Successful Antibiotic-free (ABF) Poultry Production

US - Over the last several years, there has been a moderate increase in the number of poultry flocks being managed without antibiotics, due to social pressure to provide this type of poultry meat and eggs in the marketplace, writes Eric Gingerich, DVM, Technical Service Specialist for Poultry at Diamond V.
calendar icon 10 January 2013
clock icon 6 minute read

The use of antibiotics for both prevention and treatment of disease continues to be a common management intervention for enteric diseases, especially in meat production. Health management of flocks without antibiotics, therefore, requires adjustments in health interventions to assure profitability and prevent suffering of animals in our care. The key to ABF production is the elevated management level required, compared to conventional production, to accomplish the desired results.

Antibiotic-free broiler production

The most significant use of antibiotics for broiler production is to prevent coccidiosis (if one considers ionophores to be antibiotics) and to treat or prevent necrotic enteritis. Coccidiosis control is important for ABF broiler production, helping prevent the common secondary Clostridial disease, necrotic enteritis. Different levels of ABF production include:

  • Organic – No antibiotics, ionophores coccidiostats, chemical anticoccidials, or chemical antibacterials (sulfonamides) are allowed.
  • USDA-AMS Never Ever 3 Program (a USDA Process Verified Program) - Does not allow chemical antibacterials such as sulfonamides or antibiotics, but will allow chemical or Ionophore coccidiostats. In addition, no animal by-products or synthetic growth-promoting compounds are allowed to be fed.
  • Standard ABF programs - Allow chemical antibacterials, chemical anticoccidials, and ionophores, but no antibiotics.

Where no anticoccidial medications are used, coccidiosis vaccines and litter management are utilized. Keeping litter moisture levels below 25 per cent and maintaining an adequate level of absorbent litter are critical to success. Broiler producers have adopted the use of coccidial vaccination as part of their standard rotation program, thus reducing the amount of anticoccidial products being fed and reducing anticoccidial resistance.

In an effort to replace antibiotics in broiler feeds to reduce the prevalence of Clostridial enteritis, both clinical and subclinical, several natural products are available. The aforementioned products have the ability to effectively alter the Clostridial population in the intestine through their effects on the intestinal microflora, immune cell function optimization, and the physical ability of the epithelial cells to resist invasion and colonisation. Diamond V Original XPC™ is an excellent example of this type of product, and is being used successfully in ABF programmes. Research using ORIGINAL XPC has shown reductions in bacterial colonization (Salmonella spp., E. coli, Clostridia spp., etc.) and coccidia. This is especially important since roxarsone (3-nitro) is no longer available.

To avoid the need to treat flocks with antibiotics for the common systemic diseases in broilers such as colibacillosis, necrotic enteritis, and gangrenous dermatitis (a Clostridial disease), several management interventions are important. Optimizing vaccine use in both breeder and broiler flocks will help prevent Newcastle, infectious bronchitis, and infectious bursal disease. Ventilation and litter management are critical to promote proper litter moisture. Between-flock litter composting, obtaining chicks negative for Mycoplasma gallisepticum and M. synoviae, and water anitation using continuous chlorination will help ensure healthy flocks. It is also important to provide proper nutrient intakes, manage lighting schedules to minimize stress, and implement maximum biosecurity to keep pathogenic agents away from flocks. A specific vaccine is available for E. coli infections, and should be considered for use if problems have occurred in past flocks.

Antibiotic-free turkey production

Antibiotics are often used in turkey production in the early stages of growing to avoid bacterial enteritis secondary to a multitude of viral enteritis causes. Unfortunately, viral enteritides are quite common and no vaccines are available for prevention. Management interventions to minimize exposure and reduce stress are necessary to avoid these viral infections. Good management practices include: cleaning and disinfection of the facility; biosecurity measures to keep out pathogens from older flocks; water sanitation using continuous chlorination; and proper ventilation/heat-addition/litter level to maintain proper litter moisture and minimize bacteria and coccidia levels in the litter.

Feeding all-natural products like Original XPC can aid in reducing the risk of enteritis through their effects on intestinal health. This is especially important now that roxarsone is no longer available, a product that was quite useful in reducing coccidial and protozoal problems in young poults.

As with broiler production, management interventions in older flocks involving biosecurity, litter moisture, water sanitation, feed quality, and lighting schedules are required to negate the need for antibiotics to treat flocks for systemic, mortality-causing diseases. Strategic use of vaccines, including pneumovirus, Newcastle disease, E.coli, Bordetella avium, and fowl cholera (Pasteurella multocida), is needed to prevent various respiratory diseases in high-risk areas.

Antibiotic-free egg production

Antibiotics are not used routinely in most layer flocks, as over 90 per cent of flocks are housed in cages, away from pathogen-containing litter, in contrast to broilers or turkeys. ABF egg production flocks, however, are most often housed in cage-free housing as that market requires. As with broiler production, coccidial vaccines are often used for preventing coccidiosis in ABF egg production. Moisture management of litter is important for these long-lived birds because too little moisture in the litter leads to insufficient sporulation of vaccine oocysts that is required for the proper degree of cycling for optimum coccidiosis immunity. Too much litter moisture leads to excessive cycling of vaccinal oocysts and a clinical “reaction” to the vaccine. In lieu of antibiotics for preventing necrotic enteritis during growing, a commonly associated problem in floor- reared pullets, natural products such as Original XPC should be and are utilized for prevention.

The extensive use of vaccines is essential to prevent viral diseases, which often lead to secondary bacterial diseases and require antibiotic treatment. Bacterial disease-specific vaccines such as E. coli, Pasteurella multocida and Salmonella enteritidis are also available. As with ABF broiler and turkey production, management interventions involving biosecurity, feed quality, water quality, lighting schedules, and ventilation are extremely important tools to prevent diseases requiring antibiotic use.


  • Design flock health management programs to prevent diseases that may require antibiotic use.
  • Consult with a qualified, experienced veterinary consultant for proper timing and application of vaccines, biosecurity, feed additive use, and other flock health associated issues.

Consider using Original XPC in the feed to prevent intestinal related diseases and improve overall health. Original XPC also improves productivity, thus giving the producer flock health benefits along with profitability.

Further Reading

Find out more information on the diseases mentioned here by clicking here.
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