How to control bacteria growth in poultry water systems

Investing in proper monitoring and management of poultry house water systems is a small price to pay in comparison to the losses that can result from bacterial contamination.

Nipple drinkers provide less opportunity for bacterial contamination (springtime78 |
Nipple drinkers provide less opportunity for bacterial contamination (springtime78 |
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For optimal performance, broilers need abundant, high-quality, bacteria-free water. In a commercial setting when thousands of birds share the same water source, even a low level of bacteria can quickly multiply and spread.  Consider the following for controlling bacteria in water systems.

Understand the bacteria in the system

Water can be contaminated by pathogenic or nuisance bacteria. Pathogenic bacteria, such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella, come from fecal or other pollutions. Although nuisance bacteria, for example iron bacteria, do not cause disease, they do build up in systems, plugging drinkers, pumps and filters. Some nuisance bacteria also have offensive odors or tastes, causing water refusal.  

Source or in-house contamination?

In some regions of world, more than 70% of water supplies are contaminated with coliform bacteria. Even underground water sources, such as springs and wells, are increasingly contaminated.  

 To protect against water source contamination, ensure that:   

  • Animal excreta and dead carcasses are properly disposed of; 
  • Septic systems and animal facilities are correctly positioned in relation to water sources;
  • Ground water does not mix with river or surface water, which is especially a problem during rainy seasons when water tables are high.

 Even in enclosed water supplies, biofilms can develop, old metal pipework can harbor bacteria or water tanks may not be well covered.  

Within broiler houses, open water systems such as troughs and bell drinkers increase the likelihood of contamination. Birds perch on the drinkers, defaecate into the water, or push contaminated litter into the cups. Although closed nipple water systems provide less chance for contamination, bacteria can still be introduced and spread through the system.  

Monitor what raises bacteria levels 

Water system are ideal for transmitting bacteria throughout the entire house. The following factors increase bacteria growth: 

  • Warm water temperatures as well as warm temperature within the house;  
  • Low water flow;
  • Water additives such as electrolytes, vitamins and organic acids that provide nutrients.

 Pay particular attention to bacteriological control for the first 7 -21 days after populating houses, since all the above factors are in play and chicks are more susceptible to infections.  

 Establish routine, rigorous testing regimes

Testing for bacterial contamination is critical for a water quality program. The cost of testing is minimal, especially considering the cost of a disease outbreak or poor bird performance. Follow these recommendations:

  • Test for bacteria that are easily detected and measured. Testing for total coliforms, fecal coliforms and mesophilic bacteria will predict overall bacteria load and the likelihood of pathogenic species.  
  • Water quality will vary throughout the year. Test routinely, as well as during periods of heavy rain and droughts.
  • Test water from multiple locations in the system, including source water coming in the house, water at the end of the lines and water from inside lines.
  • Test before treatment to establish a baseline, then again after treatment to evaluate product effectiveness and final water quality.

Flush water lines

Flushing water lines helps wash away potential food sources and discourages bacterial attachment. Flush routinely, as well as after application of water medicators or supplements. Flush long enough to completely purge lines. As a general rule, flush one minute for every 100 feet of line.

Use chemicals to treat water systems

 Although non-chemical methods of sanitation are available, they often have high installation costs or require significant maintenance and adjustment to maintain effectiveness. 

Most integrators establish water quality programs for growers to follow. If the standard program is ineffective, consult with service technicians regarding approved alternatives. The initial microbial content, amount of organic material, water pH and mineral content will all impact the type and concentration of chemicals needed for water treatment. In addition:

  • Check chemical labels and local regulations. Not all products on the market are approved for treating animal water.  
  • Follow application instructions carefully and use recommended personal protection equipment. Never mix chemicals without fully understanding their properties. The result can be fatal.  

When treating water systems in the presence of birds, use chemicals that are safe for birds and only use recommended doses. Since some chemicals inhibit vaccination effectiveness, follow label directions regarding chemical treatment suspension and resumption. Test for and understand the utility of residual chemicals in a water system.

Aggressively “shocking” water systems between flocks allows for stronger chemicals to be used and is the only way to treat mature biofilms. Allowing products to sit in the lines for 24-72 hours will increase the potential of loosening biofilms and dissolving mineral deposits, improving the ability of chemicals to enter the biofilms and kill bacteria.  

When microbial contamination is removed from water systems, and the systems are kept clean with a water sanitation program, flock performance almost always improves.

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