Among the many factors necessary for life, water is an essential nutrient and key to animal health and performance. However, various culprits can conspire to reduce water intake and introduce pathogen risk. One often-overlooked culprit is "biofilm".
Biofilm is an accumulation of microorganisms and organic and inorganic matter bound by extracellular polymer substances. As microorganisms attach and grow on the water's surface, they can form a "slime" that adheres to water pipes and storage tanks. The biofilm itself also provides an environment for microorganisms such as bacteria, mould and yeast to replicate. These contaminants can make their way to drinking nipples, presenting a risk to livestock as pathogenic bacteria can result in diarrhoea and compromised growth. Similarly, yeast and mould in drinking water may interfere with animals' digestion, give water an undesirable taste, odour, colour or texture, and even impact the health of animals. In summary, the consequences of biofilm include pathogen risk, as well as other concerns including decreased water intake, compromised drinking equipment, water flow reduction, clogged drinkers, etc.
While there are many ways to counteract the biofilm, the most used methods are: flushing, hydrogen peroxide, chlorination and acidification. A particularly effective approach is to use a combination of these methods. Flushing should be applied after any treatment is delivered via water (i.e., antibiotics, vaccines, vitamins, etc). Hydrogen peroxide is a very effective method for managing biofilm and is commonly used in between cycles – always followed by flushing. Chlorination is highly effective as a maintenance tool, but its efficacy depends on careful attention to dosing and water pH.
Water acidification with organic acids improves water quality with the added benefit of supporting animal performance and health in two key ways: First, water acidifiers reduce the pH of water to a level below 4; a pH at which many pathogenic bacteria struggle to survive. Second, at stomach level, the undissociated form of organic acids may control gram-negative bacteria that reach the stomach via contaminated feed or faeces intake. Especially for young animals (gastric pH is about 4-5, and mature animals 2-3), organic acids can dissociate in the stomach (as pH is higher than the organic acids pKa (quantitative measure of the strength of an acid in solution; lower the pKa, stronger the acid). It is the equilibrium constant for a chemical reaction), acidifying the gastric content, supporting protein digestion. Pepsin (a protease) is most active at a low pH, and a low pH is required for the efficient digestion of most plant- and animal-derived proteins (other than milk). In addition, an acidic stomach environment also results in control of most pathogens that enter the digestive system through feed and water. With less undigested protein reaching the hindgut (less pathogenic bacteria that thrive on protein, especially to the opportunistic ones as Escherichia coli) and microbial control in the stomach, less pathogenic bacteria in the intestines may result in improved performance and healthier animals.
Water buffer capacity
With any treatment, it is important to understand the mode of action, and this applies to water acidification. Water can be classified according to its buffer capacity/alkalinity; whether it is low, moderate or high. Simply defined, alkalinity is the capability of water to resist pH changes or, in other words, the total amount of bases present in water. Following is a more formal definition: Alkalinity is a measurement of water's buffering capacity or its capability to neutralize acids.
Alkalinity is typically expressed in ppm of CaCO3 (calcium carbonates) equivalents. The bases are derived from limestone or dolomite sources in nature as calcium ions, magnesium ions and carbonates mixed with water. As the calcium and magnesium ions dissolve, they result in water hardness, while carbonates deliver a water's alkalinity. The more carbonates present in water, the higher its buffer capacity. Understanding the buffer capacity makes it possible to determine which type of acidifier (single or blend, buffered or non-buffered) to use in drinking water and equally important, the application rate to recommend.
Buffered or non-buffered and at what dose?
Drinking water acidifiers are increasingly used to effectively reduce drinking water pH, support optimal stomach acidification and digestion, and achieve an optimal gut microbial balance. However, the type of acidifier (single or blend, buffered or non-buffered) and dosage are dependent on the buffer capacity of the water. In water with high buffer capacity (high alkalinity), a higher inclusion rate of acidifier is required to reach the recommended pH of approximately 3.8-4.0 – the range at which pathogenic bacteria struggle to live. For non-buffered or less buffered acidifiers, a lower dosage is required to reach the target pH (this is valid for each type of water).
A blend of acids is an interesting approach when the objective is water acidification and animal effects such as an improvement in digestion, gastrointestinal microbial balance or improved animal performance. Of special importance is achieving proper dosage. Higher amounts of a water acidifier will make more of the acid molecules available in the animal to support desired effects.
The proper application rate of a water acidifier can be determined based on titration analysis of the specific water supplied to the animals. Water titration can be used to determine the inclusion rate of an acidifier based on the alkalinity of water and the target pH. Water titration can be performed by a laboratory or on the farm using specially designed tools. For example, Trouw Nutrition's farm experts employ a tool that includes a photometer and application rate calculator to help recommend a specific inclusion rate for the drinking water acidifier based on the water's alkalinity. The on-farm titration analysis translates the alkalinity value of a water sample to a drinking water acidifier dosage to reach the desired or advised level of pH. This is an easy and straightforward procedure.
Water acidification is an effective method for managing the biofilm, assuring drinking water quality, and supporting animal health. However, careful thought must be applied to buffering capacity, dosage and application protocols to achieve desired effects in water quality and animal performance. Analytical tools can inform the application of blended acids to achieve water quality goals and support animal health on the farm.
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