Optimising production, with the help of experts

A new event to help poultry & pig producers optimise production took place near Edinburgh in January, organised by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Moredun Research Institute. Vaccination development, common diseases and welfare issues such as the potential beak trimming ban were all on the agenda.

By David Burrows

Take care with chicken commitments, food industry warned 

Retailers and the government should “be careful” about committing wholesale to commitments that promise higher welfare standards. “If we moved totally to the Better Chicken Commitment [BCC] our market would suffer,” said Máire Burnett, technical director at the British Poultry Council (BPC).

Addressing January’s ‘Pigs and poultry – optimising production’ event in Scotland, run by Moredun Research Institute (MRI), Burnett explained that moving towards lower stocking densities and slower-growing birds would also be “less sustainable” and more costly to farmers. The NFU has claimed the BCC – otherwise known as the European Chicken Commitment – would not significantly improve animal welfare and would increase production costs, greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 18%, 23% and 22% respectively.

However, KFC, as well as large catering firms like Compass, Sodexo and Aramark, have all signed up to the BCC. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have also made commitments; Tesco meanwhile is dipping its toe in the water with the launch this year of a ‘higher welfare’ indoor chicken range that’s in line with BCC criteria.

The sector has been under “tremendous pressure” to move to these standards, Burnett explained. But speaking to Poultry Business at the event, she wondered how the higher welfare commitments brands are making could be squared against their targets to reduce carbon emissions. “The European Chicken Commitment will increase emissions,” she said.

The likes of Avara Foods and Moy Park are weighing up the pros and cons of the BCC, whilst at 2 Sisters’ Willand processing plant in Devon, 200,000 birds a week (a fifth of throughput) will be BCC by July. Burnett insisted that welfare is a “key priority” for the sector, especially with the threat of imports flooding the market after Brexit is complete and trade deals with other countries get underway. “Whilst we do want to improve welfare standards, we have to be careful that cheap imports don’t undermine our already high standards,” she explained.

The egg sector is also struggling with welfare, noted Robert Gooch, chief executive at the British Free Range Egg Producers Association. ‘Cage-free’ to ‘barn-reared’ will be a critical transition for producers, requiring a reported £200m investment across the sector. However, there are still “conflicting perceptions” of what good welfare means, Gooch explained. The “biggies” for his members are maintaining feather cover and keeping beaks intact. “Beak trimming at some point will be banned,” he warned, “it’s just a matter of when.” However, producers “have not got the confidence to go that way yet”. White hens are one option, but will shoppers buy white eggs, he wondered?

MRI’s event took place on the same day the Agriculture Bill was reintroduced into Parliament. The legislation, based on the ethos of ‘public money for public goods’, will reward farmers for higher welfare standards and other environmental best practice.

Mighty effort: progress update on red mite vaccine

For a little bug, the poultry red mite (PRM) has a big bite: it costs the European egg industry €230m every year. However, scientists appear to be gaining a better understanding of what makes it tick.

In fact, from work being conducted at Moredun Research Institute it has emerged that this is a “mini tick”. “We were surprised by how big the genome is in poultry red mite,” explained Alasdair Nisbet, head of Vaccines Pillar at Moredun. “It is clearly related to ticks.”

This is promising because the only commercial vaccine against an ecoparasite was for a tick. The other benefit of vaccines – if one can be found – is that they are “entirely acceptable to industry and consumers”, Nisbet explained. “That helps drive research into this.”

Work to find an effective vaccine has been ongoing for some years. Current methods of control involve use of insecticides, but resistance is beginning to emerge. The Fipronil scandal, in summer 2017, involved the chemical – which is not licenced for use around food-producing livestock – being supplied to several Dutch businesses in a product to kill PRMs.

Nisbet and his team have been looking at how to suppress feeding and potential weaknesses in the mite’s lifecycle – which can be a very rapid seven days from egg to sexually mature adult. Indeed, in severe infestations there can be up to half a million mites per hen, causing considerable welfare and production problems. In the UK, red mites can be found on 87.5% of UK poultry premises.

In one study, the researchers split 384 hens into two groups: one group was given a soluble mite extract and the other wasn’t; the group with the vaccine showed a 78% reduction in mite numbers. However, scaling that up is much harder, given that the components of the extract need to be understood. “We found them and developed a synthetic vaccine and unfortunately it didn’t work,” Nisbet explained. “Unfortunately that happens.”

That was when they took a “step back” and started looking at the bug’s genome, before developing a reliable means of testing any prototype vaccines. One breakthrough involved “refinements” to help them test different compounds without releasing loads of mites to attack the birds. A mesh (a bit like a teabag) attached to the bird’s leg traps the mites when they feed. Now the challenge is to continue searching for that elusive vaccine.

Moredun, based just outside Edinburgh, Scotland, is increasing its work on poultry, together with neighbouring SRUC – which recently opened Europe’s largest experimental poultry unit, Allermuir Avian Innovation and Skills Centre.

High levels of Histomonas cause concern

Better understanding of blackhead in turkeys is needed following a big jump in outbreaks last year. However, research on potential vaccines has been lacking due to the relatively small scale of the turkey sector.

The disease – caused by Histomonas meleagridis – affects chickens and some game birds. However, it is amongst turkey producers that it is most feared given that it can cause severe clinical signs and high mortality (sometimes 100% of the flock).

The EU withdrew the last effective drugs in the 1990s due to residue concerns and further advances have stalled due to the complex life cycle of the parasite, which makes developing treatments prohibitively expensive.

“The problem is getting the backing of the drug companies … this is a small sector,” said BPC technical director Máire Burnett. “However, there could be a big market globally to prevent this terrible disease,” she added.

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