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Pigs & Poultry

Taking the plunge

Improving water quality for all pigs has become a principle objective for the UK pig sector because clinical evidence demonstrates it can help reduce disease challenges, improve herd health and productivity and reduce medication use, writes Jane Jordan.

Speaking at a key industry round table on pig health and antibiotic use last summer, president of the Pig Vet Society, Duncan Berkshire, urged pig businesses to prioritise water hygiene and follow the principles used by human health organisations when they tackling widespread disease challenges. Securing a clean supply remains a prerequisite of any human infection control strategy – logic that should be applied to livestock disease management as it would bring equivalent outcomes, he said.


AHDB Pork’s series of ‘Keeping the Balance’ roadshows held throughout winter 2018/19, enforced the ‘clean water’ message. Livestock housing and environmental specialist, Nigel Penlington, presented hard facts about water quality and his observations verified that most herds had mediocre supplies. What’s more, most pig businesses don’t fully understand the economic significance of providing a consistently clean drinking water.

“As an industry we are very good at protecting our water supplies, but the mind set is quite different when it comes to delivering a clean, healthy supply to livestock,” he said.

Low-grade contamination can and does affect herd health and it’s often a contributary factor in persistent disease problems. Many key pathogens, including swine flu, salmonella, strep suis and E. coli, can survive in water for very long periods – some for up to a year in the right conditions (see graph). An inconsistent supply, in terms of quality and volume, can also undermine the measures taken to treat/control ill health as it can compromise the efficacy of any in-water therapy.

“For an industry now choosing to use strategic in-water medication in place of in-feed treatments, this is a vital consideration,” added Mr Penlington.

He also hinted how future legislation might require livestock businesses to demonstrate responsible use of in-water additives, such as sanitisers, vitamins and organic acids. Pig producers that choose to routinely use such products might have to validate efficacy, why they are necessary to safeguard herd health and welfare and that they are not an environmental hazard.

Liquid assets

For new-build and modern, purpose-built premises, the investment in a new water system, including dosing equipment, is around £3 a pig place (excluding labour). However, upgrading facilities on well-established farms that have converted/refurbished buildings, it can be more expensive. Estimates suggest up to £5 a pig place, but cost will depend on unit size, farm layout and how the plumbing connects between buildings. Water pressure and flow rate variability might also present challenges.

With current market uncertainty, many producers seem reluctant to invest, but evidence suggests that these ‘older sites’ could potentially gain more from an H2O upgrade, in terms of herd health, productivity and economic return. Innovation and technology from other industries, and the development of safe, easy-to-use biocides and additives, are beginning to simplify on farm water treatment/management – practical progress that will help producers consistently deliver hygienic supplies to all pigs, indoors and out.

The filters on these nipple drinkers are blocked from silting. These deposits will impair flow rates and affect water delivery to pigs.

Speaking at AHDB’s roadshow, Fieldsman with BQP/ Tulip fieldsman, Mark Jagger has helped explained how practical upgrades have helped BQP’s contract finishing herds stabilise water quality and subsequently reduce medication use and improve pig performance. He said providing cleaner drinking water, at the correct pressure and flow rate at each stage of the production process, has raised water and feed intakes and lifted growth rates on most farms. Mortality rates in the early stages (7–30kg liveweight) have also fallen and experience also shows that outcomes from using in-water medication and acid treatments have also been better when water quality is stabilised.

Producers have also found that introducing routine pipe cleaning and disinfection to end of batch washdown is also helping to minimise health problems and maintain productivity in subsequent consignment of pigs.

“Achieving a consistently good quality water supply is challenging, and we’re still learning as no single solution suits every farm. You must evaluate each system individually, determine what you want to achieve and see if it’s practical. We’ve found sanitising water and using organic acids in the drinking supply works well and suits our system,” he explained.

BQP units use Huwa San to clean and flush all pipework and header tanks. The approved biocide is added to waterlines at recommended concentrations using an automatic, in-line doser (Dostaron or Select Doser). The sanitiser can also be safely administered to the pigs’ drinking water at a low concentration throughout the production period to protect it from bacterial contaminants and biofilm build-up.

Hassle-free and high-tech

Producers wanting hassle-free water management might find the Merlin package from Contended Products a cost-effective option. This innovative, self-contained water purification system suits indoor and outdoor sites and offers sophisticated control without daily ‘hands-on’ management.

