Animals benefit from adding acids to the drinking water

Published on: 8/7/2006
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Water is one of the most important feed ingredients in the diet. Clean water improves the animal’s performance and acidifying drinking water may even suppress bacteria that have a negative influence on performance. But there’s more to acidifying the water than just adding a simple acid.

By Ing. Pascal Philipsen, technical-marketing manager
Impextraco, Belgium

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 temperatures rise. Furthermore, farm animals face critical periods (weaning, stress, etc…) when their feed intake is reduced.

Treating water can therefore be a good way to improve performances of animals, 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.


Under normal circumstances, inorganic and organic components will deposit on surfaces inside the water pipeline. This will promote the growth of naturally occurring microorganisms and result in the so-called“biofilm”. Biofilms are defined as ‘matrix-enclosing microbial populations with adherent 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 via 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 AGP’s (Antibacterial Growth Promoters) and 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 and young chicken or pigs, or and high productive animals like breeders or layers, is helpful to ensure a well balanced flora in the digestive tract, especially when their feed intake in disturbed.

Sanitizing is not enough

Regularly cleaning and sanitizing 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/gut microbial flora.

Critical periods in a young animal’s life; falling short in maintaining a sufficient feed intake:

Baby chick

• First days…. Very susceptible to environmental influences (from yolk to solid feed)

• Pre transport feed withdrawal

• Mycotoxicosis

• After vaccination

• Feed transitions

• Heat stress

• Bacterial and viral infections


• Moving from pen to pen (maternity unit > battery unit > finisher unit

• Post weaning period

• Digestive disorders like diarrhoea

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 microorganisms.

Incorrect acidifying

The benefits of organic acids in feed are proven. They are today recognized as one of the best alternatives to AGP’s. 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 digestive tract, 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.

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. To increase the buffer capacity of the water we formulated a mixture of organic acids, combined with plant extracts (Acidal ML). The effect of buffering is reflected in Figure 1.

When using acidifiers in drinking water, the target acidity, as a general rule, is pH 4. This is because at this pH, pathogenic bacteria cannot develop and water intake is not yet
impaired. But animal producers who only take into account this pH target level 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. Mostly these water-enriched layers (=slime) 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 bioflim 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.

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

Positive effect on performance

Organic acids have their own pKa-value. The pKa value equals to the pH value at which 50% of the organic acid is dissociated and 50% 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 the development of our drinking water supplement range we 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, antimicrobial 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, the acidic combination was used from 1 to 7 days old and 43 to 55 days old. The dosage was 1 litre for 1000 litres of water (0.1%). 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 the acid mix was more obvious. Over the whole period, birds from the group given Acidal ML in the drinking water have shown a better growth and a slightly better feed conversion ratio. The production factor was improved by more than 4%.

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 appears 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, we designed Acidal ML Botanical, a combination of organic acids and plant extracts. The product 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, hepato-protecting and carminative properties.

Herbs and spices are used in human nutrition so why not use them in animal nutrition too?

The benefits of this botanical variant is 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 where the animals build their immunity and develop their skeletal frame. Almost the same counts for newly weaned piglets. Because they need extra support during their new phase of life where almost everything is changed. This is a crucial stage where the animals build up their immunity for the rest of their productive life.

By Ing. Pascal Philipsen, technical-marketing manager Impextraco, Belgium




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