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Researchers are pioneering water conservation in poultry farming
By Hayley Lalchand
Ohio Correspondent

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Researchers at the University of Arkansas are tagging in an unlikely player to help mitigate some of the pressures of water scarcity: chickens.
As the calendar turns towards summer and states in the Midwest experience an abundance of rain, it can be easy to forget that our neighbors in the West are experiencing unprecedented wildfires, drought, and water scarcity, heavily impacting farm operations and the quantity and quality of food. Rising temperatures across the nation also contribute to an uptick in water usage as livestock face heat stress. If actions aren’t taken to conserve water, scientists predict that by 2050, water scarcity will determine if there is enough food to feed the growing population.
With water scarcity becoming a pressing issue, Sami Dridi, professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas (UA), and his team became interested in approaching the problem differently by investigating thirst and water consumption in chickens. Dridi said that traditionally, poultry breeders have genetically selected for feed efficiency and high growth rate, traits that produce animals that rapidly gain weight quickly.
“These selections have made spectacular progress, but today, based on climate change, water scarcity will become an issue. We select for feed efficiency, but we never thought about water efficiency,” he said.
Sara Orlowski, associate professor of poultry science at UA, divergently selected birds for high and low water efficiency over five generations. Selecting for high water efficiency means breeding birds whose physiology has been significantly improved to convert food and water to body weight even during heat stress. In other words, water-efficient chickens consume less water, even under heat stress, without compromising their growth.
Typically, poultry exhibit a 2:1 ratio of water to feed, meaning that for every pound of feed the animal intakes, it also intakes two pounds of water. When chickens experience heat stress, the ratio is quadrupled. However, studies by Dridi and his team demonstrated that high water-efficient chickens consumed 1.3 pounds less water and 5.7 ounces less feed compared to chickens not genetically selected for high water efficiency. If a farm has 50,000 birds, this difference would equate to 7,800 fewer gallons of water and 17,800 pounds less feed to grow chickens. Dridi says that because the birds use water more efficiently, their bodies use other resources, like food, more efficiently, too.
Notably, the chickens in the research experiment were offered unlimited water – they simply consumed water more conservatively due to their genetic predisposition to be water efficient. Dridi compares it to humans who water their yard: two neighbors may have the same amount of water available, but one chooses not to water their yard and use water wisely. In contrast, another neighbor may decide to irrigate their yard twice a day.
Additionally, the group has found no difference in meat quality between chickens bred for high water efficiency and those not. Dridi said the team is also working diligently to ensure that the genetic traits selected for in water-efficient birds have no undesired side effects, such as reproductive defects. The team is hopeful that they won’t see any side effects because the birds use what they are given efficiently. 
Next, Walter Bottje, professor of poultry science at UA and Dridi’s collaborator, says the research team is interested in investigating a broad range of genes and proteins to find a specific marker for water-efficient birds. If a particular marker is found, it could be utilized by commercial companies to produce and market water-efficient chickens.
“If we are able to transfer this genetic selection to industry, millions of gallons of water will be saved,” Dridi said.
Bottje added that the group plans to address their research findings at conferences and research days. Dridi thinks the work could be applied to other types of poultry, like quails and ducks, and potentially other livestock, like cows, pigs, and lambs. Ultimately, the team’s goal is to raise awareness about water scarcity in agriculture and to provide one small solution to the problem.
“People haven’t always had the foresight to figure these things out,” Bottje said, explaining the expenses of drilling deeper for water when wells and aquifers have dried up. “There’s going to be a huge increase in water scarcity around the world. It’s already here. We’ve got to do something about it.”