Thinking About Going Antibiotic-free? Expert Panel Offers Insights, Suggestions

Broiler and turkey companies need to think carefully and weigh all the possible impacts before considering a move to antibiotic-free production, said poultry health experts at a panel discussion held at the 2016 International Production and Processing Expo in Atlanta.
calendar icon 10 March 2016
clock icon 8 minute read

The panel members – representing Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Cargill Turkey Products and DuPont Animal Nutrition — agreed that the upcoming veterinary feed directive (VFD) had already increased focus on the more judicious use of antibiotics.

That in turn has helped the poultry industry identify management practices — improved ventilation and lower stocking density, for example — that often make it possible to use fewer or, in some cases, no antibiotics.

Effects on flock performance, health and welfare are variable, and antibiotic-free (ABF) production may not be an option for everyone, cautioned the panelists at a seminar organized by Watt Global Media and moderated by editor Terrence O’Keefe.

Attention to detail throughout the production chain — from breeder farm to processing plant — emerged as the most important key to managing antibiotic use.

One of the greatest challenges was developing a full understanding of each customer’s specifications and how best to communicate the right messages to consumers. This is particularly challenging in what’s become a three-tiered poultry market — no antibiotics ever, no medically important antibiotics, and conventional production with all FDA-approved poultry antibiotics are available and used under veterinary supervision.

Sharing experiences, changing cultures

Additional recordkeeping associated with the VFD — which takes effect Jan. 1, 2017 and will require a veterinarian-client-patient relationship to be in place before using any antibiotic deemed medically important — may offer additional insights on the use of specific antibiotics and flock-health outcomes.

Perdue has been working since 1982 to reduce antibiotic use, according to Bruce Stewart-Brown, DVM, the company’s vice president, food safety and quality. “Measuring antibiotics over time will help identify the houses or farms that are performing less well and where to focus efforts,” he said.
Looking at weekly antibiotic usage has brought three main benefits to Cargill — two of which relate to the culture of the service staff, said senior Brian Wooming, DVM, staff veterinarian.

“They may adopt antibiotic alternatives or use them sooner,” he added. “Second, more care taken over when to use antibiotics. Third, the reports help identify the farms or service people that stand out and then it’s possible to tackle any chronic multifactorial problems.”

At Perdue, management began by defining the features of potential antibiotic-free (ABF) farms and ABF farmers after finding that some operations can be run successfully without antibiotic treatments while others are much more of a challenge.

Stewart-Brown highlighted the close relationship between flock advisers and growers where antibiotic usage has been cut successfully. With daily contact, they might discuss a change in the birds’ water consumption, for example, as a sign of potential health problems ahead.

Getting ABF flocks off to a good start

For companies that have stopped using antibiotics in one or more hatcheries, effects on 7-day mortality have been variable.

Director of veterinary services for Pilgrim’s Pride, Jeff Courtney, DVM, said their early experience highlighted the variations in mortality — anywhere from zero to 4 per cent — when antibiotic use in the hatchery was stopped. With no single magic solution, the company has adopted a “week-on/week-off” program for antibiotics in some hatcheries.

“Sometimes, you need to look further back in the chain at the breeder farm,” commented Alastair Thomas, PhD, business manager for direct-fed antimicrobials for DuPont Animal Nutrition.

“Gentamycin covered up problems in some hatcheries and breeder units.” He suggested looking at improving overall health and egg hygiene, such as management on the breeder farm, hygiene, litter quality, water lines and wet litter issues.

When building a new hatchery, Perdue incorporates changes in design or management that have worked elsewhere. Stewart-Brown stressed that changes in culture and attitude are especially important in an ABF hatchery.

In the turkey sector, highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in the US in 2015 interrupted the normal flows of eggs and poults that are normal for the turkey sector, according to Wooming. In order to ensure egg supplies, more antibiotics were needed.

“At turkey breeder farms, cleaning dirt floors is tough,” he said. “But continuous attention to detail is required, including adequate downtime between flocks. Unlike broilers, the turkey industry routinely washes hatching eggs. Hatchery manager feedback to supplier farms regarding egg sanitation is crucial.”

All the experts stressed the importance of adequate downtime between flocks.

“Layout is the most powerful tool you have for managing microbiology in the poultry house,” Stewart-Brown said.

