Been There, Done That

Belgium's Joosen-Luyckx has a 4-year head start raising standard broilers without in-feed growth promoters and anticoccidials.

Claeskens and Verdonck: 'There are no proposed standards that we haven't implemented already.'

On January 1, when most European broiler producers were turning their calendars and fretting over anticipated performance losses following the new ban on antibiotic growth promoters, veterinarian Marc Claeskens and nutritionist Willy Verdonck were toasting their success in 2005 and looking forward to another good year for themselves and their contract hatcheries and growers.

They could afford to be nonchalant about the new antibiotic regulations because their company, Joosen-Luyckx of Turnhout, Belgium, hasn't used an antibiotic growth promoter in their standard broilers or specialty birds for the last 4 years. For that matter, Joosen- Luyckx hasn't used anticoccidials in broiler feed, either.

"As far as I know, there are no other standards or proposed standards that we haven't implemented already," Verdonck says. "No growth promoters or anticoccidials in the feed, no animal protein, no animal fat, no genetically modified organisms. This is the trend in the poultry industry and, more importantly, it's what our retailers are demanding. They give us clear specifications "feed ingredients, weight, the number of birds per square meter, for example "and we have to meet them."

Joosen- Luyckx contracts with four local hatcheries and 80 growers to place about 150,000 birds a week. Half of these birds are standard broilers raised to 1.8 to 2.5 kg (3.97 to 5.51 lbs). The others birds are produced for specialty markets, including 7,000 Le Coucou de Malines, a traditional, indigenous, pure line known throughout Europe for its unique texture and flavor. All birds are slaughtered and marketed as whole chickens by Joosen-Luyckx's sister company, Belki.

"We are the only company in Belgium producing Le Coucou de Malines," Claeskens says. "So while the total number of birds from this line is small in comparison to the rest of our operation, Le Coucou is the most important for us in terms of recognition and reputation. Retailers associate our products with quality."

Going drug-free

While Claeskens and Verdonck concede that the relatively small size of their poultry operation eased their transition to drug-free production, their experiences and ideas are of interest to producers of all sizes "not just in Europe, but anywhere poultry companies need to change production practices to meet new government regulations or growing consumer demand for birds raised without subtherapeutic drugs in the feed.

"As a nutritionist, I'm very happy about keeping drugs out of the mill," Verdonck says. "We raise five different types of birds, all with different diets, so that can mean 20 to 24 different broiler feeds from start to finish. The ionophores are particularly difficult at the feed mill because they tend to stick to metal, so you have to rinse and rinse and rinse the whole system to make sure no residues get into other feed. But even then, there's always a risk that traces will get into the wrong feed."

Adds Claeskens, "The authorities can measure drug residues up to 2 parts per billion and they have a zero tolerance policy, so I prefer to keep drugs out of the feed mill, too "not just out of the withdrawal feed, but out the entire facility."

Joosen-Luyckx also takes extra precautions with its suppliers of feed ingredients. For example, they've asked their vitamin supplier to produce poultry premixes on the same production line as cat and dog premixes to eliminate the risk of antibiotic contamination.

Switch to vaccination

In June 2002, looking to fill the void left by in-feed anticoccidials, Joosen- Luyckx began vaccinating its standard broilers for coccidiosis with Paracox-5, a live vaccine administered to day-old birds in the hatchery. They had used the product successfully in Le Coucou birds and their organic line, but Verdonck admits to being nervous at first about pulling ionophores from the feed of standard broilers.

"To be honest, I was very afraid of the standard broilers becoming infected with coccidiosis after we stopped using feed medications, because that's the way we had always managed the disease in our more intensively raised birds," Verdonck says. "But the vaccine has worked very well for us. Coccidiosis has not been a problem, and the birds' performance is as good or better than it was when we used medications."

Claeskens says vaccinating with Paracox-5 has also eliminated the need to rotate in-feed anticoccidials. "We were seeing coccidiosis outbreaks as the birds got older, and we suspected the drugs were losing their effectiveness," he explains. "That's completely gone now. With the vaccine, we don't have to worry about coccidiosis."

