This article first appeared in the Animal Health supplement to Poultry Business magazine, published in August
By vet Richard Turner, St David’s Poultry Team
The last six months have been tough across the poultry industry. The winter of 2021/2022 saw the most Avian Influenza cases in the UK and Europe on record. The war in Ukraine has added extra challenges, and there’s no doubt that the price of feed and fuel is the biggest threat to the egg and poultry meat industry over the coming months.
The retailers are doing all they can to stop paying more for meat and eggs and sadly, this is going to result with farms ceasing growing broilers and layers. Then of course we end up in shortage, with the inevitable time lag to get back into production. On top of this, it is unclear what next winter will bring from an AI perspective. However, there are signs that there is opportunity for industry and government to discuss lessons learned on both sides so that, should we find ourselves in this position again, we are better prepared. Overall, despite the immense challenges, there are always opportunities, as well as several success stories.
In broilers, the impact of good coccidiosis control is essential and poor control we know leads to huge financial losses. Cleanout, environmental management, and the type of coccidiostat used has in many cases not been a big enough focus. In some situations, the farmer is not involved in the decision on what coccidiostat to use and a much more tailored approach is needed. We have spent considerable time with farms improving these areas and the impact on EPEF has been huge with 30-point increases. Gut health, microbiome health and tight (really tight) coccidiosis control will make a big difference to the bottom line. We must get back to basics. The vet and the farmer need to refocus on cleanout as the big chance to change performance.
Overall, the FCR across the industry continues to improve and some farms are now in the low 1.4’s. This is a phenomenal achievement and helps demonstrate how our great industry can continue to reduce our carbon footprint whilst continuing to feed the nation. The breed companies assure us that a 1.3 FCR will be achievable in the near future. The increased focus on carbon footprint has meant that many consumers have switched their shop from red meat to white meat leaving demand strong, and there is no reason why this trend shouldn’t continue.
Our industry has seen a continual drive on bird welfare with an increase in the number of Better Chicken Commitment birds being grown. The paradox with this is these slower growing birds have a greater carbon footprint and this will be an area for industry and the consumer to consider going forward.
There is no doubt in my mind that we can all be more efficient. The layer sector has for too long accepted a 75-80-week flock age and we should now focus on getting our birds to live longer and have an extended and more profitable egg production period. Feed is a big cost, but so is the cost of pullets, down time of the farm, detailed cleanouts and of course the time a new flock takes to come into lay.
Of course, there are challenges in achieving a target of 100-week flocks but it’s not impossible. We have flocks that have achieved it and what they have shown is that it requires attention to the rear as well as the lay and a focus on red mite control, feed quality and how we can best help the bird develop a competent and tip top immune system. What we must not do is cut costs on areas as red mite control as this will only reduce profitability further.
We see a need for clients, whether layers or broilers, to be able to use feed additives which will suit their farms’ needs. For example, it is interesting to see how feed mills in the Netherlands, where competition is immense, will make up specific feeds for a farm. We have focused over the last 10 years in this country on using the water line as a route to influence bird performance, but this has shown us how difficult it is to keep water clean. In an ideal world we would use a lot less in the water and focus on the feed, but for that to happen we need vets, nutritionists and feed mills to work together to provide the farmer with another route to improve bird profitability.
There are several trials across the industry looking at in-ovo Gumboro vaccination and on farm hatching to determine if these technologies increase health, welfare and performance KPIs. In the coming months as an industry, we will have a better indication of the industry’s direction of travel.
Our industry has rightly prided itself on the great work on antibiotic reduction that has been done. With this work continuing and the modern bird becoming more efficient all the time, microbiome management is more crucial than ever.
Integrating bird health in to farm management
Part of this management will take the form of a more integrated approach to ‘farm health’ along with the use of new nutraceuticals and biosecurity products and technology that become available. With the costs so high, it is more important than ever that the management of bird health is integrated into the overall farm management. In this role we need to modify the ratio between bad bacteria and good bacteria, and through adopting a whole-farm approach to microbiome management, rather than focusing on managing specific diseases, we can drive efficiencies.
You can control the microbiome through various third parties including a disinfectant supplier, vet, chick supplier, nutraceutical supplier and feed supplier. In many cases this works well, however as these third parties aren’t often joined up, the interventions put in place are not always complementary and, in some cases, antagonistic.
It’s vital therefore that vets, field services and other teams come together to consider the longer-term return on investment to the farmer by integrated management.
Do the present challenges worry me? Of course, they do. Their impact is so immediate and large. Am I worried about the medium-term challenges to the farm? Yes, in that it will make farms without the ability to improve efficiency likely to leave the industry. But above all I am confident that through science led innovation, we will continue to grow and strengthen as a sector.