Gut Health: Is Anything More Important in Turkey Production?

By Jim Plyler (Consultant, Turkey Health & Specialties LLC.) and Susan Watkins (Division of Agriculture, University of Arkansas) and published in Avian Advice Spring 2008 from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. A review of the stages of development and the factors that influence gut health, helping modern turkey producers to make sound management decisions.
calendar icon 10 September 2008
clock icon 14 minute read

Gut health challenges are a significant and costly issue for turkey live production. Thanks to the power of genetic selection, the commercial turkey has undergone dramatic improvements in growth and feed efficiency. Unfortunately the new and improved turkey remains vulnerable to enteric diseases such as enterovirus, astrovirus, corona virus, reovirus, rotavirus and other unnamed viruses, not to mention the bacterial challenges (E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium) and protozoal issues (coccidia, Hexamita, Trichomonas, Cochlosoma and cryptosporidia). And with feed costs increasing, even one point lost in feed conversion is an economic challenge. Gut health issues can result in loss of feed conversion, uniformity, weight, rate of gain and higher condemnation rates. Therefore, prevention of gut enteric challenges can result in significant savings.

Second Author

Dr Susan Watkins
Extension Poultry Specialist

By reviewing the stages of development and identifying areas in the production process that are crucial to optimizing gut health, the modern turkey producer can make sound management decisions that support the bottom line, a profitable business.

Management of Breeders and Eggs

Optimizing gut health begins before the producer ever receives the poults. The 28-day incubation process at the hatchery is actually the first weeks of life for the poult with the poult being 4 weeks old when he arrives at the brooder barn. Poult quality and health status is greatly influenced by the nutrients and antibodies the poult receives from the egg yolk. The benefit the poult receives from the egg will be dependent on the hen´s nutritional and immune status. Therefore, the first crucial step in minimizing enteric challenges is proper management of the breeder bird. If not treated properly, bacterial infections in breeder birds can be the start of enteric issues in poults. Poults need to be free of Salmonella, Pseudomonas and Clostridium at hatch. A sound breeder program will focus on breeder nutrition, breeder management, breeder vaccination programs (including serological monitoring to check titres) and preventing disease challenges.

"Most stress in young poults occurs as a result of dehydration due to overheating"

To assure the egg is not compromised, there should be a consistent program for egg handling, sanitation and holding. It is beneficial to set eggs according to length of storage time and egg size as well as flock age and vaccination program for breeders. This approach allows a more uniform hatch of poults similar in size and immune backgrounds. Close monitoring of incubation temperature, humidity and pull time along with a thorough understanding of equipment capabilities including the delivery truck will help minimize poor uniformity in poults delivered to the farm. Remember, most stress in poults occurs as a result of dehydration due to overheating. In addition, fewer lethargic poults will arrive at the farm if hot or cold spots in the delivery truck are minimized.

Barn Clean-Out Programs

The producer needs to have plenty of true down-time between flocks and must utilize this time wisely. A good clean-out program will include sweeping the floor after litter is removed; a thorough wash down before disinfection; use of soap and disinfectants that are compatible; and after disinfection of the barn, application of a litter amendment to the floor to kill bacteria that cannot be sanitized in dirt. Also important are good programs for darkling beetle, fly, rodent, varmint and wild bird control. Good clean-out programs are non-negotiable in defeating enteric challenges. In addition, the ground outside of the barn, particularly around the exhaust fans and near the doors where equipment and personnel enter and exit, must be treated. Once areas in and around barns are clean, maintaining a strict biosecurity program is the only option for maintaining sanitation. This includes keeping the barn doors closed even when the houses are empty.

Be Ready for Poult Arrival

Once the poults arrive on the farm, the producer, service technician, nutritionist and veterinarian all become responsible for the success or failure of gut health. A good poult assessment upon arrival is paramount. This assessment can help the producer to know immediately if poults are stressed and need extra attention. Less-than-desirable poults can be managed into a successful flock but only with strong management intensity.

Poults never recover from a poor start. Before the poults arrive, the barn should be ready (feed and water in place and accessible; ventilation system and heaters working). The producer should also have adequate help for quick poult placement. Make sure the litter is warm but not hot. It is much easier to warm the birds a little more if necessary, than it is to cool them down. If a poult is over heated or dehydrated - whether in the hatchery, truck or farm - the damage is often irreversible. Birds that have been slightly chilled can be warmed and in most cases things are fine. But this does not mean use no heat. The bird will let you know if it is comfortable or too hot or cold. Loud screaming, running, pacing or huddling poults will tell the story. If poults are unhappy, there should be a sense of urgency about correcting the problem. Staying focused on the flock´s needs for the first 4 weeks of their life can almost guarantee success.

