Antibiotic-free Poultry Production

The use of sound management practices, appropriate dietary adjustments and good vaccines and vaccination practices could go a long way in reducing producers’ reliance on antibiotics for disease prevention. GlenneisKrielmeetsDr Jonathan Wright, veterinary services manager at Ceva Animal Health in South Africa.
calendar icon 5 April 2017
clock icon 7 minute read

There is an argument that reducing the widespread use of antibiotics in the poultry industry would have a negative impact on production in terms of growth rate, feed conversion and animal welfare. Dr Jonathan Wright, veterinary services manager at Ceva Animal Health in South Africa, however, feels this wouldn’t necessarily be the case if appropriate dietary adjustments were combined with sound management practices.

“Producers using the ‘Seed, Feed, Weed’ concept in the United Kingdom and United States of America have shown that antibiotic-free production does not always lead to poor growth rates and feed conversion ratios,” explains Dr Wright. “This concept is basically aimed at establishing and maintaining a beneficial microflora in the gut: the ‘Seed’ component requires the use of a probiotic from day one of production. The ‘Feed’ component refers to acidification of the water using organic acids and enzymes, and the ‘Weed’ component mainly refers to the use of essential oils in the feed.”


Producers who were relying on antibiotics to compensate for poor management practices will, however, encounter problems with the Seed, Feed, Weed (SFW) approach. The impact on flock health of withdrawing antibiotics would also depend on exactly how antibiotic-free (ABF) production is interpreted by the farmer. Dr Wright explains that much of the ambiguity centres on certain anticoccidials, which are said to account for about 40-50 per cent of antibiotic use in animals.

“Europe, for example, still allows producers to use ionophore products to prevent coccidiosis,” says Dr Wright, referring to a class of antibiotics commonly used to target coccidia parasites found in the gut, “arguing that it is non-traditional antibiotic and not used in human medicines. In the United States however, ABF production does not allow the use of ionophores at all. Using ionophores makes sense from a welfare and financial point of view, as it is much better for the birds and the producer’s bottom line to prevent coccidiosis than to treat it.”

Misperceptions about antibiotic use in poultry production could also lead to unattainable production requirements. “Consumers are confused over the way in which antibiotics are used in poultry production and the associated risk presented to them,” says Dr Wright. “Most consumers, for example, confuse hormones, which are not used in poultry production, with antibiotics, and they are unaware of the strict guidelines producers follow to produce safe food. In many countries producers are no longer allowed to buy certain antibiotics without a veterinary prescription, which has greatly reduced the risk of antibiotic resistance.”


Dr Wright estimates that the use of antibiotics could realistically be reduced by 70 to 80 per cent – if removed from diets in those countries where they are still used as a disease-prevention measure — but producers would still have to use antibiotics to cure sick animals. “The alternative would be suffering animals and huge production losses, which could ultimately threaten food security in countries,” Dr Wright said.

A complete shift in mindset is needed to go down the ABF route, according to Dr Wright: “There is no silver bullet. Producers and veterinarians would have to up their game in terms of farm management to prevent diseases from entering your premises and to prevent production related stress on the birds. Basically it means that producers would have to go back to getting the basics right.”

Producers would first of all have to apply good stockmanship for early identification of diseases, or conditions that would predispose birds to diseases. “Through careful observation you will be able to quickly identify signs that something is wrong with a flock, such as changes in feeding and drinking patterns, bird activity and behaviour, litter condition as well as increased mortality,” says Dr Wright.

Biosecurity would also need to be improved. Aimed at preventing the introduction and spread of diseases, or disease-causing organisms, biosecurity is the first line of defence for any poultry-production operation. According to Dr Wright, it can be broken down into three main components: isolation, traffic control and sanitation.

The first two are essential to managing the risk of diseases being introduced to a flock, such as by reducing the number of visits made by personnel into a poultry house. Sanitation, meanwhile, is essential to eliminating the spread of microbes on the farm – and it includes strict personal hygiene for those working directly with the birds, as well as cleaning and disinfecting coops during downtime periods, and cleaning and disinfecting all equipment and material on the farm (or any entering the farm that might end up spreading disease to other flocks). An ‘all-in, all-out’ production system, where animals from different age groups are kept separate for their whole lives on the farm, is preferred for proper cleaning and disinfection purposes.

The length of downtime between cycles depends on production conditions, but for most producers it is in the region of two weeks. Dr Wright, however, suggests that downtime might have to increase to more than two weeks for systems in which no antibiotics are being used – which would have a negative impact on production, reducing the number of cycles per year.

More attention should also be given to feed and water quality, as these can be important sources of contamination. “You have to ensure you buy good-quality feed that is heat treated, highly digestible, free of any mycotoxins or other potentially disease-causing agents,” advises Dr Wright. “Drinking equipment, such as bell drinkers or nipple lines, would also have to be cleaned regularly to prevent a build-up of pathogens.”

Vaccination will continue to play a valuable role in helping to prevent diseases, but Dr Wright emphasises that vaccination alone is not 100 per cent foolproof, and is no replacement for sound biosecurity measures. He advises that producers should use the right vaccines for their production conditions and that the vaccines have to be used correctly to achieve the best results.

Reduce stress

Stocking density might also have to be reduced for an ABF production system to be completely effective. Dr Wright explains that many modern poultry systems have much higher stocking densities than in the past, and that this is associated with higher levels of stress in birds and higher disease pressure. The stress renders birds more vulnerable to infections and diseases, which the use of antibiotics could be masking in some flocks.
Dr Wright says there has been a huge increase in alternative products aimed at limiting the impact of reduced antibiotic use on flocks, including essential oils, acidifiers, probiotics and enzymes. While many of these products have proven to be efficient under laboratory conditions, producers have to use trial and error to identify what works best for their production conditions.

He adds that producers should treat these products as an aid rather than a complete replacement for antibiotics: “See alternative products as tools that could help you fine-tune production in a bigger holistic management approach, to help reduce your dependence on antibiotics.”

Take home message

If diseases are under control in the breeders, ABF in broiler production becomes more realistic and attainable. However, if there are production problems (be it disease, egg-quality issues, hatchery management, chick quality, chick transport etc), ABF production becomes much more difficult if not impossible because the product (day-old chicks) that you start with on the farm is already compromised and will probably require antibiotic treatment sometime during the grow-out

This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of The Poultry Site Digital. For more, read other articles from the issue by clicking here.

April 2017

© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.