Size matters for new poultry science facility

Scotland is now home to Europe’s largest experimental poultry unit, offering a range of near-commercial scale trials. David Burrows reports from the £5.6m Allermuir Avian Innovation and Skills Centre.

Europe’s largest experimental poultry unit was officially opened in Scotland in June, by Lord Henley – the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who admitted that he owns five “very unproductive hens”.

Indeed, the £5.6m Allermuir Avian Innovation and Skills Centre at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is designed to enhance the country’s reputation as a global leader in agriculture research. “The people and facilities based here will attract research investment from across the world,” says SRUC principal and chief executive professor Wayne Powell.

The state-of-the-art site is located just outside Edinburgh. The first trials, which will get underway later this summer, will include everything from precision feeding and environmental impact to incubation, animal welfare and gut health. The inaugural project, in fact, will look at the impact of novel antimicrobials on performance and gut microbiome, plus the role of amino acid nutrition on gut health.

“Feed companies increasingly want more than just production trails,” explains professor Jos Houdijk, an animal nutritionist who will also head up the centre. “They want production trials ‘plus’, with gut health interactions and [an assessment]of resilience.” They also want scale – and for those behind the Allermuir development, size mattered.

Right from the outset, scale was the focus. Industry consultations highlighted demand for trials with large replicates under commercial conditions. They wanted “near commercial-scale”, says Houdijk. “They wanted the big shed.”

He is referring to the brooding house – one 1,120m2 room that can take up to 144 floor pens with a maximum of 5,760 broilers. The industry representatives on the tour were clearly impressed. “It’s the best facility we have seen,” says one, adding that it’s a de facto commercial shed. Indeed, it dwarfs SRUC’s previous facility at Auchincruive Estate, South Ayrshire (which had 96 pens), allowing for optional simultaneous multiple studies under “commercially-relevant” stocking density. Turkeys will also be welcome.

It appears vast – especially with no birds in place yet. It’s unique to the UK and the biggest of its kind in Europe. “There is more power to test products here,” says Dr Farina Khattak as she shows us around. Indeed, there is a sense that this really is a step up for SRUC and the research that can be done here on poultry – and that the previous facility was slightly hamstrung by its size. “Here we can get the best use of the animals,” she adds, “with lots of experiments going on.”

The only ones complaining about the scale might be those tasked with feeding – it’s a manual operation. Still, there is plenty of other technology built in, as you’d expect, with reads outs available in relation to production data (feed/water intake, weight gain, mortality), carcass quality, gut lesions, morphology and microbiology, behaviour and welfare, blood biochemistry and haematology and litter, hock and foot pad scoring.

Some of this is available in the poultry house, which sits adjacent to the brooding house on the site. Here, there are four identical animal rooms, each of them 20m2 with space for 12 floor units and a total of 240 broilers. This is where the pilot studies and student projects are likely to take place (though again there is plenty of room for replication with 48 pens in all). These could include motivation tests, for example assessing how far birds are willing to go to reach a particular resource – feed, bedding or a perch maybe. The tests help determine what really is important to the birds and, in turn, their welfare, explains Laura Dixon, an animal behaviour and welfare specialist at SRUC.

It’s also a fair bet there could be research into ways to reduce abnormal or ‘bad’ behaviour as the UK, and Europe, moves away from caged systems. “Two thousand birds in a barn can be a lot worse [for welfare]than a cage with 60,” Dixon adds. “In a controlled setting I can predict [what the birds will do]80% to 90% of the time … but in a barn it’s a lot different and a lot depends on the management. There is no ‘one commercial environment’ and that makes translating behaviour tricky.”

All the more reason for further research, then. There could also be scope to do trials relating to free range, though this is some way off given that funding is far harder to find (and free range also remains a small percentage of the broiler market).

As for the funding of the new facility, the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock invested £1.9m, with funding from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency. SRUC put up £3.6m, meanwhile, with support from the Scottish Funding Council’s financial transactions programme. Houdijk refers to it as a “perfect storm” of funding combined with the realisation that the old facility required “significant investment”. From the initial discussions to today it has been 10 years. “It’s great to see investment like this in new agri-tech facilities,” Lord Henley says, which will help the sector innovate and tackle a range of “thorny and fascinating” issues, including climate change.

Allermuir also boasts 36 Home Office approved raised floor units. The Home Office ‘Code of practice for the housing and care of animals bred, supplied or used for scientific purposes’ requires a minimal floor space of 1.5m x 1.5m, as well as a minimal height requirement of 1m. In addition, there is a a minimum feeder space per bird. This means there can be no more than nine broilers in each cage; still, Allermuir could house a total of 324 broilers or 216 turkeys for digestibility studies. Trials here can involve excreta collection for total tract digestibility, digesta collection for marker-assisted standardised ileal digestibility using test and N-free diets, plus production data for quality control (for example, food intake, weight gain and the like).

There is also an enriched housing layer facility, again with near commercial-scale conditions (Houdijk is keen to shrug off the reputation that some research centres have for being the equivalent to a stay in the Hilton for the birds). There are 64 units in 230m2, which at 21 birds per unit is a capacity of 1,344 birds – all of which can be monitored in terms of behaviour, welfare, microbiology, morphology, as well as egg quality. Mostly, it will be feed trials, with birds on up to eight different diets.

A new carcase evaluation unit will also be completed by early 2020. This is a continuation of a mutual collaboration in applied poultry research between Aviagen and SRUC. It will be staffed and managed by SRUC. “It’s a great example of the industry working together with academia for research important to farming in the UK and worldwide,” an SRUC spokesperson says. “The mutual goal is to provide affordable and healthy animal protein in an environmentally sustainable way to a growing world population.”

Making sense of consumers

SRUC’s mobile sensory lab first hit the road in March 2018. Thought to be the first of its kind, it means that rather than bring consumers into the lab, the lab is brought to them. On board, members of the public can taste different meats and other foods and indicate their preferences via electronic touch screens. There is also state-of-the-art imaging technology and meat quality equipment aboard, as well as full kitchens to prepare the food.

Huge amounts of data can be captured on various aspects of meat quality, which can then bed fed back into livestock genetic research. For example. how do people rate the taste and texture of meat from slow-growing versus fast-growing birds? And because the whole thing is mobile, data can also be collected from all around the country, offering insight into the preferences of people from different places and backgrounds.

In four days at the Royal Highland Show last year, a total of 2,200 people sat in one of the 12 booths, testing products.

Allermuir in numbers:

* £5.6m – cost of the new facility

* 30-35 people, and four post-graduate students

* 1,120m2 “big shed” for 144 floor units (5,760 broilers)

* 36 raised floor units in 180m2, potentially housing a total of 324 broilers or 216 turkeys

* 64 units in a 230m2 enriched housing layer facility, with a capacity of 1,344 birds


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