An important element of managing a commercial layer watering system is to maintain control over what is in the water you give to your birds. In this article, we discuss how to manage a variety of substances that can get into your water and affect your birds and their performance.

Most poultry operations derive their water from wells. About half of all poultry farms rely on the same well to supply water to their families, as well as their flocks. As water percolates through the earth to recharge the water table, it acts as a universal solvent and picks up whatever it comes into contact with. For this reason, groundwater changes over time.

Farmers should test their wells on a regular basis – at least annually and more often in times of drought. Also, consider testing the well any time the taste, colour or odour of the water changes, or if unexplained illnesses occur in the family.

A variety of substances can impact your water and affect your birds and/or the eggs. For instance, water with a high salt (saline) content can cause thin, misshapen or soft eggs. Too much iron can give water a metallic taste and might cause the birds to stop drinking. Just one day without water will cause a hen to stop laying. Some of these conditions have simple remedies; others might require the help of an expert and some specialised equipment.


Acidity or pH


pH is a scale, ranging from 0 to 14, that measures the acidity of a substance. A pH value below 7 is acidic, while a pH above 7 is alkaline. A pH of 7 is considered neutral.

It is important to note that the pH scale is not a simple one-step measure. It is a logarithmic measure. That means lowering the pH from 7.2 to 6.2 increases the acidity of the water by 10 times. Lowering pH to 5.2 makes it 100 times more acidic, and lowering to 4.2 is 1000 times more acidic.

Some producers use acidifiers in the water to improve flock performance. What you need to consider in this situation is whether the gain in production will outweigh the cost of replacing components of the watering system damaged by the acid. We know of one producer who had to replace all of the drinkers in his poultry house twice in less than a year because his acidification program was too aggressive. That cost him about US$4000.

There also is evidence to suggest that birds drink less if the pH is too high or too low. We recommend that you test your water pH on a regular basis and aim to keep it as close to 7 – the neutral point – as possible. In any case, do not vary from the neutral mark by more than a point.




Too much salt in the water can not only affect shell quality, but it can contribute to watery faeces or refusal to drink.

A variety of inorganic substances can contribute to waters salinity but magnesium, calcium, sodium and chloride are the most common. Birds are able to adapt to saline conditions but abrupt changes in salinity content can cause problems mentioned above. Producers also need to consider the amount of salt in the feed because this contributes to the birds' total salt intake.

Among the treatments for water with a high saline content are desalination and diluting the water with less salty water. However, the costs of these treatments may be prohibitive for a layer operation. Professional advice is recommended for this situation.





Nitrates and nitrites are nitrogen-oxygen chemical compounds. In nature, nitrogenous materials tend to be in the form of nitrates. The primary source of these nitrates is fertiliser and water run-off that is contaminated with sewage or animal manure. Because nitrates are highly soluble, they have a high potential to seep into the ground water.

Nitrates themselves are not toxic but microorganisms in the bird’s gut can change the nitrates into nitrites, which are toxic. Excess nitrites are absorbed into the blood and prevent the blood from carrying oxygen. This is most common in young chicks and can result in death.

The real problem, however, is that nitrates have no detectable colour, taste or smell. To find out if nitrates/nitrites are a problem, you must test the well water. The US Environmental Protection Agency has approved three methods of removing nitrates/nitrites – by ion exchange, reverse osmosis and electro-dialysis. However, these treatments may be impractical for the volume of water used by a poultry operation.

High concentrates of nitrate usually are found in shallower wells. The most expeditious method of solving the problem may be digging a new, much deeper well. Again, expert advice is recommended when dealing with this problem.




High sulphate concentrations are usually a naturally occurring problem. Excessive sulphates in the water can have a laxative effect although this usually passes once the birds become acclimatised to the water. Younger birds are most susceptible. Sulphates in high concentrations can give the water a bitter taste and cause the birds to decrease consumption.

One way to deal with high sulphate concentrations for new birds is to dilute the water with purer water. As the birds age, gradually cut back on the amount of pure water and let the birds become acclimatised to the sulphate concentration. Other treatment options, such as reverse osmosis or distillation, are not feasible for poultry operations.




Another naturally occurring element that can affect a layer operation is iron. Iron does not pose a health hazard to the birds but it can impart a bad odour and taste to the water, causing a decrease in consumption. If iron-feeding bacteria are present, they can develop into a reddish brown slime or biofilm that can coat interior well parts, drastically diminishing the effectiveness of the well pump.

If the slime is in the well, a shock treatment with chlorine can handle the problem. High-pressure flushing with the use of a hydrogen peroxide cleanser can resolve slime problems in the drinking system. We recommend using a filter ahead of the watering system if iron is a problem.


Other chemicals


There are a variety of other chemicals, such as manganese, copper, calcium, magnesium and potassium, which can affect flock performance. Again, you need to test for these chemicals and get professional help if they are causing a problem.

The watering system – how it performs and the water it delivers – is an integral element in the success of your cage layer operation. Not only must you tend to the mechanics of the system, you have to know what you are providing to your birds through the water.