Merlin comes as a package which includes all equipment and associated services for a monthly fee, so no capital investment is required. Producers simply buy into a bespoke bundle which provides the high-tech water analysis/treatment plus all the required biocides, stabilisers and organic acids needed to consistently deliver hygienic, good quality drinking water to every pig on the farm, 24/7. Brenntag products are recommended for Merlin (Clorious-2 for sanitising and Neubacid-SM an organic acid), which are Defra and FEMAS approved and comply fully with Red Tractor/RSPCA assurance standards.

The treatment plant is housed inside a small steel container which is delivered direct the farm or bore whole site. The kit is simply ‘plumbed in’ and once set up, will automatically purify/treat the water to ensure optimum quality at all times. It can run on solar and/or mains power or a generator.

Clean Water International (CWI) developed Merlin and operates similar serviced water quality packages in the poultry and food processing industries. Although stockmen/managers are advised to keep a daily check on activities, CWI technicians will manage the process remotely via an internet platform. Real time data is collected on pH, mineral levels, dosing levels/sanitisation and the quality of water being delivered to the pigs. Pressure and flow rates are continually monitored with any faults, such as burst pipes or blockages, triggers an immediate alert. The system also complements Contented’s range of Clean-Water tanks and drinkers, which are already widely used on outdoor herds.

Tom Neat of Contented Products says Merlin makes high-tech water, quality assured water treatment an affordable option for pig producers.

“We must change our mindset about water hygiene if we are to reduce further medication use. This technology enables all pig farms, whether they’re indoors or out to deliver consistently clean drinking water to all of their pigs, all of the time,” he explains.

Farms using Merlin report good results with noticeable improvements to pig health and vitality. One 5,000-place free-range finishing site in North Norfolk noted an increase in feed consumption and less scouring in growing pigs once it began purifying and acidifying its water supply. Stockmen said the pigs spent more time around the drinkers and that feed stations required re-filling a day earlier. Another installation on an indoor breed-to-finish unit has recently been completed and initial results look equally promising.

Performance and profit

Water quality is now an integral part of Dutch and Danish pig health programmes and most herds see positive improvements to productivity following the installation of water treatment facilities. 

A report by the EU PiG Innovation Group highlighted how a sanitised water system on a Danish finishing farm boosted average growth rates by 10% per cent and improved feed efficiency by 3 per cent. The unit, owned and managed by Jens Ole Bladt’s, an EU PiG ambassador, also saw a 1 per cent drop in mortality rate and a 10 per cent reduction in the incidence of colitis/diarrhoea, which brought a subsequent reduction in veterinary/medicine inputs and antibiotic use. Financial analyses also revealed that having cleaner drinking water helped to cut production costs from €1.40 to €1.36/kg.

Dutch producer Rene Weijs runs a 3,200-place finishing unit at Veulen. The farm installed an intricate, computer-controlled and monitored water filtration and treatment plant two years ago as part of a health programme to control persistent ileitis. Dutch legislation meant in-feed medication was no longer an option. The facility delivers sanitised, fresh water to every pen and can strategically medicate individual rooms and pens if required.

The farm’s water comes from a borehole and samples taken before the filtration system was installed showed variable quality. High bacterial concentrations were also found in the pipelines, which suggested biofilm build up and perpetual reinfection. When the lines were cleaned/replaced and then re-fuelled with sanitised drinking water, Rene says pigs’ fluid and feed intake increased considerably and ileitis waned.

As part of the upgrade the business also installed a comprehensive a network of colour-coded water lines which deliver fresh (blue), acidified (red) and vitamin/mineral supplemented (green) water to every pen. Individual groups of pigs can also be strategically dosed with nutritional/health supplements or medication when required.

Antibiotic (AB) use has fallen significantly on this farm since the water treatment plant was installed. Annual usage is now below 4 Defined Daily Doses per Animal (DDDA), which is attributed to the high sanitary standards achieved and the routine use of in-water acids/gut conditioners. Growth rate averages between 850–900g a day with an FCR of 2.35 from 27–110 kg (liveweight).


Innovation and collaboration in line with market demands

Suffolk-based Rattlerow Farms is it at the forefront of British pig production, it says. The family-owned breeding and genetics company, now in its 66th year, was named NPA AIG Member of the year last year – an award voted for by producers and the allied trade.

Rattlerow’s core business is pig genetics, but is also shaping its activities in line with market demands. “UK pig production is evolving and there’s opportunities at many different levels,” says general manager Robin Lawson.

The company has forged partnerships with integrators, including Karro and Cranswick, to manage their in-house breeding programmes. It’s also invested in an independent AI business – Klasse AI – which launched in 2016 and brought significant change to the UK’s porcine AI business.

