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Seeking a revolution in chicken gut health

6 September 2021, at 12:30am

Can a waste product deliver important improvements to chicken production? A University of New England 2021 Science and Innovation Award winner is investigating.

UNE poultry nutritionist Dr Natalie Morgan
UNE poultry nutritionist Dr Natalie Morgan

What if antibiotic use in poultry production could be significantly lowered by using waste products from milling?

That's the possibility that Dr Natalie Morgan is investigating after winning the Australian Eggs Award in the 2021 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Dr Morgan, a poultry nutritionist from the University of New England (UNE), is using her $22,000 award to fund an eight-week project to examine the effects of adding prebiotics called xylo-oligosaccharides (XOS for short) to the diets of egg-laying hens.

XOS have been studied in meat chickens, where they significantly improved gut health and production, but have yet to be investigated in egg-laying chickens. Dr Morgan observes that egg-laying hens live longer than meat chickens, so establish more mature gut microbiomes, suggesting the positive effects of XOS might be amplified.

The grains fed to commercial poultry contain long-chain sugars that reduce nutrient absorption in the bird’s gut, meaning these expensive and important nutrients are wasted, or act as a food source for pathogenic gut bacteria. To deal with the problem, all commercial chicken feeds contain an enzyme that breaks up the long-chain sugars into more desirable forms – including XOS.

As a prebiotic, XOS fuel beneficial gut bacteria. Dr Morgan's question is, "So what happens if we add prebiotic XOS directly into the feed, as opposed to relying on the chickens to make them themselves in their gut?"

Because XOS can be extracted from waste products derived when grains are milled for starch, it is a potentially cheap way to obtain gains in poultry production – an industry where most other avenues for production gains are pushed to their limits.

Dr Morgan's hope is that her pilot project will show the potential for supplementing feeds with XOS to boost hen feed conversion and productivity, and lower feces contamination of eggs – and possibly even improve gut health to the point where it affects the chickens' immunity to disease, lessening dependence on antibiotics.

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If even one of these results emerges from the pilot, Dr Morgan's work with XOS may extend a lot longer.