One of the most frequent questions we are asked is "Does air quality really matter that much?" The answer is an overwhelming YES. Air quality really does matter that much, and it's doing a lot more to impact herd/flock health and performance than you might imagine.
Here's my general rule of thumb: If you think it smells bad, chances are it's much worse for your chickens, cows, pigs, etc. In fact, it's actually much worse for you than you might realize as well. According to Alberta.gov, concentrations of 25 ppm of ammonia can cause nose and throat irritation in humans after 10 minutes of exposure. We're lucky though, since we don't often spend nearly much time in our livestock barns as our animals. Imagine what a concentration of 25 ppm of ammonia is doing to your animals that are constantly stuck at that exposure level. In fact, the Oregon OSHA permissible exposure limit for ammonia is 25 ppm as an eight-hour time-weighted average. We set these limits for humans, but we don't always set them for our animals.
The Alberta Government's website also states "Typical ammonia levels in well-ventilated, environmentally regulated buildings are 10 to 20 ppm with liquid manure systems and 50 ppm where manure and urine are deposited on solid floors. Levels can exceed 50 ppm with lower winter ventilation rates and reach 100 to 200 ppm in poorly ventilated buildings. High levels of ammonia are found particularly in solid manure systems." As you can tell, it's very easy to get ammonia levels above 25 ppm when the ventilation system doesn't function properly, or even sometimes when it does but the weather isn't cooperating.
Poultry's threshold for ammonia is 10 ppm. That means anytime we go above that level, we're doing damage to their respiratory systems. At 25 ppm, we're over double what the birds can handle on their own. To our pastured or organic producers, you would be astounded at the number of times that air flow still isn't good enough and we're still seeing these higher ammonia concentrations even outdoors. So please don't think this is a one-sided argument. The problem here though, is our human noses can't detect ammonia unless it's in concentrations higher than 20 ppm. So by the time the concentration of ammonia is high enough to where we realize that it smells and we need to do something, our birds and other livestock have been suffering.
Ever wondered why your poultry flock started pecking at each other? Often times it's due to environmental conditions; one of the biggest being ammonia. (Check out our blog post on poultry pecking here) The same goes for other species as well. Tail biting, feed refusal, increased grouchiness, etc. can all come from being uncomfortable with the air quality.
High ammonia levels will decrease overall respiratory health and function in all animals. What that means for farmers is that production and animal health suffers. Imagine sitting out in your barn, poultry house, or pig shelter all day. Would that be a comfortable experience for you? If not, consider making some changes. There are some simple things you can do.
1) Increase air flow and ventiliation. We're looking for complete air exchange 4-6 times per day, regardless of outdoor temperature. It is more important to have good air flow and quality than it is to keep that temperature absolutely perfect. Cows perform best around 60 degrees F, and while adult layers do need it somewhat warmer, they don't need to much above 75 degrees F. Your brooder with your baby chicks does need to be warm (90-95 degrees F for that first week) but air quality is still key. So make sure you're getting that air exchange in there, just make sure it's above chick level so you aren't chilling your birds. Ventilation systems can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them. Everything from fans to vents to cupolas and beyond work very well. Need ideas? Just ask us. We are happy to help come up with something that will work for your sitation and budget.
2) Remember humidity. In the summer time, everyone thinks about humidity regardless of where you live. In the winter however, we often find that our farmers are seeing condensation on windows and drips from equipment in the barn but they aren't registering that what they're really seeing is too much humidity. Too much of that very moist humid air can cause respiratory issues, so it's very important that while you are successfully keeping your livestock warm during the winter months, you aren't keeping them so enclosed that the air isn't moving.
3) Buy an ammonia meter. This can be anything from the disposible test strips to an actual meter. Knowing what your baseline ammonia levels are allows you to determine where you need to make some management changes.
Trust us, if you improve your air quality, you're improving herd/flock health and performance. Meaning you'll see better production and this will translate to more success, all by making simple changes to your air quality.
Have comments or questions? Ask away in the comments below!
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Written by Casey Trinkaus
Casey is a Livestock & Poultry Specialist with The Fertrell Company. She specializes in poultry and swine and has a love for turkeys like no other.