Antibiotic-Free Poultry Production Challenges

ANALYSIS - Antibiotic reduction in poultry is a hot topic – but how can producers meet this challenge without affecting productivity? Olivia Cooper reports.
calendar icon 25 April 2016
clock icon 5 minute read

Poultry producers across the globe are under tremendous pressure to reduce antibiotic use, amid concerns over antibiotic resistance and the threat it poses to human health. However, producing top quality chicken at consumer-friendly prices without the support of antibiotics is a huge challenge. But it can be done, as speakers at a recent international poultry conference revealed.

Organised by St David’s Poultry Team, the conference brought together scientists, researchers, vets and farmers from across the globe, to explore the next step in antibiotic reduction.

“As a practice we started looking at antibiotic reduction 10 years ago, and now more than 40 per cent of medicines we use to treat infections are not antibiotics,” said partner Richard Turner. “There will always be situations where we have to treat with antibiotics, but there hasn’t been enough time spent looking at alternative approaches.”

Working with professors from Ireland, Belgium and America, Mr Turner has helped to develop a new approach to producing poultry without routine antibiotics, based on using probiotics and acids to boost the birds’ natural immunity.

So how does it work? Professor Stephen Collett from the University of Georgia, America, founded the Seed, Weed and Feed principle to reduce antibiotic use in poultry. The aim is to boost the birds’ gut health with beneficial bacteria and inhibit bad bacteria, optimising feed efficiencies and reducing the need for routine antibiotic treatments.

The approach has proven successful in North and South America and the UK, as its holistic view means it can be rolled out across different production systems, from hatcheries to finishers and laying units.

In America, many farmers are already rearing chickens without any antibiotic usage at all, according to Dr Linnea Newman from Merck USA.

“Over the past year restaurant chains and wholesalers have begun a drive for antibiotic free production,” she explained. One firm – Perdue, is sharing its formula for success, which involves tremendous attention to detail throughout the supply chain.

“The Perdue programme is to reuse poultry litter – the organism is the house and you want it to be like a yoghurt culture,” said Dr Newman. “Antibiotic-free production forces us into good management, and as a result performance is often better.”

In the UK, farmers cannot reuse poultry litter – after each flock the house is completely cleaned and disinfected to reduce the potential transfer of disease. However, that never gets rid of the bacteria in a house completely, said Prof Collett.

“The balance of good and bad bacteria remains the same, albeit at reduced levels – it takes about seven cycles to displace the unfavourable flora compared to three cycles in deep litter.”

According to Professor Colin Hill from University College Cork, Ireland, chickens – and humans – are actually 90 per cent microbes and only 10 per cent chicken or human cells.

“Everyone has a different microbiome, assembled from their parents, their environment, their food – there are over 1000 species and they play a key role in health,” he said. “By treating with the right probiotics you can kill the pathogens without damaging the microbiome.”

So what does this mean for producers? St David’s approach is very holistic one, starting with the parent stock and chick environment, and encompassing water cleanliness and pH, and overall bio-security.

“In the past, there was a tendency to treat broiler chicks for at least three days with an antibiotic, lowering both first week mortality and later mortality, as well as reject numbers,” said Mr Turner.

“Over the past 12 months we have seen the voluntary removal of a wide range of very useful medicinal products, and in response to commercial and consumer pressure, there are now many chicks placed which are not treated in the first week.”

Since the first bacteria within the chick originate from the parent, steps to control gut health should start at the parent flock level, said Prof Collett. “In the artificially clean hatchery environment, even low doses of beneficial bacteria can significantly improve resistance to pathogen colonisation.”

However, it is also useful to feed probiotics to the chicks on arrival at the rearing farm, added Mr Turner. “We recommend a competitive exclusion product like Aviguard, which contains a wide spectrum of normal gut bacteria.”

The other alternative is adding bacteria such as Lactobacillus farciminis (Biacton) which produce lactic acid, helping to develop the correct gut environment and other beneficial bacteria. In addition, producers should add a mix of short chain fatty acids, prebiotics and oligosaccharides to the water for the first seven days to aid in the gut development.

“If no preventative antibiotics are to be used, it’s important to cull any diseased chicks that arrive on the farm,” warned Mr Turner.

“The aim is to support the healthy birds’ immune systems so that their chance of developing infection is reduced. Early first week mortality and culls will be higher, but it should pay off with reduced deaths and illness later on.”

In the longer term, creating an environment of healthy bacteria on the farm will roll on to subsequent flocks, producing a cumulative benefit for bird health and productivity alike.

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