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How broiler drinker set-up can influence litter quality

chicks drinking from a lubing system

MODERN nipple drinker systems are hygienic, closed systems that allow for automatic water provision, relatively easy vaccination, and little leakage.

But in order to deliver, they must be managed effectively, according to leading drinker manufacturer, Lubing.

See also: A poultry producer’s guide to biofilms in water lines

Getting that management right is one of the best ways to ensure good litter quality and keep pododermatitis to a minimum.

“A fully grown chicken is 66% water – it’s the most important input that we have in our birds,” according to Lubing (UK & Ireland) agricultural director Doug Ramsay.

“We want broilers, regardless of age or size, to have unrestricted access to clean, safe drinking water. We want the right flow rate, minimal wastage, and to offer high welfare.”

Birds Per Nipple and House Specification 

Ideally, new houses should be built with a side slope rather than a drop along the flooring length.

That will avoid a slope in the drinker lines that leads to more water pressure at the far end of drinkers – something that makes water management more difficult.

When specifying a new drinker system, it’s also essential to consider the genetic changes to broilers over the past decades.

Broiler chickens now consume double the volume of water that they did in 1991. They are also processed 20 days younger, meaning they are drinking twice as much water in two-thirds of the time.

In recent years the preference for processors has shifted from maximum weight in the shortest possible time to ensuring that pododermatitis is kept at a minimum. 

This is a key welfare marker and in response to the growing international market for chicken feet.

The Lubing approach is to offer a higher high number of nipples – 10 birds/nipple or less. 

The result is that water pressure does not need to be as high, as there are more drinking stations at which broilers can access water.

With too few nipples available, the weaker birds will be crowded out and not get sufficient water. 

Some will aggressively attack the nipples in frustration, causing splashing that ultimately leads to poor litter.

Houses where there are not enough drinkers will often see unsexed broiler flocks becoming less even at around 18-21 days when cockerels are able to bully the pullets off nipples meaning they get less water.

In most cases, a reduced, or medium-flow nipple is appropriate for growing broilers with a specification that uses a high quantity of nipples.

Column set up 

Water column height is the fine-tune adjustment of water pressure that should be monitored throughout the crop, explains Mr Ramsay. It should not be a case of ‘set and forget’ on day one.

Water column can be changed by about 25cm throughout the flock and, while every house is different, the management guides that genetics firms offer are an excellent place to start when thinking about water pressure versus age.

Start birds off with 10cm of column and increase it as birds grow, as measured from the bottom of the white pipe at the regulator end.


“We need to manage that first nipple to get the right amount of water; otherwise, it won’t have enough. 

“If we start trying to manage the final nipple then there won’t be enough water in most of the line.”

As the flock progresses, the column height is increased, typically to around 32cm, to deliver between 70-100ml/minute.

Nipple Height 

“As far as management is concerned, the most important thing is to get the height right.

“Many broiler producers run their drinkers too low. At Lubing, we encourage users to get brave with drinker height.”

Day-old chicks should start with the bottom of the nipple pin at eye level so that they can identify the water and are drawn to it. 

They are then operating the nipple with the side action.

Lines should then be lifted slightly in the first seven days so that the birds are operating nipples by pushing the bottom pin vertically. 

This effectively doubles the rate at which water flows from the nipple.

Over the first week, the relationship with the drinker system is developed, and the chick will begin to drink using the vertical action that releases more water.

After the first seven days, it’s important to keep birds’ reaching up’ to drinkers. “Birds should be reaching up, but not on their tiptoes. 

The line from the nipple pin down along the bird’s back should be at approximately 60° to the floor.

If the drinker lines are not raised in line with bird growth, the broiler will drink using the side action of the nipple, as opposed to the vertical. 

This will result in splashing water which is detrimental to litter quality and inevitably harms bird welfare.

“We like to lift the drinkers until we see the pullets tiptoeing. We can then lower it a touch if required. 

Drinker height, and water column, adjustments should be part of the broiler producer’s daily routine.”

Using Water Cups to Troubleshoot 

Drinker cups can offer producers flexibility when setting both drinker and column height. The cup should be damp but not hold water. 

Dry cups or moving water can both indicate problems.

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“If water consumption is good, but water cups are holding water, there’s probably too much pressure, so the column should be turned down.

“If there’s too much water in cups and the consumption is poor, the chances are that either the height is too low, or the column is too low. Quite often, it’s both”