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Technically speaking: a better idea

Managing intestinal health without in-feed antibiotics - a practical approach

Dr. Delair Bolis, Schering-Plough Animal Health, Portugal
Dr. Luciano Gobbi, Schering-Plough Animal Health, Italy

Controlling intestinal disease without drugs is a growing trend among poultry companies around the world due to public concern about drug residues in food as well as the high level of resistance to some of the in-feed drugs that are still available.

In North America and Western Europe, for instance, more than 10% of poultry production today is achieved without in-feed anticoccidials. The goal is to produce meat without feed additives while maintaining competitive production costs.

On page 6 in this issue, Nutrition Notebook focuses on dietary approaches under the IDEA Program that help ensure intestinal health in birds raised without anticoccidials. The IDEA concept has been successfully used in several countries.

It was designed by Schering-Plough Animal Health Corporation to make the most of nutrition and performance in coccidiosis-vaccinated birds. It seeks to enhance immunity development and reduce intestinal challenges by coccidia and bacteria without the use of drugs. Although nutrition is key to IDEA, so are feeding management and environmental considerations, which are the focus of this article.

Dr. Delair Bolis
Dr. Luciano Gobbi


I  is for Impulse

Coccidiosis vaccination early in life is vital to the success of drug-free production. It improves coccidiosis control and provides performance comparable to that achieved with in-feed anticoccidials. It reduces concern about drug residues in meat, increases feed and slaughter flexibility and revitalizes anticoccidial sensitivity.

Uniform coccidiosis vaccine administration and effective uptake by the bird are essential because they lead to primary immunization of the flock and oocyst recycling, which provide a booster effect. All birds in a flock must start the oocyst cycling process together on day 1 or up to 3 days of age. Birds should also be vaccinated as needed for other diseases such as Marek’s and Newcastle.

Feeding management

Newly hatched chickens need immediate access to solid feed and water to set the stage for good performance later. Birds need to achieve maximum duodenum villi development in the first week and maximum jejunum and ileum villi development during the second week of life after hatching.

If they do not, they will probably have less than optimal digestion and absorption throughout life, evidenced by feed in feces and a high feed conversion.

Feed availability, particularly when chickens are less than 10 to 14 days of age, is crucial. During brooding, maintain normal feeding plates so chickens can easily find and reach feed. This is very important for small chickens, such as those that are the progeny of layers 30 weeks of life or younger.

Chickens less than 10 to 12 days old should have access to supplemental feed dispensers or paper lanes where crumbled feed is distributed daily. This minimizes litter-picking, which results in ingestion of excessive bacteria, viruses and coccidial oocysts. Premature removal of extra feed sources must be gradual and based on the general condition of birds upon their arrival at the farm. The “eye and hand” of the poultry attendant can make the difference between success and failure, since careful consideration must be given to issues such as when to remove supplemental feeder pans, give birds more space or move them to the full house.

Generally, chicks from mothers 30 weeks or younger must have supplementary feeders and drinkers for a longer time than broilers from older hens.

Environmental management

To grow well, brooders require the proper temperature, humidity, ventilation, lighting and litter management.

  • Temperature. Until 14 days of age, chickens need either heating lamps or hot air fans/conveyors positioned within the poultry house.

  • Humidity. During the first 3 to 4 days after placement, relative humidity in the house must be about 60% to 70%.

  • Ventilation. Very low air flow exchanges may be adequate during the first days on the farm say, 0.003 cubic meters/bird/minute but must be gradually increased as chickens grow. The ventilation rate should be increased immediately if ammonia becomes a problem.

  • Lighting. Chickens less than 2 weeks old need bright light (i.e., 18 to 20 lux), which increases bird activity, helps them locate feed and, above all, the “invisible” water supply (nipple drinkers!).

  • Litter management. Generally, litter quality is more important than its vegetal origin. For instance, litter should be free of dust, molds and any toxins. Wood shavings, hull rice or even a mixture of the two to make the litter layer more friable are the best choice if available

D Is for Digestability

Between 3 and 4 weeks of life, birds are challenged by bacteria and coccidia, but their immunity is still not completely developed. Under the IDEA concept, this is the time that producers need to focus on feeding and environmental management that improves digestibility.

Feeding management

Gut mucosa at 3 and 4 weeks is subject to lesions due to histamine and in-feed biogenic amines or toxic ingredients. Intestinal irritation can open the door to second invaders, mainly bacteria. The result can be intestinal dysbacteriosis or intestinal disturbance as well as subclinical necrotic enteritis. Clostridial perfringens types A and C play a major role, but other bacteria can be involved.

Cereals should allow for proper digestibility. High quality feed and an optimal enzyme dosage should be provided. Dietary fat should be of high quality and easily digestible.

Protein levels should be adjusted as needed since excess undigested protein encourages growth of undesirable bacteria.

Soybean meal should not be used as the only protein source; it can lead to excess potassium and reduced digestibility. Synthetic amino acids are preferable. AGP alternatives, such as probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids, betaine, tanines, essential oils and others, can be used.

Environmental management

  • Lighting. After 10 to 14 days of life, light levels must be gradually reduced in intensity (approximately 5 to 7 lux in darkest on-floor areas). Low lighting keeps birds calm, and reduced activity results in better weight and low feed conversions. Do not drop the level of light suddenly so that birds cannot find feed or water.

  • Litter management. Wet litter can result in poor digestion and malabsorption. There is a quantitative correlation between litter moisture and necrotic enteritis.

  • Other considerations. If affordable, consider using a competitive exclusion product to foster a good balance of intestinal microflora and reduce the likelihood of clostridium overgrowth and emergence of conditions such as necrotic enteritis.

E Is for Economy

Producers who have used the management approaches outlined above should have chickens that reach 30 days of age with good intestinal health. Immunity is developed and it’s now time to take advantage of the compensatory gain by moving on to a withdrawal diet sooner than usual.

A Is for Advance

The “A” in IDEA represents the overall program goal of maximizing performance in birds that depend on good immunity for optimal gut function. It also reflects advances made in the areas of intestinal disease management and profitability.



Source: CocciForum Issue No.9, Schering-Plough Animal Health.

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