Using a vaccine has also given the company more marketing flexibility. Like many producers in Europe, Joosen-Luyckx markets broilers in stages. While some birds are raised to 2.3 to 2.5 kg (5.07 to 5.51 lbs), others are sold at 1.8 kg (3.97 lbs) to meet local demand for smaller birds. Other times, Claeskens says, retailers suddenly order more birds to meet the needs of a special promotion. That means Joosen-Luyckx has to sell more lightweight birds than expected "an option they wouldn't have if they had to worry about a drug's withdrawal time.

"There's a 10-day withdrawal period on some anticoccidial drugs," Claeskens says. "It takes us about 33 to 36 days to get a bird to 1.8 kg. If you have a 10-day withdrawal period, you have to pull the drug at 23 days. And if you do that, you will almost certainly get coccidiosis at 28 days and then you'll have nothing but dead chickens. With the vaccine, we don't have to worry about withdrawal times, and we know it will protect against coccidiosis for the full life of the bird. The best part is we can market the birds any time."

Treating enteritis

For Joosen-Luyckx, the biggest challenge of not using antibiotic growth promoters is the potential for a greater incidence of necrotic enteritis. In drugfree production, it also appears more in the acute form rather than the chronic form.

Claeskens says the key to managing acute enteritis is to react quickly. "The farmer has to be alert to the fact that suddenly 10 dead birds in a house of 20,000 broilers is very important," he says. "If he waits 2 days, he might have 200, 400, 500 dead birds. You need to get in there and treat right away with an antibiotic in the water, usually amoxicillin, lincomycin or tylosin."

Claeskens says acute enteritis was initially a problem in about 80% of their houses following the removal of antibiotic growth promoters from the feed. Through more vigilant biosecurity and changes to their nutrition program, he and Verdonck have been able to cut that incidence dramatically.

"I did a study comparing our number of antibiotic treatments with other integrators that were using antibiotics and ionophores in the feed," he adds. "The need for antibiotic treatments was very similar, only 6% more, so I think the change to drug-free production has been worthwhile."

More emphasis on nutrition

Claeskens and Verdonck believe that most enteric problems can be managed effectively through nutrition and using high-quality raw materials, particularly in the starter ration, to stimulate good intestinal health early in the bird's development. This strategy can also help to minimize or eliminate any short-term performance setbacks caused by the coccidiosis vaccine, which introduces a controlled, balanced dose of Eimeria organisms to stimulate the bird's natural immune system so it can fight coccidiosis without drugs.

Verdonck says it's also important to be consistent with feed ingredients in drug-free birds. Making abrupt changes in the diet can stress birds and compromise intestinal health.

"For many years a nutritionist's job was to optimize feed performance for the least cost," he explains. "So when a certain raw material became cheaper, we would use it in the broiler diet at high levels. The market would determine what ingredients we used, and we could change them quickly as the prices went up and down.

"I think that's more difficult to do that today because the antibiotic growth promoters had kind of a regulating effect," he continues. "If we went from using a fast digestible starch to a slow one, for example, it was easier because the antibiotic provided a cushion and helped to offset the stress caused by changing the diet."

Don't push

Claeskens says producers need to change the way they approach their nutrition program and cautions against pushing the birds too hard.

"Today you have to play more with digestibility. Don't just think about grams of growth per day," he adds. "If you need a daily growth of 80 grams, simply raising the amount of energy in the diet isn't going to work in drug-free birds as it works in medicated birds.

"What you lose in growth from not using an antibiotic, you can make up for with high-quality ingredients, better digestibility and improved intestinal health in the first 25 days of age."

Now that's a good IDEA

Joosen-Luyckx's approach to intestinal health mirrors many of the recommendations presented at "New Paradigms in Poultry Nutrition and Management," a symposium hosted by Schering-Plough Animal Health in Portugal last spring.

The event, attended by more than 30 leading poultry specialists worldwide, including Joosen-Luyckx's Marc Claeskens and Willy Verdonck, gave birth to the IDEA concept, a new approach to managing broiler feeds.

IDEA stands for Impulse, Digestibility, Economy and Advance "all key concepts for promoting better intestinal health in young chicks.

As a general rule, IDEA requires making a higher investment in quality, digestible feeds in the first 25 to 28 days and then a lower investment in the final phase when birds are consuming the most feed.

Researchers speaking at the symposium said focusing on immunity development, digestibility of the feed and intestinal integrity is more important than actual nutrient levels.

For more information about IDEA, see or CocciForum No. 10, available online at

Source: CocciForum Issue No.11, Schering-Plough Animal Health.
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