“Time sitting dry and clean is important for turkeys. For breeders, around 5 days is usually sufficient,” according to Wooming.

Maintaining performance of grower flocks

Antibiotics suppressed the impacts of a range of environmental factors, the panelists agreed, so the response to No Antibiotics Ever (NAE) programs varies. For example, at Pilgrim’s Pride, they have identified factors that bring success at the farm level, Courtney reported. Improving ventilation to reduce moisture and hence the bacterial load has proved to be the most successful.

Different responses at each operation has also been the experience of Perdue. When making changes at the hatchery or feed mill to transition to ABF programs, Stewart-Brown highlighted the need to involve growers from the start.

“NAE feed programs are more expensive because of the inclusion of alternative products like probiotics,” he said. “Some traditionally good growers didn’t make the transformation as well under an NAE system while others did better. It’s not for everyone, and some simply don’t want it.”
For the turkey sector, Wooming said the chances of success with ABF programs improved when farms moved from multi-age to all-in/all-out production systems.

Cargill is also looking more closely at environmental factors such as carbon dioxide and humidity rather than just temperature. With new tools to monitor and control these factors remotely, management of the flocks is improving, he said.

“No one change will solve all the problems. The right combination brings success with ABF flocks or reducing antibiotic use,” Wooming added.
Changing industry structure, relationships

Panel members agreed that reductions in antibiotic usage were unlikely to affect farm size. Adequate care for the birds and people doing the right thing are key to success in the broiler sector, Stewart-Brown stressed. A family business with two people working can usually manage four chicken houses successfully. Without additional labor, bird performance could deteriorate with additional houses. For turkeys, a family can best manage the standard three-barn farm, Wooming said.

On all farms where ABF production has been successful, the panelists said they’ve noted stronger relationships develop among the veterinarian, flock adviser and service technician. In recent years, Wooming noted, technical staff have rightly been gaining more influence over biosecurity, cleaning and disinfection, and attention to detail, he added.

Regular interactions between veterinarians and service technicians is essential to making decisions on the farm, stressed Courtney. Service technicians need to spend enough time on the farm.

Even with growing use of technology, implementation of the VFD in 2017 will likely mean a need for more veterinarians in the future to assess the health needs of each farm, the panelists agreed. Thomas stressed the need for VFD training at veterinary colleges, followed by the opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues after they graduate.

Antibiotic alternatives

What are the alternative to antibiotics for preventing and treating disease?

Producers often turn to DuPont and other animal nutrition companies seeking a single solution, said Thomas, but that is not a possibility. Prebiotics, probiotics and organic acids are the foundation of an ABF program, but they need to be adapted to individual circumstances.

The other panelists said they had tested a number of the many alternatives on the market. Cargill currently uses a prebiotic and a probiotic in its turkey rations, both conventional and ABF, according to Wooming. Courtney and Stewart-Brown highlighted the difficulties in comparing different products under commercial farm conditions.

“Antibiotics are pretty fantastic and we need to respect them,” Stewart-Brown added. “What is important is the management of the microbial population in the intestinal tract of the chicken or turkey. The challenge is to maintain it throughout the bird’s life in the face of a challenge from pathogens.”

Communicating antibiotic-use changes

Animal activists and regulators are demanding more information from integrators on antibiotic use in poultry and livestock, but all the panelists advised caution in releasing the data.

Pounds of antibiotic used does not take account of the type of product or different dosage rates, Stewart-Brown pointed out. Instead, he recommended offering information on the percentage of birds reared without antibiotics and the number of farms where antibiotics were used over a given period.

A more positive approach would be the number of birds that were saved by the judicious use of medication, Thomas suggested.

Better veterinary oversight of antibiotic use was the aim of the VFD, Courtney said, and time needs to be spent telling people about the reason for using the antibiotic rather than how much.
With the complexity of the issue, it is unrealistic to expect consumers to become antibiotic experts and they do not want that themselves, Stewart-Brown added. It is important for the industry to take their concerns seriously, however.

Finally, there was consensus among the panelists that greater clarity in customers’ specifications regarding antibiotic use will help the poultry sector identify future market needs.

Go to Zoetis' Poultry Health Today for the original version of this article.

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