5 keys to successful antibiotic-free poultry production
There are five guiding principles to successful antibiotic-free poultry production, according to Charles Hofacre, president, Southern Poultry Research Group and University of Georgia professor emeritus. Hofacre spoke last week at the first Feed Strategy Conference, presented by WATT Global Media during the International Production & Processing Expo in Atlanta.
The five guiding principles are that:
- Coccidia must be controlled
- The feeding program is critical
- Feed ingredient quality is crucial
- Healthy gut bacteria must be maintained
- The flock’s bacteria and virus load must be reduced
Hofacre said the first growout of an antibiotic-free (ABF) flock is the most successful, but more challenges will be encountered in subsequent growouts.
“About the second or third growout, that’s when things start to fall apart and you’re going to have a lot more necrotic enteritis (NE),” he said. “What happens is, the broiler house has a flora, and that flora of bacteria, of coccidia, are established by the antibiotics that we were using, by the ionophores we were using. And once we stopped using them, different bacteria begin to proliferate. So that first growout is still living off of the effects of our years of using an antibiotic; the next growout is not.”
Better coccidia control can lead to fewer cases of necrotic enteritis (NE). Hofacre said there should be a minimum of 14 days of down time between flocks to let bacteria and viruses die down and allow the litter to dry.
“Down time is huge,” he said. “I’ve seen more companies get into trouble when they’ve pushed that down time down around 10 to seven days.”
Hofacre said using completely new litter for each new flock increases the risk for NE.
“Reused litter is a major benefit for us in necrotic enteritis,” he said. “You clean out and you put in fresh shavings, you’re going to have a higher risk of necrotic enteritis.”
Enzymes, prebiotics, probiotics, organic acids, inorganic acids, phytoceuticals and immune stimulants/modulators are all successful NE interventions, but must be used in combinations.
“You’re not going to find one product that replaces an antibiotic. You’re going to have to use a combination of products,” Hofacre said, and different combinations work in different places.
A good feeding program is key in ABF production, and timing is everything. Highly digestible protein should be fed early in a bird’s life, but high protein early can lead to higher risk of NE.
“We want to feed the chicken. We don’t want to feed the bacteria,” Hofacre said.
Timing of feed changes is critical; feed should not be changed at the same time maximum damage from coccidia is occurring.
“The feed change really is based on the cocci control program,” he said. “If you make your feed change at the same time that you’re getting maximal damage from the coccidia, you’re just adding an additional stress upon that intestine. You’re putting a lot of pressure on those birds to keep the clostridium at bay.”
Care should be taken to make sure feed withdrawal does not occur.
“One of the worst jobs that a farmer can do is to let the birds run out of feed,” Hofacre said. “When you let them run out of feed, they’re going to binge feed when the feeder comes back on.”
He said welfare programs may clash with this because dark periods in the houses may be too long and discourage natural feeding cycles.
“If we have a dark period that’s too long, we may push some birds to miss the normal period of time that they should get up and eat, and so now we’ve almost created a feed withdrawal scenario by our lighting program.”
Feed ingredient quality
Good quality feed ingredients are also important to maintaining good gut health and, therefore, good flock health.
“Bird health is gut health,” Hofacre said.
Poor-quality feed ingredients, rancid animal byproducts in feed and mycotoxin contamination can all contribute to compromised gut health and intestinal epithelium damage.
Healthy gut flora
The health of the breeder hen should not be overlooked, Hofacre said. Broiler chick quality is critical to broiler flock health.
“We focus highly on broiler production and forget about the effects that that breeder hen can have on the normal flora of the baby chick,” he said.
Egg pack is critical to this; eggs should be clean and floor eggs should be prevented.
Reduce bacteria, virus load
Hofacre said he takes a minimalist approach to viral vaccines to keep down the bacteria and virus load on a flock.
“I have learned over the years to be a minimalist in my vaccination program on viral vaccines,” he said. “In infectious bronchitis and Newcastle vaccines, I use the … mildest vaccines I can possibly use.”
This keeps the stress off of a bird’s immune system, which is important in ABF production.
“The less that we stress that chick on an antibiotic-free program, the better they’re going to do,” he said.
A water treatment program can be used to combat viruses and bacteria as well. This includes the addition to water of disinfectant, aspirin, mucolytic agents, antibacterials such as phytogenics and short- and medium-chain fatty acids, and coccidia control agents such as amprolium, saponins and essential oils.
“We can use water as a way for us to treat if we catch (disease) early,” Hofacre said.