Water Quality for Poultry Birds

Birds require water nearly about 2 litres/ every kg of feed at 70°F. For 1°C of temperature rise about 75°F, birds will drink about 4% more water. The normal intake of feed: water is 1:2. But this ratio rises to nearly 1:4 or even more when temperature exceeds 95°F. Birds prefer cool water between 45°F to 80°F. Except for day old chicks, the temperature of drinking water for all categories of chickens should always be lower than the room temperature. Provision of extra waters on deep litter is a must along with filling up these with cold water for 4-5 times a day. Birds on cages should also get a continuous supply of fresh and cool water. Where there is a provision for automatic drinking devices, if necessary small ice pieces may be placed in drinking reservoirs. When using water medication during severe summer heat, recommended concentration must be reduced as high amount of water consumption may increase excess of the normal levels, resulting in an overdose of the drug.


Contaminant Level considered Average Maximum Acceptable Level Remarks
Total Bacteria
Coliform Bacteria
0 / ml 0 / ml 100 / ml 50 / ml 0/ ml is desirable 0/ ml is desirable
Nitrogen Compounds
Nitrate 10 ppm 25 ppm Levels from 3-20 ppm may affect performance
Nitrite 0.4 ppm 4 ppm
Acidity and Hardness
pH 6.8 - 7.5 8 pH of less than 6.0 is not desirable. Levels below 6.3 may degrade performance
Total Hardness 60 - 180 . . . Hardness levels <60 are unusually soft, those > 180, very hard
Naturally Occurring Chemicals
Calcium 60 ppm 500ppm
Chloride 14 ppm 250 ppm Levels as low as 14 ppm may be detrimental if the sodium level is >50 ppm
Copper 0.002 ppm 0.6 ppm Higher levels produce a bitter flavour
Iron 0.2 ppm 0.3 ppm Higher levels produce a bad odour and taste
Lead . . . 0.02 ppm Higher levels are toxic

14 ppm 125 ppm Higher levels have a laxative effect. Levels >50 ppm may affect performance if the sulfate level is high
Sodium 32 ppm 50ppm Levels > 50ppm may affect performance if the sulfate or chloride level is high
Sulfate 125 ppm 250 ppm

Higher levels have a laxative effect. Levels > 50 ppm may affect performance if magnesium and chloride level is high
Zinc . . . 1.50 ppm Higher levels are toxic.

Interpreting Bacteria Test Results

If number of microorganisms found in water sample is too high, it indicates that water supply is contaminated. Well water is normally tested for total bacteria level, coliform bacteria level and occasionally for the faecal coliform bacteria level. Coliform bacteria are organisms normally found in the digestive tracts of livestock, humans, and birds. Their presence in water is used as a sign of faecal contamination. Standards for animal drinking water indicate that there should be fewer than 100 bacteria of all types /ml of water and fewer than 50 coliform bacteria/ml. Recent field research indicates that a bacteria level of zero may be desirable to obtain optimum performance.

Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates are produced during the final stage of decomposition of organic matter. Their presence in water usually indicates contamination by runoff containing fertilizer or human and animal wastes. Nitrates are soluble and may move with surface runoff or leach into the groundwater by percolation through the soil. Nitrates from sources such as animal and human wastes, nitrogen fertilizer, crop residues, and industrial wastes may move considerable distances in the ground. Nitrite is produced during intermediate stages of the decomposition of organic compounds. The toxicity of nitrates to poultry varies with the age of the birds, older birds being more tolerant. Levels in excess of 50 ppm for chickens and 75 ppm for turkeys have proven harmful in laboratory trials. A recent study with commercial broilers showed that nitrate levels greater than 20 ppm had a negative effect on weight, feed conversion, or performance. Levels between 3-20 ppm were suspected to affect performance. Nitrites are toxic at much lower levels than nitrates; concentrations as low as 1 ppm can be toxic.

Acidity and Alkalinity

Well water normally has a pH in the range from 6.8-7.8, although it is not uncommon for the pH to be either higher or lower. Acid drinking water can affect digestion, corrode watering equipment, and be incompatible with medicines and vaccines. Field research indicates that drinking water with a pH> 6 can impair broiler performance. Water with a pH between 6.0-6.3 is suspected of having a negative effect.


