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The tipping point for poultry has potentially been reached. A recent survey revealed that 43% of consumers ‘always’ or ‘often’ buy poultry raised without antibiotics.

There is a growing demand from consumers for foods that are perceived to be ‘natural’, as well as foods from animals that were produced without the use of antibiotics. 

As the connotation of using antibiotics in livestock production becomes increasingly negative for consumers, the poultry industry has to act. Surely, producing under the ‘no antibiotics ever’ label makes a good business case, but we can’t let diseased birds succumb. So, how can the US layer industry deal without the availability of antibiotics? By keeping birds healthy in the first place, by incorporating the important factors set out below.

Optimise vaccinal immunity

Vaccines help to a great extent to prevent diseases and complications that result in the need for antibiotics. For veterinarians, it’s one of the main duties to work with flock managers to come up with appropriate vaccination programs for their flocks to help prevent outbreaks and reduce secondary infections. Often new vaccines are added to programs based on whether new disease outbreaks have occurred or if there is a need to update vaccination programs.

Vaccine administration

Vaccine administration processes are also routinely evaluated. If the vaccine doesn’t get into the birds uniformly, it’s not very useful. So evaluation of these vaccination procedures, either by going out and watching the vaccination being administered or by taking samples from a flock to monitor the response to the vaccination, is critical. Disease incidence should also be looked at as it occurs. If a certain disease is on the increase, the program needs to be adjusted accordingly.

Advise and guidance from professionals

There are a lot of resources out there to help. Consultants, such as vaccine companies, have technical sales staff and veterinarians who can advise. They’re extremely useful in helping us both revise our programs and evaluate the vaccination process. In the end, the overall goal is to do a better job of giving vaccinations which will help prevent disease and ultimately reduce antibiotic usage

Maintain good gut health

Eggshell quality and gut health are still hot topics in today’s poultry production. As more and more producers are under pressure to reduce the use of antibiotics, gut health has become more important than ever. Here there are 3 components to conquer.

The first is a professional nutrition program. Work with competent and experienced nutritionists. They will help you create diets that are consistent with the conditions in the gastrointestinal tract. Avoid changing diets and ingredients too often and use ingredients that are supportive of promoting better gut health

The second is incorporating non-antibiotic intestinal health aids, such as prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. These can be useful in maintaining the stability of the microflora and helping to prevent bacterial diseases.

The third is controlling mycotoxinsMycotoxins found in feeds are a threat to the health and well-being of animals and birds. A build-up of mycotoxins can cause oxidative damage to gut tissue, in addition to systemic toxicity effects. The goal is to implement a good program as offered by the nutritionist or veterinarian, to help control mycotoxins in the feed or the feeding system in the house.

Reduce pathogen exposure

Pathogens, like Salmonella spp. and E coli, continue to be an issue. When layers are exposed to pathogens the gut is the primary target, resulting in clinical disease or contamination of food products. To help reduce exposure to pathogens, 3 elements need to be addressed:

• Water sanitation: This is very critical to be aware of, as pathogens can get into water lines and biofilms, which can lead to issues such as disruption of the microflora or dysbacteriosis. This can potentially lead to birds getting infections and the need for treatment or antibiotics.

• Biosecurity: Some bacterial diseases are primarily bacterial pathogens that would need to be treated with antibiotics. With biosecurity, the aim is to control people, equipment, and anything that may bring unwanted pathogens to the farm or flock. Any equipment coming into the poultry house needs to be clean – a good sanitation program needs to be in place.

• Litter moisture: This is a major aspect of cage-free production. It’s important to keep the litter moisture low to keep parasites, pathogens, and unwanted bacteria under control.

Optimum environment and management

There are a multitude of factors that can lead to pathogenic infection in poultry. Disease situations can be influenced by how birds are managed. That is why it is important to provide an optimum bird environment with good flock management practices. The acronym ‘FLAWS’ has commonly served as a reminder to check Feed, Light, Air, Water, and Space.

• Feeding: This is not only about nutrition but also how birds are fed if they’re being fed enough or too little.

• Lighting: This can affect the birds’ production and performance. Make sure the appropriate program and lighting levels are being used.

• Air: Consistency of air quality needs to be maintained. This means ensuring it’s not too hot or too cold, and that there’s no ammonia in the house. These factors can lead to respiratory issues. Also keep in mind humidity, as this can affect litter moisture and pathogens.

• Water: As discussed above, the need for water sanitation and the availability of clean and fresh drinking water are both critical.

• Space: Birds need an appropriate amount of floor space. In cage-free flocks, there may be migration issues of birds moving to the front of the house where they end up crowded and with little space. This disrupts their normal behavioral patterns.

To ensure everything in FLAWS is properly implemented, a farm needs to hire well-trained flock managers. There are a lot of resources available to a producer to help maintain the health and well-being of birds, such as primary breeders, nutrition consultants, and vaccine companies. All of them can contribute to a good poultry management program.

Beak trimming

One last thing to bear in mind with regard to management is beak trimming. If the beak isn’t trimmed properly, there will be a lot more feather pecking which leads to feather loss. Feather loss is hugely detrimental to health. If the birds stay well-feathered, they remain healthier. It’s a major issue in older flocks because they can get skin scratches which can lead to bacterial infections, such as erysipelas, clostridial dermatitis, or colibacillosis. This is also why there is high, late-cycle mortality and we attempt to treat these flocks using non-antibiotic treatments or by re-vaccinating with live E. coli vaccine to control colibacillosis.

Moving forward

Looking to the future, we’re going to be seeing less and less use of antibiotics. That’s why the above factors are becoming more important in modern poultry rearing and management. Achieving good gut health is a primary goal in ensuring the health and well-being of poultry and, together with a professional nutrition program, proper resources, and optimum management, we can help these birds achieve their maximum potential.


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