Producers and veterinarians don’t often think of water as a nutrient, because people usually associate nutrients with feed, says Chris Rademacher, DVM, clinical professor at Iowa State University. In reality, it’s likely the most important nutrient.
“What we’ve learned over the years is that pigs are somewhat tolerant of varying water quality. In other words, they can tolerate poor water quality, particularly when they get bigger than 50 lbs.,” he says. “With newly weaned pigs, water quality is slightly more important because if you get into a situation where you have really hard water, osmotic pressures within the colon doesn’t allow proper resorption of water, there it keeps more liquid content in the colon, and pigs end up with looser stools. This can contaminate pens and make it harder for pigs to have a clean, dry place to lay.”
Loose stools create a dirtier environment, and that can be a good place for enteric pathogens like Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella and rotavirus to thrive. These pathogens can make it tougher for weaned pigs during a transitional time period, Rademacher says.
Water intake drives feed intake so there could be a growth and/or feed conversion response to having poor water quality, he notes. Producers may not visually see a change in the pigs, but sub-optimal growth would certainly be noticed in the analysis of the production records.
“Pigs may not be eating enough because they’re not drinking enough, and that may be due the fact that there’s something wrong with the taste or smell of the water,” Rademacher says. “They may be drinking to meet maintenance requirements but they’re not maximizing water intake, which is one of the major drivers for feed intake.”
Go to the source
When it comes to poor water, Rademacher says producers should first look at the source. He took water samples from two large farms in Iowa, and they were both high in iron and sulfates. He says iron can be removed with a water softener, but sulfates can’t be removed without more expensive equipment, such as reverse-osmosis systems, or switching to rural water sources, if available.
“In the boar stud, the pens were so messy, due to the high concentration of sulfates, that they had high bacterial contamination in the semen due the dirty environment that the boars were lying in,” Rademacher says. “They had to put in an industrial reverse osmosis system to eliminate the sulfates and dry the boars up. That created a cleaner environment for semen collection. The boars were producing semen but they weren’t gaining weight. From a hygiene standpoint, the water quality was creating issues.”
There appears that there may be an association with water quality in the microbiome of the reproductive tract, too, Rademacher points out.
“During a recent survey looking at causes of elevated pelvic organ prolapses completed by the Iowa Pork Industry Center, there appears that there was a correlation between farms who were using water treatments had lower rates of prolapses. It looks like there’s a strong correlation but we need to figure out why that might be,” he says, because there hasn’t been much research in this area. “Is it true disinfection or is it changing the flora of the reproductive tract? Or are there other things in the water such as estrogenic compound that mimics estrogen and makes it easier for them to prolapse? Could treating the water inactivate the bacteria or chemicals? We’re diving into unknown territory and there are more questions than answers at this point.”
Rademacher hopes the industry can do more of this “prospective” research in the future. “If we can collect samples as we’re putting sows on treatment or not on treatment, then compare and look for potential differences in the vaginal microbiome,” he says. We’ve done a little of that preliminary data – we don’t know what it means but we know there’s a difference. We could potentially alter the results if the water was treated.”
Producers should test their own water to learn more about quality. Laboratories will measure a standard panel of iron, magnesium, sodium chloride, sulfates, nitrates, nitrites, coliforms for $50 to $100/site.
“After you get the results back, talk with an industry expert and have them assess your situation,” Rademacher says. “This new area of research is important and will help the industry find out just how critical water quality is in pork operations.”