Although hard water may cause stains, leave residues, or cause other physical problems in water-handling equipment, hard water has not been demonstrated to have either a positive or negative impact on poultry performance. In treating hard water that is to be used as drinking water poor poultry, however, care should be taken not to increase any existing chemical imbalance in the water.

Naturally Occurring Minerals

A large number of chemicals occur naturally in well water. They are usually present in amounts that do not interfere with the metabolism or digestive functions of chickens or turkeys. When the levels of certain chemicals are out of balance, however, they can, by themselves or in combination with other chemicals, affect poultry performance.

• Sodium - Excessive levels of sodium have a "diuretic effect". Studies indicate that a sodium level of 50 ppm is detrimental to broiler performance if the sulfate level is also 50 ppm or higher and the chloride level is 14 ppm or higher.

• Chloride - Consuming too much chloride has a "detrimental effect on metabolism". Studies have shown that a level of 14 ppm in drinking water can be detrimental to broilers if combined with 50 ppm of sodium. Chloride levels as high as 25 ppm are not a problem if the sodium level is in the normal range.

• Sulfate - High sulfate levels have a "laxative effect". Levels as low as 50 ppm can have a negative effect on performance of either the sodium or magnesium level is 50 ppm or more.

• Magnesium - A symptom of a high magnesium level is "loose droppings". This chemical may interact with sulfate. Studies indicate that magnesium alone at 68 ppm does not adversely affect broiler performance, but a level of 50 ppm can be detrimental if the sulfate level is also 50 ppm or greater.

Other Minerals:
1. Excessive amounts of manganese can produce a "flavour problem".
2. Too much copper can give the water a bitter taste and may cause "liver damage".
3. High phosphate levels may indicate contamination from sewage.
4. Calcium does not seem to have any negative effect at levels as high as 400 mg/l, and it appears that a level of 35 ppm or more may be desirable.
5. High levels of iron, up to 25 ppm, have not been shown to be detrimental to broiler performance, although staining of waterers is evident at much lower levels.

Water Management Measures:
• Conduct water tests
Each farm should have its well water tested. Water quality can change during periods of heavy rain or drought and additional water tests during these periods will ensure that water lines continue to deliver adequate water volume for both the birds and the cooling systems.

• Change filters regularly
Sediment and other particulates can cause leaky water nipples that can have negative effects on litter quality. Clogged filters restrict water flow to the drinker and cooling systems. In some cases, simple cartridge filters may not be adequate, such as for water with high iron. In those cases other water treatments will need to be considered.

• Flush water lines regularly
A high pressure flush should be performed on water lines between each flock and after adding supplements through the medicator (e.g. vaccines, medications, vitamins, electrolytes, etc.).

• Plan ahead before treating water
Before implementing water treatment or sanitation programs, consult your county agent to ensure that contaminants in your water will not react negatively and cause the water system to become clogged.

Control of microbial level in drinking water

It is not advisable to use disinfectants to maintain safe bacterial levels in a highly contaminated well. Any disinfectant method is likely to fail at some time and expose the poultry to high levels of bacteria. Even if the water source has a low bacteria level, poultry may be exposed to the microorganisms that grow in waterers. Because these organisms can develop very rapidly, waterers should be cleaned properly each day. Chlorination or use of other disinfectants in the water along with good waterer cleaning is an effective way of controlling microbial levels. Chlorination using an in-line proportioner (a device for accurately injecting the correct proportion of chlorine into the water line) has been successful in poultry operations if the residual chlorine level in the waterers is at least 1 mg/l. Once the water is exposed to the air, however, the dissolved chlorine quickly dissipates. To accurately determine the residual chlorine level in the water that the poultry drink, the chlorine concentration should be measured using a standard test (such as orthololidine procedure) as soon as possible after samples are obtained from the waterers. Superchlorination or continuous treatment of the well with chlorine pellets can also be effective, but the level of chlorine in the drinking water must be controlled because excess chlorine will cause poultry to lower their water consumption. Use of an iodine-base disinfectant to control bacteria in drinking water is effective and provides more residual activity but is usually more expensive than chlorination. Be sure to use only approved chemicals at the recommended rates and ensure that the chemicals are compatible with watering equipment. Also, be sure to remove the disinfectant from the waterers and water lines before using a water vaccine or medication that is incompatible with the disinfectant.

About Author / Additional Info:
Ph.D. Scholar, Livestock Production Management Section