Comment: why the early feeding of chicks isn’t a straightforward welfare benefit

By Ken Baker, managing director, EmTech

To Early Feed or Not to Early Feed?

That is the question currently exercising the minds of the poultry industry. Is it really the answer to higher yields and improved welfare? To date the jury is out.

Is early feeding the latest fad, cynically and spuriously designed to encourage the industry adopt the moral (welfare) high ground? Furthermore, could it be a perfect way to mask the shortcoming of incubation systems that cannot provide the correct environment for every single developing embryo?

Some might say this is the predictable reaction that will be dispensed by all those who either do not manufacture early feeding systems, such as my company, Emtech, or cannot integrate such systems into their operation without major upheaval and expense.

How does one plot a course through this early feeding minefield to arrive at a balanced opinion – if that is even possible?

We at EmTech take a pragmatic approach, the proof of success for any new system will inevitably be the commercial hatchery results, especially of trials comparing the same, or similar, flocks over a significant time period. If those who adopt early feeding regularly attain significant results at kill with more, and better, quality birds that attain their target weight ahead of the traditional reared birds, then we will all be convinced. The industry will adopt this practice wholesale and every other incubator manufacturer and producer will have to catch up.

The welfare argument, however, is less easy to quantify and an emotive topic that easily engenders fearful overreaction, especially from supermarkets and commercial food retailers. Again, EmTech can only take the pragmatic standpoint and see with our own eyes if the chicks seem malnourished or dehydrated when they reach the farm. This is not difficult to assess.

Some of our customers recently compared higher priced early fed chicks from a 35 week flock hatched in the Netherlands with a traditionally hatched EmTech chicks in the UK and found no significant difference in quality or farm performance except that chick mortality was slightly higher with the early fed chicks.

Mortality rates, we feel, are probably a better benchmark to compare welfare and performance of EmTech Incubators against birds that have been subjected to Early Feeding systems. Early indications show that early fed birds do not fare so well on farm with a mortality rate at kill of between 4-6%, whereas the EmTech Effect mortality rate at kill averages 2.8%.

These early results are by no means conclusive but does bear out what many studies conclude that if the earliest hatched chicks start on feed and water 24 hours, or more, prior to the last chicks to hatch, the growth trajectory to kill would likely be the same as if chicks are initially withheld feed. Indeed, our results seem to indicate that the imbalance caused by chicks that begin to feed immediately may upset the genetic predisposition of precocial bird species to synchronise emergence. This not only prevents uniformity in flocks from the very start, but in an industry where uniformity is key, it is widely accepted that chicks that are not uniform can encounter problems and are less able to compete for food, water and space on farm.

If the hatch window is narrow EmTech believes that there is plenty of time to transport chicks to the farm before the chicks become distressed through lack of food and water. These are not empty claims – our customers will vouch for the exceptional quality of our chicks and their liveability on farm. 

It is no wonder that the chick quality may be similar from Early Feeding systems and EmTech systems because the inadequacies of their incubation system have been patched-up. A very expensive remedy but right for those systems, even though eggs have to be set early and hatcheries need to be bigger with staff available to prepare and administer feed and water. The downside is that hatcheries will have to charge more for their chicks to effectively compensate for the inadequacies of their incubation systems.

Time will tell whether Early Feeding will become the accepted procedure but, nevertheless, some things will never change – a tight hatch window is the best indicator that you have got it right – simple as that.


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