Emma King was named Young Farm Vet of the Year at the 2023 National Egg & Poultry Awards, and as she tells Michael Barker, this was the only career she ever wanted
Being a poultry vet isn’t for the faint hearted right now. With farms struggling with the challenges of avian flu, pressure to reduce antibiotic use, and the general industry desire to continually improve bird welfare, there’s a huge amount to deal with on the front line.
But for Emma King, recently named Young Farm Vet of the Year at the 2023 National Egg & Poultry Awards, there was never any thought of a different career. Now the lead vet for the north-east region at Poultry Health Services (PHS), King has progressed rapidly through the ranks in an industry that is crying out for new talent.
It’s fair to say most budding vets don’t grow up dreaming of a career in the poultry industry, but as she readily admits, King has always forged her own path. “I was a bit of a weird kid!” she laughs. “I loved birds and bird watching, and I wanted to have a career working with birds. I had a variety of bird-related jobs when I was younger – I worked at a raptor centre doing flying displays, and then I got a job picking eggs on a layer farm. I knew there was a shortage of poultry vets so career prospects seemed quite good and it also felt like a good way to tie my interests together.”
King has taken that level of self-awareness and clear knowledge of a progression path into her career itself. Having qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 2016 and joined PHS upon graduation, she moved up to being a lead vet after just three years. Despite that early success, however, she still felt she needed more hands-on farm experience to fully understand both sides of the business, so she stepped away for a year and became an area manager at Avara Foods, exposing herself to a completely different perspective of poultry production. “I learnt loads and it was a very steep learning curve, but I wanted to get more context and know what is and isn’t practical on farms when I’m giving advice as a vet,” she explains. “In poultry we are under massive pressure to reduce antibiotic use and to do preventative healthcare, so the more traditional style of veterinary practice where we diagnose disease ‘x’ and give antibiotic ‘y’ isn’t really enough in poultry. For the preventative approach you need to really understand how birds are grown on farm. That’s what I wanted to learn, and I really liked getting to see the birds from brooding all the way through to kill age, and have that bit more involvement rather than just going out when there’s a problem.”
The mention of antibiotic reduction brings up a live issue facing the industry, namely the balance between cutting down on antibiotics versus animal welfare concerns. While producers have massively reduced antibiotic use over the past decade, there’s still a drive – supported by government and retailers – towards further reduction. It’s interesting, therefore, to hear a vet’s perspective. “I’m quite strongly opposed to the concept of antibiotic-free production, because I think a huge amount of that is just public perception,” King observes. “All the medications we use have withdrawal times which have been very thoroughly researched, to the tune of huge amounts of money. While resistance transference is a concern, it really worries me the potential impact on welfare of having systems where we commit to antibiotic free. I think the phrase ‘as little as possible but as much as necessary’ is really valid.”
King’s directed her career so far at the turkey sector, both because she finds them a particularly interesting bird and because there’s traditionally been less focus on them as something of a minor species. That means there’s less information and research available, which in turn means there’s more to learn and discover. Gut health and coccidiosis are her specialist areas, and with a lack of field data available on the different cocci species, there’s plenty of scope to contribute something meaningful to the industry.
It goes without saying that any vet would be highly concerned with animal welfare, and during a time of severe avian flu pressure it can be a sobering experience to have to go onto farms and witness swathes of sick birds. Biosecurity has become the watchword of the day as the industry grapples with that problem, and King played a role as part of a team at Avara Foods rolling out a biosecurity overhaul of turkey farms to assess and document weak spots, triaging farms and taking action to install features such as double barriers and dead hatches. “As a vet that was quite an interesting experience,” King recalls. “We bang on about biosecurity all the time, but to actually be out on farms looking at control rooms and planning and putting in double barriers, discussing it all with builders and getting things installed in a way that works practically, was really useful and quite satisfying.”
Awareness of biosecurity has increased massively over the past couple of years, and farmers and authorities are working more closely together to manage the AI threat as well as possible. When it comes to animal welfare, King says the turkey sector is currently focused on bringing more windows and natural light into sheds, adding that the whole poultry industry is going to have to deal with the issue of stocking densities over the coming years as government regulations change.
King is keen to be involved with industry affairs – “to stick her nose in”, as she jokingly refers to it – and sits on the APHA Avian Expert Group, as well being recently elected to the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA) committee. That’s on top of various product trials and research projects, and two externships with the Poultry Diagnostic and Research Centre at the University of Georgia. She says she particularly enjoys exchanging views and finding out what’s happening in other areas of the industry, stressing the value of communication to the wellbeing of the sector.
Veterinary leaders have expressed concern about the lack of young vets coming into the poultry sector specifically at a time of rampant bird flu prevalence, so why does King think others should follow in her footsteps? “Poultry is more herd-health based than it is with individual animals, so if you like research and data collection and looking at the big picture it’s ideal for that,” she explains. “There’s a lot of pathology and post-mortem work, which I think a lot of vets find interesting, and we also do a lot of our own lab work, so you see cases from start to end and you’re responsible for every aspect of the case investigation. With small animals it’s more like seeing the animal for a consult and then everything else gets outsourced. So I like the fact that it’s more hands-on in every aspect. Also, as a small animal vet you see maybe 10 dogs and 10 cats a day and you make a difference to them, but in poultry you make a good decision and implement something on the farm and that can be 500,000 animals that you’ve helped. Your welfare impact is much bigger as a poultry vet, which I find quite satisfying.”
From those early days when she decided to go into a poultry veterinary career rather than small animals like many of her fellows, it’s been clear King is someone who is happy to do things her own way. Away from work, she admits she gets “mocked for living in the dark ages because I don’t have a TV,” adding: “It was once joked that I go home and read by candlelight in my off-grid house.” She unwinds by playing the piano, long-distance hiking and tending to vegetables in the garden.
The 30-year-old, Brighton native says she has to double-take when thinking that she’s the Young Vet of the Year, as much as anything because she forgets that she’s only been in the industry a few years. But such is the all-encompassing nature of the modern poultry business, which has a habit of consuming its participants’ time. King describes the award win as a “massive honour”, adding: “Obviously it’s nice to win and be judged by industry, but the nomination came from my team and my clients so that’s the bit that means the most – that they think I’m doing a good job. And then to actually win it was the icing on the cake.”