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Animal Health

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Livestock Production
Thursday, September 8, 2005 11:30:00 PM
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Acidifying the drinking water supports the animal's performance

Ing. P.L.J. Philipsen




We sometimes tend to forget that drinking water has a large impact on the health status and performance of farm animals. Water is indeed the most important nutrient and healthy animals drink twice as much water than they eat solid feed. Water intake is even higher when temperature rises. Furthermore, farm animals face critical periods such as during weaning or stress when their feed intake is reduced.


Treating water can therefore be a good way to improve animal performance, quickly treat diseases, or improve litter quality. It is of course crucial to use the right product(s) with an appropriate protocol. When developing products based on organic acids for application in the drinking water, specific requirements must be taken into account. This article describes and emphasises the importance of correct drinking water treatment.



Decreased intake of health enhancers during critical periods


Under normal circumstances, inorganic and organic components will deposit on surfaces inside the pipeline. This will promote growth of naturally-occurring micro-organisms and result in the so-called "biofilm¡¡À. Biofilms are defined as matrix-enclosing microbial populations with adherence to surfaces of interfaces. This definition includes microbial aggregates and floccules, and also adherent populations within the pore spaces of porous media. Biofilm is formed when bacteria adhere to surfaces in aqueous environments and begin to excrete a slimy, glue-like substance that can anchor them to all kinds of material. The buildup of biofilm is accelerated when vitamins and medications are administered through the water line, because their sugar based carriers become ideal substrates for microbes to proliferate. As a result, the drinking water is often a source of contamination to the animals.


On the other hand, when feed consumption is depressed because of stress, or during the feed withdrawal prior to transport to the slaughterhouse, the intake of in-feed health enhancers such as AGPs (Antibacterial Growth Promoters), and of organic acids is reduced. The animals must then cope with a high bacterial load with little or no support, which results in digestive disorders and impaired performance.


Therefore, treating the drinking water of fast growing animals such as broilers, or high productive animals such as breeders or layers, is helpful to ensure a well balanced flora in the digestive tract, especially when their feed intake is disturbed. 


Critical periods in a bird's life; falling short in maintaining a sufficient feed intake:





Sanitising is not enough


Regularly cleaning and sanitising the drinking water is one method to prevent contamination. But it has limitations.


Disinfectants based on chlorine and hydrogen peroxide are the most commonly used. But they are only effective at a high dosage and preferably not during production.


Chlorides do not work efficiently when pH is too high (above 8.5). Also, these disinfectants react with the organic pollution present in the water line and loose their efficacy. The consequence is that the effective dosage of such products is often too toxic and/or negatively influences the crop or gut microbial flora.


Another recommendation is to remove the biofilm by increasing the pressure in the waterline. But in many cases, the mineral deposit in the biofilm remains after flushing, leaving a shelter for micro-organisms.



The effects of incorrect acidifying


The benefits of organic acids in feed are proven. They are today recognised as one of the best alternatives to AGPs.


But what if animals eat less? They can also be delivered in the drinking water. Indeed, adding organic acids to the drinking water allows killing bacteria in the waterline and, at the same time, killing bacteria in the crop or proventiculus, increasing digestibility of proteins, stimulating the growth of lactobacilli in the crop and regulating the microflora in the gut. In order to get all these benefits, it is important to use a well-formulated combination of organic acids and salts. Otherwise, it can do more harm than bring the expected benefits. In this respect, it is important to know that single organic acids can create severe problems in the waterline, as shown in Table 1.


Table 1: Effect of dosing single acids to the drinking water


Organic Acid 


ml/1,000 l to pH 4

Result in practice

Formic acid


300 - 400 

Low amount active ingredients per 1litre drinking water

Lactic acid


1,000 - 1,200

Slime-blocked nipples

Acetic acid 80 percent


2,600 - 2,800

Slime / bad taste; reduced water intake

Cooking vinegar



This dosage is never applied*

Propionic acid


3,000 - 3,300

Slime/ bad taste; reduced water intake




reduced water intake


* The active components in cooking vinegar are diluted. A low dosage of vinegar will give slime and a high dosage to get pH 4 will decrease water intake drastically.



Safety through buffering


Compared to feed which usually has a rather high buffer capacity (due to protein sources and minerals), water has a very small buffering effect. The only parameter which can have an effect is the hardness of water. Therefore, when applying single acids in drinking water, the pH decreases quickly. If the dosage is too high, it can be fatal to the birds. One should also know that single acids, especially propionic and formic acids, are corrosive.


