior to any treatment or other interactions that may interfere with the analysis,” he says.

The water outlet itself should be cleaned and sterilized prior to taking the water sample, adds van Heugten, and samples should be taken in a sterilized container for immediate analysis. Forms and further information can be obtained from your local county extension office.

Take samples as close to the well as possible, and if multiple water sources are used, get the sample from the best blended sample possible, suggests McCoy.

In most cases, the raw water sample will come from a pressure tank at the beginning of the barn. When sampling, McCoy says it’s important to take measures so the sample isn’t contaminated. Make you’re your hands are clean, and use a clean container.

“Clean the spigot prior to taking the sample and do not touch the sample container to the spigot,” McCoy says. “Fill the container all the way to the top, and then fill the lid. A sample container needs to have as little air in it as possible, as air in the sample can alter pH levels and change the chemical composition of some minerals.”

A single source sample is insufficient, McCoy points out. It won’t tell you what the animals are actually drinking, only what the source is before the water goes through the lines. Take a second sample and select the “worst case scenario” for this sample, he says. 

“You want what the animals are actually drinking, and this sample is arguably more important than the raw water as it’s what is actually going to the animal,” McCoy says. 

If the drinker is a nipple, trigger the drinker with the bottle to fill it. If it is a trough, dunk the bottle in the trough; if it is a wet/dry feeder, get the sample from the actual drinker, not a hose that might be easier to use.

“Keep in mind, the sample is being taken because the decision has been made that production gains could come from altering what the animals drink,” McCoy says. “Try to sample on a day without added variables (medication, nutritionals in the water, etc), but if an existing treatment system is running, leave it on.  Whoever analyzes the samples should be able to determine that a program is being run, but also if it is effective.”

After sampling, send the water to a reputable lab. If biological count data is desired, ice the samples and send them overnight or hand deliver them (preferably not on a Friday). Most producers do not need actual numbers, just a presence or absence, so if counts are not required, standard shipping is fine. If the producer wants to see if there is biolfilm build up in the lines, a swab of the water line walls may be in order as well, McCoy says. 

“Indicate that the sample is for livestock, and ask the lab to run a traditional livestock suitability panel,” McCoy says. “This will likely include pH, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, nitrates, sulfates, chlorine, and sodium.”

Extra minerals like copper, phosphorus, potassium, etc. may also be included, but the first set of analytes is the most important, he adds. McCoy says you should indicate if biological samples are important, and if so, run those samples too. Typically E.Coli and total coliform are standard, but biological activity can be inferred by comparing the samples on pH, sulfate, and nitrate. 

“Most labs will provide sample bottles ahead of time for their specific laboratory,” McCoy says. “If the sampler does not have a bottle, 16 or 20-ounce water bottles are easily found at convenience stores and serve as perfect sample containers as they are clean and sterile prior to opening.”

To use them, or any other sample container, both experts say you shouldn’t open them until in the facility and ready to sample. Pour them out immediately prior to sampling. Take the samples, cap them, wipe them dry, then identify them in some way for the lab (like numbering the lid or writing the sample name and location on some tape on the bottle). Tape the lid if you would like extra security, then pack it in a mailing box with plenty of cushion for the ride in the mail, McCoy says. Add a sheet describing the samples in the mailing box as well, and send them off depending on the needs of the sample (overnight or standard). 

“Once the results come back (a standard list of numbers), have a livestock water professional analyze the numbers and explain not only what the numbers mean, but how any shifts in the levels tells you what’s happening in the water lines,” McCoy says. “Once this sampling and analysis takes place, you can then determine what the proper treatment at your site may be.”