Klasse works collaboratively with breeders from UK, Europe and the US, to offer all pig businesses, not only Rattlerow customers, a wide selection of elite, world class genetics from ‘under one roof’ – a strategy that has proved highly successful and kept sales growing, year-on-year.

“Producers like the convenience of being able to obtain all AI requirements from one place. This collaborative ethos is also improving the quality and efficiency of AI services delivered to UK farms and helping maintain continued investment in new technology,” adds Robin.


A £750,000 expansion programme was completed last year, plus investment in new genetic lines. The EBX terminal sire, developed by Choice Genetics in Iowa, is the latest addition, and is claimed to be one of the fastest-growing boars in the world. Progeny are lean, with exceptional carcase qualities, so there’s a strong demand for these genetics in the UK.

Contract opportunities

Elsewhere, Rattlerow’s practical, innovative approach to pig farming continues to influence commercial production. The company farms 800ha of arable land, runs 4,000 commercial sows and is currently producing some 3,000 bacon pigs a week. Rising productivity means it seeking more contract finishing places.

“We offer third-party partners a good package and can tailor a contract to fit an existing business or provide the technical expertise required to start up a new venture,” says Robin.

Where possible, Rattlerow aims to standardise its finishing operations – the preference is straw-based, all-in, all-out production that complies with Red Tractor/RSPCA assurance standards.

New-build projects are ideal, and premiums are offered to recognise the benefits that new accommodation can bring to pig health and performance. However, premises that have livestock buildings are equally viable and Rattlerow’s technical design team can supply refurbishment recommendations to optimise efficiency and profit potential.

Contracts are bespoke and specific to match the skills, labour and resources available on a farm. Contractors can choose to take pigs from weaning at four weeks of age (7kgs) or from 25–30kg live weight and rear them on through to slaughter at 110kg. Any training and technical support is provided too and new entrants are usually guided through their first few batches by fieldsman Keith Wiseman.

“There are opportunities for new entrants in pig production and we have a wealth of experience to draw on, a good track record and partnerships that can meet their aspirations. Those that have joined us, have stayed with us and that’s a credible endorsement,” concludes Robin.


40 years of indoor know-how pays dividends for new outdoor unit

After more than 40 years successfully managing indoor pig herds Trevor Short made his first move into outdoor production, setting up a new outdoor unit near Swaffham, Norfolk last year.

The new site (part of MJ and JA Easey, a family business run by brothers Jon and Chris Easey) began serving its first batch of JSR T9 gilts in May but, for Trevor, the process of setting up the new site began much earlier.

“We started laying out and stocking the 32 acre outdoor site in early February and by early summer we were at 1,350 sows – fractionally below the 1,400 sow capacity we had envisaged,” he says.

The new breeding unit supplies 8kg weaners on contract to UK pork processor Karro Food Group for finishing at its Malton site. “It was a significant challenge to ensure we met the supply targets consistently with a young herd of new stock while simultaneously overcoming the extremely hot conditions that we recorded on many days during that summer,” explains Trevor.


Knowing that temperature control is critical to both pig welfare and improved productivity, Trevor felt that the new outdoor housing chosen for the unit was key to its early success.

“Indoor production has always offered a more stabilised environment, which in my opinion is what pigs prefer. Excessive heat or cold is not good and both are much more difficult to control on outdoor units. As a management team it made sense to look at selecting the right type of outdoor sow housing that could minimise the pigs’ exposure to temperature extremes.”

In March 2018 director Jon Easey contacted pig specialist Jamie MacDonald of Cambridgeshire-based Contented Products in order to trial three Aardvark farrowing arks alongside three Armadillo farrowing arks following an initial conversation with their customer Karro Food Group.

“I knew that Karro had successfully trialed the Contented arks on their own outdoor sites as far back as 2016 so we went ahead with our own trial based on their positive feedback. Although we liked both arks the decision was made to go with the Armadillo, mainly due to its higher roof designed for larger sows. After completing the trial I invested in 325 Armadillo arks,” says Jon.

During the summer of 2018 Trevor and his team put the new arks to work. “One of the first observations was that the sows were extremely comfortable, spending a lot of time in the arks on hot days allowing their piglets to suckle longer. Even when outside temperatures were very high, the temperature inside the arks never rose above 25ºC,” he says.

The smooth moulded design has no sharp edges to prevent injuries and there is a plenty of lying space for both the sow and her piglets. “The offset rear window reduces any through draft and provides a useful viewing post for observing sows and piglets. On colder days we saw very little condensation inside the ark so straw stays dry for much longer,” he adds.

“After many years in this industry I know that controlling a pig’s environment is key to maximising productivity. These plastic farrowing arks are certainly helping us to achieve that.”


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