Monitoring pigs' water intake could be the difference between spotting health problems early and missing the signs until catastrophe strikes.

“Water is a very good tool to get someone into the barn and looking at the pigs,” says Mike Brumm, Brumm Swine Consultancy, Inc., North Mankato, MN. “It becomes an early signal when something isn't right.”

Meters measure the positive flow of water cumulatively, like a car odometer measures total miles, he says.

Brumm offers a couple of tips for obtaining accurate water use readings:

  • Be sure to take the readings at the same time each day so the prior day's reading can be subtracted from the current total to determine the daily consumption, he says.

  • To be effective in monitoring pigs' water intake, meters should measure only water going to drinkers, not to the office, cooling system, etc.

A decline in water consumption for three days or a sudden decrease of 30% or more tells operators something is wrong. “Go find out what it is,” says Brumm.

Monitoring water intake is especially helpful for workers who are new to caring for pigs. “With the host of barns built in the last two years, we have a lot of people with little experience taking care of pigs, so we need some tools to help them,” he continues.

Just jotting down meter readings may not provide strong enough clues when something is wrong. “We are a visual society, and we are not used to looking at columns of numbers,” Brumm says. Instead, he recommends using a chart that tracks water intake over time.

Several companies, including Herdstar, AP (Automated Production Systems), Val-Co or Dicam USA, provide automatic water charting as part of their electronic monitoring or environmental control systems. Those systems are tied in with barn water meters so readings are done automatically at a pre-set time each day. Brumm says this eliminates a possible monitoring problem when meters are read at inconsistent times. The information is then fed into a database, either on location or via the Internet, to a computer that creates the chart (see Figure 1). Installation fees or monthly user fees vary.

Another option for creating a water usage chart is a free, downloadable spreadsheet available at www.porkcentral.unl.edu. Brumm and Iowa State University Extension Specialist Mark Storlie developed the spreadsheet so an operator can simply input the daily meter readings to produce a chart.

When pigs are learning to drink or when barns are partially filled, water flow velocity is lower and meters may not give accurate readings, Brumm cautions.

Polymer water meters cost less than $100, while most alloy models are $200-300, he says.

Consulting swine veterinarian Joe Connor at the Carthage Veterinary Service, Ltd. Carthage, IL, agrees that water meters can provide an inexpensive, yet highly effective way to catch illnesses early.

“The good thing about water is that 24 to 48 hours before massive clinical outbreaks, you'll see a drop in intake,” he explains. “Charting makes it simpler to pick up changes visually.”

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Caretakers Confirm Value

Verlan Van Wyk, who manages 50,000 finishing pig spaces in Iowa for Synergy LLC, instructs pig caretakers to record water meter readings first thing every morning.

“We get 100% compliance because the caretakers have learned it helps them know how detailed they need to be when they look at pigs,” comments Van Wyk. A reduction in water intake is a heads-up to pay extra attention to emerging symptoms, such as reduced activity or coughing, he adds.

Experience has shown Van Wyk that a sudden, 20-30% drop in water intake often means swine influenza has taken hold. And, he has even pinpointed the strain of flu that usually strikes.

“H3N2 is what we see the most when we get sudden drops in intakes, and we've backed that up through tissue samples,” he says.

Synergy pigs are free of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and Mycoplasmal pneumonia, which Van Wyk says makes it easier for him to draw conclusions about disease outbreaks compared to herds with a lower basic health status.

When a flu outbreak is suspected, Van Wyk has caretakers give pigs aspirin via water for three days. “Flu is a virus, so all we are doing is trying to suppress the symptoms,” he says. “We want the pigs to feel better so they can get back to what they are supposed to be doing - eating and drinking.”

Synergy is using AP's system at a 4,800-head site to monitor temperature, humidity, water and feed use every hour.

“We are looking at how temperature and humidity affect water and feed intake,” says Van Wyk.

Words of Caution

Brumm cautions that experience is still needed, even with charts to determine whether declining water intakes are due to health problems or other factors, such as environmental changes or interruptions in feed delivery that could cause shifts in drinking patterns.

“At this point, we don't have any type of software that will automatically recognize a problem. There is still judgment involved,” he says.

Bob Baarsch, of Herdstar, says that “noise” in water data from various factors, such as fluctuating environmental temperatures, changes in diet, out-of-feed events, changes in pig inventory or water wastage, makes it difficult to make decisions based on water meter readings alone. He says other data, like temperature, feed consumption and death loss are also important for monitoring purposes.

“If you are going to use water to monitor health in a barn, it is helpful, but it is not a panacea. There are many important things that are going to happen in that barn that you will not see clearly in just water data.”

Water metering isn't perfect, admits Brumm. “But it is one more tool to better care for our pigs.”