Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production
White Chickens

Electrolytes: The surprising solution to many poultry house problems.

Posted February 11, 2020 by Dr. Ajeet Bishnoi, Regional Manager, South Asia, Middle East and Africa, Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production

Wet litter. Water belly. Leg weakness. Sudden death syndrome. These and other common poultry production problems have one thing in common: They often stem from improper dietary electrolyte balance (dEB) that can be easily corrected by supplementing feed with the right combination of salts.

The relationship between electrolytes in poultry diets is complex and often misunderstood. Yet, proper dEB plays an important role in poultry health and performance, especially when birds are under stress. Ideal dEB levels can help birds overcome fluctuations in health and production that occur during heat stress and solve other issues on the poultry operation, including wet litter problems.

What is dEB?

Dairy nutrition researchers have studied dietary electrolyte balance—referred to as dietary cation anion difference (DCAD) in dairy—for many years. However, dietary electrolyte balance (dEB) is a relatively new concept in poultry nutrition. The dEB level measures these important electrolytes in the poultry diet: Sodium (Na), potassium (K) and chloride (Cl). Na and K are cations, carrying a positive charge. Cl is an anion and carries a negative charge.

The dEB value is used to predict if the diet increases or decreases the bird’s blood buffering capacity. It is expressed in milliequivalents per kilogram (mEq/kg) of feed dry matter. Here is the formula for determining dEB:


dEB recommendations.

Optimal dEB varies by type of operation, environment and weather. Birds have higher dEB demands during hot weather and other stress situations. Figure 1 shows the results of research that shows how deB affects the ability of chickens to cope with high temperatures and humidity.


Figure 1. Effect of dEB on Rectal Temperatures of Broiler Chickens Under Moderately High Ambient Temperatures and Relative Humidities

broiler temps chart

Source: Borges et al. Poultry Science 2003.


Following are recommended dEB values, based on numerous research studies around the world:

  • Broilers: 240 mEq/kg; higher in summer and times of stress
  • Breeders: 200 to 230 mEq/kg
  • Layers: 250 mEq/kg

What happens with improper dEB?

Many issues on the poultry operation trace back to metabolic disorders that can be prevented by keeping dEB at recommended levels. Incorrect dEB can lead to a cascade of problems, including:

  • Poor feed conversion and lower body weight
  • Muscular and leg weakness
  • Increased fecal moisture, leading to poultry wet litter problems
  • Ascites or “water belly”
  • Sudden death syndrome
  • Bone or eggshell quality issues

The longer dEB stays below optimal levels, the more serious the impact on the birds and on the operation.

Managing dEB for best results.

If the diet does not deliver proper dEB for optimal poultry performance, the best way to correct it is through feed supplementation. Water electrolyte therapy in birds helps increase water intake but does not achieve the dEB correction that is possible only by supplementing the feed. 

The first step is to analyze your feeds and incorporate the proper salts to reach the correct dEB in the ration.

Strong anions and cation salts (Examples: Sodium sulfate, sodium chloride, potassium sulfate and potassium chloride) result in neutral salts but do not produce the benefit of increased dEB. A better way to increase dEB is to feed a combination of strong cation and weak anion. (Examples: Sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate sesquihydrate [K2CO3•1.5H20], optimal for prevention of ration heating and protection of chelates in the diet).

Research with broilers shows that the proper dEB results in higher weight gain and more efficient feed conversion. Another study shows improved performance and lower mortality in the face of coccidiosis challenges. In layers, research shows improved eggshell quality and overall egg production with proper dEB. (Figure 2.)


Figure 2. Effect of dEB on Egg Production in Laying Hens

Layer Data Chart

Source: Gezen, et al. Revue Med. Vet. 2005


Finding your balance.

Understanding and managing dEB are important to maximize poultry performance and productivity. Consult with your nutritionist to learn more on how to achieve optimal dEB. By selecting the right salts, poultry managers can correct dEB and solve many costly poultry house problems.

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