Figure 1: Buffering system of Acidal ML: even in demineralised water with increased dosage, the pH  does not drop under pH 3.



When using acidifiers in drinking water, the target acidity, as a general rule, is pH 4. This is because under this pH, pathogenic bacteria cannot develop and water intake is not yet impaired. But animal producers who only take into account this pH target often face problems such as blocked waterlines and nipples due to ¡®slime formation'. This is because using single acids will have an effect on only a limited spectrum of microbes. For example, lactic acid has strong bactericidal effect against E. coli, but only weak activity against Salmonella, moulds and yeasts.


Some microbes produce a diffuse layer around their cell wall in order to protect themselves against disinfectants or acids, and also to provide them with the possibility to attach to surfaces. These water enriched layers (slime) mostly consist of polysaccharides or polypeptides. When applying single acids to the drinking water, these acidophilic bacteria start to produce slime as a direct mechanism of protection. With the slime, the bacteria attach to the biofilm in the pipelines and can easily multiply, thus producing more slime. This causes blocked waterlines and nipples.


A properly formulated combination of acids will offer a broad anti-microbial spectrum. Slime forming bacteria cannot survive Acidal ML.



Positive effect on performance


Organic acids have their own pKa-value. The pKa value equals to the pH value at which 50 percent of the organic acid is dissociated and 50 percent undissociated. If pH is lower than the pKa value, then the undissociated form will be dominant. This undissociated organic acid molecule is the one that has the anti-microbial effect, because it can diffuse through the bacterial cell wall, then dissociate and disturb the electron-balance inside the cell. The right combination of acids with different pKa values results in a synergistic product that always provides undissociated molecules, even at a higher pH.


During development of its drinking water supplement range for Acidal ML, Impextraco in Belgium researched all aspects important for a safe and effective drinking water treatment using natural ingredients without any withdrawal period. Many objectives were taken into account during this development: effect on water intake, stability during storage and on the farm, anti-microbial properties, biodegradability, and of course, a positive effect on performance of poultry and swine.


Table 2 shows performance of a broiler flock (Ross) with and without addition of Acidal ML. In this experiment, Acidal ML was used on broilers from one to seven days old and from 43 to 55 days old. The dosage was 1 litre for 1000 litres of water (0.1 percent). The feed was the same for both treatments and was supplemented with Olaquindox (40 ppm) and zinc bacitracin (50 ppm) for the first 43 days. After that stage (especially during feed transition), the favourable effect of Acidal ML was more obvious. Over the whole period, birds from the group given Acidal ML in the drinking water have shown better growth and a slightly better feed conversion ratio. The production factor was improved by more than 4 percent.


Table 2: Performance of broilers with and without Acidal ML




Acidal ML 


Initial drinking water pH



Number of broilers

12,415 (9.853/m2)

10,346 (9.847/m2)

Weight at seven days (g)



+ 0.00 percent

Final weight at 55 days of age (g)



+ 3.01 percent

Feed consumption (g/bird)



+ 1.82 percent




- 1.27 percent

Production factor (EPEF index)



+ 4.22 percent



Using the power of plant extracts


To enhance the mode of action of organic acids at higher pH (> 5.5), essential oils can be added. However, essential oils do not mix properly with organic acids, and in order to create a homogenous drinking water supplement, emulsifiers are required. Still, when farmers make a pre-solution of this product (diluting with water to get the recommended dosage level), in many cases, the essential oil will float on the surface and appear as an oily layer.


Plant extracts are obtained by maceration of plants or spices. Unlike essential oils, plant extracts can be mixed homogenously with acids without the risk of separating in two different phases. With this type of preparation, real extract of plants, still active after long storage times, are obtained. Building further on the proven synergistic effect of essential oils and organic acids, Impextraco designed Acidal ML Botanical, a combination of organic acids and plant extracts. Acidal ML Botanical contains a combination of wintergreen, peppermint, milk thistle, thyme and common juniper extracts.


Chemical components in the plant extracts show anti-bacterial effect, but also have immunostimulating, anti-oxidative, hepatoprotecting and carminative properties.


The benefits of Acidal ML Botanical are especially interesting in young birds. Because they are born with a sterile intestinal tract, they need extra support during their starting period. This is a crucial stage when the animals build their immunity and develop their skeletal frame.


With its Acidal ML range, Impextraco offers new solutions to poultry producers. They can now take advantage of benefits from the combination of different organic acids, together with plant extracts, improve their technical results, and also enjoy economical benefits.


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