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COCCI People: Safety Net

Coccidiosis vaccination helps Martini Alimentare market birds with confidence and flexibility.

Longoni: ‘Food
safety has to be our first priority’.

For Dr. Corrado Longoni, choosing the right product for coccidiosis management goes beyond disease control and bird performance. Food safety is his highest priority.

“I have two babies at home,” says the poultry veterinarian for Martini Alimentare, Longiano, Italy, a major poultry company located in the northeastern part of the country, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Bologna.

“When I go down to our company slaughterhouse to buy chicken for my family, I do it with confidence becauseI know our product is safe and free of drug residues. Food safety has to be our first priority — for us, for our customers and for the image of the poultry industry.”

It’s hard to argue with Longoni’s logic, but producing and marketing residue-free poultry hasn’t always been easy — especially when using medicated feeds to control coccidiosis.

While these treatments are approved by regulatory authorities, synthetic anticoccidials and ionophores — a group of feed antibiotics used routinely for coccidiosis control — generally have withdrawal times of at least 5 days.

In theory, that’s not a big deal for a poultry company marketing entire houses at the same time. But for a company like Martini, which markets 24 million birds a year at various stages in the growth cycle, the withdrawal times of in-feed anticoccidials can present logistical challenges.

Thinning out broilers

In Europe, many operations start thinning out their broiler flocks after 32 days, selling the lighter, less efficient females at different weights — usually 1.7 to 2.4 kg (3.75 to 5.29 pounds) — to meet the demand for smaller birds. They retain the leaner, faster growing, large-breasted males for chicken parts and high-volume commercial sale later in the production cycle.

Practically speaking, it’s difficult to withdraw feed medication from only a portion of the flock because it would leave other females — or, depending on the number of feed lines, the entire house — vulnerable to a costly coccidiosis outbreak.

On the other hand, if the birds are kept on medication until flocks are thinned, there’s a greater risk of birds entering the food chain prior to the drug’s withdrawal time. That can lead to significant penalties, while damaging the image of the company and the poultry industry.

Amedi: ‘It’s important for us to remain flexible.’
Martini keeps males and females in the same house but in separate areas. Females are typically thinned out at 35, 42 and 46 days, while the males are slaughtered at 54 to 56 days, usually at 3.5 kg (7.72 pounds).

“Sometimes you need more heavy birds or more lighter birds — it depends on market conditions,” says Giorgio Amedei, live production manager. “That’s why it’s so important for us to remain flexible.

“If we used an anticoccidial in the feed, it would mean having two or three withdrawal periods, which would be very difficult to manage. To play it safe, we had to pull the anticoccidial from the feed at 30 days, which is a long time to go without coccidiosis protection.”

‘Can’t take the risk’

Feed mill contamination is another concern when using in-feed anticoccidials. Unless the mill’s lines are flushed after each usage — a process that saps extra time and labor — it’s possible for drugs used in one batch to show up in feeds for other birds or other species.

“Like other producers, we need to be careful because we do not have a feed mill specifically for broiler feeds,” Longoni explains. “Residues from infeed anticoccidials used in broiler feeds could be toxic to laying hens, breeders or turkeys. We can’t take that risk, nor do we want traces of drugs in our withdrawal feed for broilers.”

Vandi: ‘Manage the problem in a nutritional way’

Martini was also concerned about wearing out the few in-feed anticoccidials that were still on the market. “We have only two chemicals and three or four ionophores we can use, and we are not sure how much longer those products will be available,” Amedei says. “And without nicarbazin, the ionophores are also less effective.”

Martini, which is also Italy’s second largest feed company, has found a practical solution to all of these feedrelated concerns in poultry: coccidiosis vaccination. By vaccinating day-old birds in the hatchery with Paracox-5 — some 208,000 chicks per week — the company can forget about using in-feed anticoccidials altogether.

The vaccine is administered by a specially designed spray cabinet, which showers up to 100 chicks at a time with the vaccine. A red dye in the vaccine provides a quick visual indicator that all chicks were vaccinated.The dye also encourages preening among the chicks, which helps to ensure even better distribution of the vaccine.

“The big difference is that the vaccine provides lifelong protection,” Longoni says, “and we no longer have to worry about withdrawal times when we do our thinnings. The vaccine has given us a lot of flexibility without compromising performance or profitability.”

While the vaccine costs more to use than most feed medications, the increase is easily offset by reduced labor in the feed mill and greater marketing flexibility thanks to no withdrawal times.

“There are a lot of hidden, indirect costs associated with using an in-feed anticoccidial,” says Luc Vandi, poultry nutritionist. “For example, you’ll have some feed in the silo with the anticoccidial that you have to take out and bring to another farm. So you can’t just compare the price of the vaccine to drugs. You have to look at the big picture.”

Going drug-free

Martini began vaccinating a portion of its broilers in 2000, when Paracox-5 was approved for use in Europe. The company was confident it would be a good product because it had success with Paracox-8 in breeders.

“But broilers are different and, obviously, have a much shorter life cycle,” Longoni says. “We wanted to experiment with it first.”

What started as a few experimental trials gradually spread to entire farms. As the company obtained more experience with the product under different conditions, it extended usage to other farms.

“We had to manage a few coccidiosis outbreaks in the beginning, but those disappeared in the second flock,” Longoni recalls. “In fact, we found that the vaccine and the birds performed better with each successive flock.”

By 2003, Martini was vaccinating all of its broilers with Paracox-5, thus eliminating all in-feed anticoccidials from its program. The antibiotic growth promoter avilomycin is the only medication used today in broilers, but Martini expects to eliminate all drugs as more feed medications are removed from the market.

Focusing on management

Between vaccinating for coccidiosis and getting ready for the expected ban on all feed medications, Martini is focusing more on good management and looking for ways to naturally improve the immunity of the birds.

“All our efforts are devoted to young chicken management, especially during the brooding period,” Longoni says. “We pay particular attention to what we offer them as a daily feed, and our nutritionist is constantly looking at new formulas and possible alternatives to antibiotic growth promoters.”

After Martini stopped using ionophores, there was some concern that necrotic enteritis might become more prevalent, but the company has not seen any significant problems.

“We know that ionophores are very effective against enteritis, but we can’t use them in our system,” Vandi says. “Our goal is to manage the problem in a nutritional way, using a less concentrated feed in the first phase to cause less stress on the intestines and have compensatory growth in the second period.”

For example: With animal proteins not permitted in European feeds, soybean meal is the only protein source available. “The key is to use a high quality soybean meal,” Amedei says. “If you don’t, you have to reach an inclusion rate in the starter diet of 40% or more, which is concentrated but not very digestible.”

Since switching to coccidiosis vaccination, Martini is now in a better position to build its feed program around the nutritional needs of the birds — not the withdrawal times of the medications. That might allow Martini to start feeding lower cost withdrawal feeds at an earlier phase.

“We are also assessing feed distribution, room temperature and humidity, ventilation, lighting, type and quality of litter, and the water supply,” Longoni reports.

“Our goal is to make young chickens as strong as possible with a robust immunity that can fight stress and allow them to reach their full genetic potential — without having to rely on drugs.”

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