Rick Kleyn interview: Getting to know birds inside out

World-renowned poultry nutritionist Rick Kleyn has spent his whole career striving to make incremental gains in bird health and welfare. On his recent tour of the UK from his native South Africa, Kleyn spoke to Poultry Business about the future of poultry nutrition.

By Rachael Porter

 Enzymes – that’s what all the feed companies and nutritionists wanted to grill South African poultry nutritionist Rick Kleyn about on his latest tour of the UK.

And not only because feed supplements have a key role to play in maintaining gut health, but also because they help birds to better utilise diets thus saving money.

“With so much pressure on the industry to reduce its use of antimicrobials, such interest is hardly surprising,” he says. “And enzymes are, indeed, one of the single most important factors when looking at how to reduce antibiotic use.”

So, can feed supplements ever be an effective replacement for antibiotics? “Yes – they certainly have a place, but they’re not a panacea,” says Kleyn. “A multi-factorial approach is certainly required and that include paying close attention to all pathogens that are present on an individual unit; biosecurity; the provision of clean water and feed; and good hygiene and husbandry. It’s also important that supplements, particularly those that support gut health, are considered as only a part of the solution.”

Modern breeds

Kleyn has worked in the poultry feed industry for more than 30 years. His background in in dairy farming, but he was drawn to poultry, because, he says: “I like chicken and chickens. I like the intensity and the science behind feeding poultry. It’s very competitive, fast paced and forward thinking. It’s an exciting industry to work in.”

And he says that a lot has changed in 30 years – particularly the birds themselves. “They’ve changed beyond recognition in three decades. And the success of modern units is mainly due to breeding – I’d say as much as 85%. About 10% is due to feeding and the remaining 5% is environment and management.

“Feed conversion efficiency (FCE), back then, was around 2.3, compared to today’s 1.5 average. That’s 700g less feed per kilogramme of poultry meat produced. This improvement, due to breeding, results in a 2.2kg bird in just 30 days.”

“Much of the improved response seen by growers is due to genetics, but there is an opportunity if the available protein level in the diet can be increased.”

He adds that although enzymes will play a key role in making the undigestible portion of poultry diets more digestible, much of the success of modern broiler systems is the use of modern breeds.

Gut health

The bird should be viewed as a gut and keeping that gut healthy – or efficient – is key. “Good management and the use of supplements that will reduce the viscosity of the digesta and help absorption. It’s all about reducing inflammation. And enzymes are an exciting addition to the armoury of poultry producers, who are looking to rear healthy birds efficiently.

He stresses that all units and all systems vary. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. On one unit, pro-biotics may be the missing link. On another it may be a prebiotic or and organic acid. Or a combination of enzymes and supplements.

“It’s important that producers worth with their vet and nutritionist to find out what works best for them. And they should start by knowing their birds, literally inside out.

“If you don’t know the gut micro flora of your birds, you can’t take steps to alter or maintain it.”

And, he stresses, each farm, each units, each shed and even each bird can be different. “Which makes this difficult. But it’s worth persisting with if you want to make effective use of feed additives.”

Consistent ingredients

There are constraints in the UK though, particularly in terms of poultry nutrition. Kleyn has one word to say – ‘wheat’. “Improvements are still needed in terms of ration ingredient quality and consistency. It’s not always easy to know the exact quality of ingredients that are delivered. There’s always some variation – and it will be worse on some units than others. So that’s something that the industry needs to work on. But that’s difficult when poultry diets comprise, predominantly, of wheat. Each crop, yield, field will vary. So the challenge is to mitigate that variability and to feed as consistent ration as possible.”

What the UK does do well, however, and is the envy of many other poultry  producers around the world is supply chain management and traceability. “You certainly have an advantage here. It’s superior to that of any other country I’ve worked in,” he says. “Other countries are trying to emulate the systems of the UK – and some are catching up. But the UK is still seen as the gold standard.”

Insect protein

When it comes to ‘effective’ feeds, Kleyn says that insect protein is, in his view, a novelty. “It won’t take off,” he says. “It sounds like an ideal solution to providing birds with a readily available source of ‘ethical’ protein. But, practically, there are many problems with producing it on the scale required to make it viable.”

The insects would be ‘harvested’ at the larval stage – and he says ‘larval’ pretty much sums up his feeling about the idea. “They would be fed with waste and by-products, but that is the first issue. How would that be regulated and made ‘safe’ in terms of food standards. And then there’s a scale issue – you need a lot of insect larvae to make a protein product when they’re 80% water. Once the water has been removed, the final product is often difficult to handle in automated feed mills, due to its high fat content.

Then there’s the cost of drying that product – this is expensive and requires a lot of energy. The resulting product may be high protein, but it will also be high cost – both financially and in terms of its carbon footprint. So, for me, it’s a non-starter on many levels at this stage.”

He adds that it may well have a place in companion animal diets (fish and bird), where there is acceptance that insects form a part of a normal diet.

Increased demand

Producers are, indeed, facing a balancing act when it comes to the modern broiler unit. The carbon footprint of an intensive system is half of that of a slow-growing free-range system. “Consumers see free-range as high welfare and better for the environment. But it’s not always true of the former and it’s certainly not the latter,” says Kleyn.

And the industry also faces the challenge of increased demand for chicken. “We need to double poultry production by 2050 to meet projected demand. That’s a major challenge for poultry breeders, nutritionists and producers.

“If consumers want that chicken to be slow-grown, which typically requires 40% more feed than a fast-grown bird, that simply won’t be sustainable. We’re not quite at that crossroads, but it’s not too far away. And it will be a huge challenge.

“How we meet consumers’ needs while, at the same time, keep costs of production and the environmental impact of poultry meat production to a minimum is a huge challenge.

It could be an educational issue – informing consumers about the benefits of more intensively reared and faster-growing birds – in terms of both bird welfare and the environment. But that’s a tough gig – and requires a huge change in mindset. I’m not sure it’s possible.”

Future FCE

Kleyn is most excited about the future in terms of improving FCE – must of which he believes will be due to continued genetic progress. “No one knows just how high FCE could go. It’s currently improving at a rate of between 0.02 and 0.03 each year. And birds that can get better than performance than this are already in the breeding pipeline.

“In five years, we could be rearing birds with a FCE that’s 0.15 higher than today’s broilers. And in 10 or 15 years, average FCE could stand at 1.1 or 1.2 – that’s not unrealistic.

“The challenge will be to ensure that nutrition and management keeps pace with those more efficient birds to ensure that they can maximise their potential. This means tightening up on all areas of husbandry and embracing the latest nutritional and technological developments. Something that the best producers are already doing. There are some exciting times ahead for the industry.”

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