The quicker poults find feed and water, the faster their digestive tract will begin to function normally. Proper, consistent lighting program and intensity will help with feed and water consumption. Proper feed presentation (including correct feeder height and feed depth adjustments) is important for assuring that poults eat feed. Use of hydrated feed attractants such as 'Oasis' or 'Early Bird' will also encourage poults to eat and stimulate their appetite. If poults are dehydrated, make sure the feed attractant is well hydrated but only use a little on the feed. The goal is to have birds clean up attractants quickly. Putting out more than they will eat in a few hours may cause the underlying feed to mould, leading to crop mycosis. If gut health issues have been a consistent farm problem, consider using disposable feed trays for a couple of flocks to help break the cycle. Never run out of water or feed. Dehydrated birds do not eat and birds without feed eat litter. Eating litter can cause birds to consume significant bacterial, viral or protozoal challenges, which could lead to enteric issues.

Water Sanitation and Management

Utilize a thorough water-line flush and line-cleaning with a proven water system disinfectant between flocks. Since slow water flow during brooding promotes warm water and potentially microbial growth in the system, these can lead to a biofilm in the water system that makes the lines 10 to 1000 times harder to clean. Without complete removal of biofilm or slime, problems may never be completely solved. By thoroughly cleaning the water lines before the birds arrive, it is possible to have a more consistent and effective daily water sanitation program when the birds are present. Invest in a double injection system so along with chlorine, a water acidifier can be injected to lower the pH, thus allowing the chlorine in the bleach to work more quickly. Use target values at the end of the water line of 2-5ppm free chlorine, a pH of 6.0-7.0 and an oxidation reduction potential (ORP) of 750-850mV. If supplemental water drinkers are used to start poults, make sure they are clean and filled with sanitized water on a daily basis or more often is even better.

Have the very best water sanitation program in place every day of the flock´s life. Often producers get in a cycle of removing the water sanitizer in order to add products such as medications, vitamins and electrolytes. Remember proper use of antibiotic treatments is key in establishing optimum gut microflora. It is also important to remember that over-use of water additives can promote bacterial growth and biofilm in the drinking water system, which can contribute to gut health problems. While there are times when these products might be useful, a producer should think long and hard about using products that could compromise the quality of the water since turkeys will drink at least two kilos of water for every kilo of feed consumed. One way to test objectively the theory about whether a water additive is helpful is to pay close attention to the quality of the bird droppings once the birds have been on a product for a few hours. If the droppings become loose and watery, the product should be removed and birds placed back on sanitized water. The use of copper-based products is an exception to the rule. Periodic use of copper sulphate or copper proteinate products in the water can be beneficial for preventing crop mycosis but droppings may be loose.

If poults are severely beak-trimmed, it is critical that nipple drinker line pressure be minimized to enhance the poult´s ability to drink. Use water meters to monitor water consumption to ensure birds are always increasing their daily water intake. If water consumption drops or flat-lines, birds are not well and a producer can respond before the issues become a disaster. If drinkers are different between the brood and finish barn, make sure some of the finish barn drinker types are placed in the brood barn before move so the birds will have adequate time to adjust to their new water supply.

"Dealing with enteric issues/gut health is a total team effort"

Service Technician Role

The service technician plays an important role in the success of all aspects of a flock but especially in the prevention of gut health issues. If pre-placement poultry house checks are utilized, many problems can be corrected or prevented before they become full blown disasters. Service technicians should perform a poult quality assessment at placement to help get the start off on the right foot and make necessary management adjustments. If the farm history is not good regarding disease challenges, then closely monitored follow-ups by service technicians will pay big dividends.

In addition, a thorough inventory on problem farms could reveal problems such as clogged or non-working drinkers and feeders.

In enteric disease situations, service technicians are often asked, “Is something missing from the feed?” Yet, most often feeds are exactly as formulated by the nutritionist and the real questions is “What caused these birds to eat litter and not feed?” Inadequate daily bird care or poor management are frequently involved in such situation and should be ruled out before looking for less obvious causes. Poor management issues could include improper ventilation (too much or too little), inadequate temperature control, excessive litter moisture, high levels of ammonia, distasteful water (due to too much sanitizer or microbial growth), poor feed presentation or any number of other issues.

