Switching drinkers has dramatic effect on Alberta hog operation.

Dennis McKerracher of High River, Alberta, expected water savings when he embarked on a one-year study to monitor water usage vs. consumption using different drinkers on his 3,000 head, all-in, all-out grower operation. He didn't expect the trial would lead to a new barn management style.

Switching drinkers from the standard nipple drinkers to a ball-bite model had a dramatic impact on his operation. Benefits included reduced energy consumption, less manure volume and handling costs, medication savings and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The reason for these savings is simple — the ball-bite drinkers force the pig to hold the whole valve in its mouth and bite down to release water. And, to get the best drink, pigs have to approach the ball drinker straight on. When they do both, pigs spill less water into the pit.

On-Farm Trials

McKerracher tracked six batches of 500 pigs over the course of a year. Equal numbers of barrows and gilts were placed in two groups, one using the ball-bite drinkers and the other using standard nipple drinkers, which served as the “control” group. Pigs were weighed coming into and going out of the barn.

The scale confirmed their visual observations — both groups posted the same weight gains. The only difference between the groups was that the ball-bite drinker groups used significantly less water than the control group.

Over the course of the year-long trial, the ball-bite drinker groups used 35,174 gal. less water than the control group using standard nipple drinkers, a 35% reduction.

Water Use Aids Troubleshooting

McKerracher installed a water meter, to determine exactly how much water entered and exited the building, and a pulse meter, a graduated water monitor, to measure precisely how much water the animals consumed. With time, he realized that the animals' water consumption levels were extremely revealing, and he began using the readings as a diagnostic tool.

“It's allowed us to react to things quicker,” explains McKerracher. “For instance, if you see a spike or a decrease in water use that can't be explained by the weather, you investigate. Are the pigs not feeling quite right? Has there been a change in the feed, in the ingredients, in particle size?

“You could never tell right away unless you were a really good hog person. But I could tell by the daily (water) consumption numbers when the bin was almost empty. With low-density feed, hogs don't eat as much and water consumption goes down. This could really cost you in average daily gains.”

Knowing exactly how much water your pigs consume also helps when using a water medicator to prepare a vitamin electrolyte or when administering antibiotics, adds McKerracher. “If you assume that the pigs are drinking four litres when they're only drinking 2½ litres, it's like taking a half an aspirin; it doesn't work.”

Lower Flow Rates

McKerracher says he was concerned at first because the flow rate was at least 20% below what literature recommends for a grower pig.

“We started the trial and, on Day 2 and Day 3, I was panicking because the difference was so large between the two groups,” he explains. “I thought something must be wrong. I was going to stop the trial right there because I thought they could not be getting enough water.

“I phoned an agricultural engineer and told him what the flow rates were and he said, ‘well, look at the pigs’. They looked fine. I got a neighbor over who doesn't look at pigs very often and asked, ‘Do you see a difference between group A and group B?’ He said ‘no.’ Since I could tell that there was no negative effect on feed usage, we continued.”

Dollars and Sense

The George Morris Centre, a Canadian independent agri-food think tank, studied the financial and non-financial benefits of installing ball-bite water drinkers and confirmed McKerracher's initial assessment. Not only do the reduced manure volumes and energy use offset the extra cost of converting his entire operation to ball-bite drinkers, it also translates into an increase in annual net income.

“It's more than economically sustainable. It makes you money,” reports Cher Brethour, senior research associate, and Beth Sparling, research associate.

Their findings estimated the payback period to be approximately 3.5 months.

“From a straight economic standpoint, it offers a great return on investment,” says Brethour. “The initial cost for the purchase of the Aqua-globe ball-bite drinkers (USD $11.14, in Canada) is higher than for standard drinkers (USD $6.10). However, the reduction of energy costs for pumping water, the decreased manure volume and, therefore, handling costs, more than offsets the capital cost of the drinkers. As a result, a USD $409 investment would likely turn into an increase in annual net income of USD $1,400.”

The ball-bite drinkers are available from Farmer Boy Ag Supply, Myerstown, PA (800-845-3374); www.farmerboyag.com. Price per drinker ranges from USD $8.14 for the piglet ½-in. piglet size to USD $8.56 for the ½-in. finisher size,

Sparling suggests another way to illustrate the financial benefits is to buy six or eight pigs less in the next batch, invest the USD $450 to install ball-bite drinkers for 500 pigs, and enjoy tripling your money in less than a year.

“It is highly unlikely that the six or eight pigs would give you the same rate of return,” explains Sparling. “Besides, these drinkers are sturdier than conventional nipple drinkers and won't need replacing as often.”

The researchers' analysis was based on an operation with 500 pigs/cycle using a ball-bite drinker for every 15 pigs. Brethour suggests that the financial results can easily be extrapolated for grower and finishing operations of different sizes, but points out that the cost would be higher for operations with sows, as each would require a drinker.

Reduced Emissions

McKerracher was concerned that the reduced water use might impact the consistency of the manure, and wondered if it would affect the flow rate. His custom applicator hasn't indicated any such problem.

In 2004, the McKerracher operation generated approximately 200,000 gal. of liquid manure, which would have dropped to 130,000 gal. had the whole barn been retrofitted with ball-bite nipple drinkers.

To project the reductions for larger operations, the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) applied the same reduction in manure volume (34.8%) achieved on the McKerracher farm to evaluate the impact ball-bite drinkers would have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for a 2,000-head finisher barn.

Using a 6.2 lb. carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent provided by Climate Change Central, the results indicated that the model barn could reduce GHG emissions by 1.32 tons of CO2 equivalent on an annual basis.

“I have yet to find any disadvantages to using ball-bite drinkers,” says McKerracher, who is busy testing another brand on the market. “It has a greater flow rate than the Swedish-made Aqua-globe drinker I used during the trial. It's too early for me to give any quantitative numbers, but so far, I can't tell the difference.”

Figure 1. Overall Reductions for a 2000-head Finisher Barn
Standard Drinker Ball-bite Drinker
Manure volume (gallons) 1,000,000 650,000
Gallons moved/hour 50,000 50,000
Engine hours/unit required for:
120-hp. agitation unit 20 13
120-hp. stationary pumping unit 20 13
120-hp. injection unit 20 13
Average diesel fuel consumption (liter/hour)*: 20 20
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions** 7,222.34 lb. CO2 equivalent
3.64 tons CO2 equivalent
4,693.64 lb. CO2 equivalent
2.3 tons CO2 equivalent
* Average diesel fuel consumption/hour is based on statistics from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (2001). Average diesel fuel consumption/hour is based on the operation of the tractors at full throttle and estimates represent maximum amounts of GHG emissions.
** Estimated reduction in GHG emissions due to technology: 13.2 tons CO2 equivalent
Source: George Morris Centre and Canadian Pork Council, 2006.