Nutritionist Role

While the nutritionist plays an important role in establishing proper gut health, there are two kinds of poultry nutritionists: those who formulate forgiving diets and those who formulate bare essential diets that are unforgiving. It is important to realize that feeding low quality or marginal rations to the “new and improved” poult can potentially do irreversible damage. Since turkeys have the highest rate of gain early in life, they need nutrient-dense diets that support the rapid growth rate. Feeding for least cost in the first two diets or approximately the first eight weeks can result in lost performance that is never regained. The first diets need good quality ingredients plus quality fat to make the feed palatable. There is some dispute that high-fat diets (6-8%) are not well utilized by the very young poult but the real benefit of fat may be that quality fat stimulates the poults appetite. The poult needs adequate levels of highly utilizable essential amino acids.

Laboratory assays of diets and ingredients will assist in assuring the correct quality and quantity of nutrients are present. Running regular mixer profiles to will confirm that mix time is adequate and that micro-ingredients such as coccidiostats are uniformly distributed in the feed. It is also important to know the quality of animal by-products in diets and determine if manufacturers treat their ingredient for Clostridium. It might even pay to test these ingredients on a routine basis for Clostridium.

Not only is a proper nutritional program critical, but a strong quality control program is a must to assure that quality ingredients are received and high-quality feed produced. This is as important for macro-ingredients such as corn, soybean, fat and animal proteins sources as it is for micro-ingredients such as vitamins, amino acids and trace minerals. It is also crucial to ensure that the feed mill delivers durable pellets and crumbles with a minimum amount of fines to encourage feed consumption. Properly formulated feeds are worthless if birds do not eat the feed as a complete meal.

Finally, the use of antibiotics for bacterial challenges is becoming limited so it is important to explore alternative options such as competitive exclusion or enzymes to aid the digestion of feed components. We must use any advantage to offset disease challenges.

Veterinarian Role

Keep the veterinarian involved to help determine if gut health issues are of bacterial, protozoal or viral origin. It is important to know the poult source (history), the farm history and to use performance reports as your report card. You can also check finished feed samples, water samples and faecal droppings to help discover root causes of problems. If truth be told, higher intensity management may be the answer when previous performance has been poor. In addition, you can do your own postings of birds to determine if the flock is headed for a disaster or if things are okay. However, a good monitoring program (serology, histopathology, PCR and periodic postings) along with a good laboratory and pathologist will often provide more definitive answers.

If gut health is an issue, pull a histological sample on every flock and submit to a laboratory with a good pathologist. This will tell the story. If there are still questions/issues, submit a fresh intestinal sample (placed on dry ice immediately) to your pathologist for virus isolation. When pulling guts for histological samples, it is important to select the birds randomly so that the sampling includes healthy as well as sick birds. It is also important to observe crop and gizzard contents when pulling gut samples. Note on lab submission form if litter was present because eating litter will often result in coccidiosis challenges and excessive mucus production in the gut, altering histological results. If the birds are full of litter, this should be a critical warning sign that measures should be taken to draw birds back to feed either by top dressing feed with an attractant or hand-running the feed line.


One question that is frequently asked is: “What is missing from the feed?” If enteric issues are present, normally the missing component is the beak/mouth. A better question is: “What caused the bird to back off feed and eat litter?” The first step is to examine closely the daily care of the birds to identify poor management issues such as over- or under-ventilation, temperature swings, wet litter, ammonia, bad tasting water due to too much sanitizer or microbial growth or poor feed presentation.

Dealing with enteric issues/gut health is a total team effort. All members of the team must fulfill their roles whether it is the breeder/hatchery mangers, the nutritionist, the veterinarian, the service technician or the producer. Strong, consistent programs must be implemented and followed to have good gut health! Preventing gut health disasters requires offensive and defensive measures, particularly since many of the challenges are seasonal. Keeping good quality feed and water in front of the bird at all times is crucial as is daily monitoring feed and water consumption and growth rate. It is also important to have a strong sense of urgency about implementing corrective action, and ensuring immediate follow-through when issues arise is essential for success.

As the turkey continues to improve in growth rate and feed efficiency, it will be critical for everyone involved in bird management to stay in tune with how to rear this evolving bird. Even subtle changes in bird health - especially gut health - influence their livelihood. Production cost is still paramount with the company and producer but when improving costs leads us astray of sound production practices, the results may be more costly. When enteric issues get the lead, they always win the race and you, the company and producer are the losers.

September 2008
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