In order to further reduce antibiotic usage, the price paid by the consumer for poultry must rise, argues Richard Turner, St David’s Poultry Team vet
When we started down the route of antibiotic reduction it was clear that this would increase the cost of poultry meat production and would require a higher level of husbandry standards. In vain, we hoped that the consumer, as represented by the larger retailers, would step up to the mark, and at least partially fund these changes by higher prices for a quality low to zero antibiotic product. Sadly, this has not been the outcome, and our clients have had to accept more risk and costs, without recognition from the retailer.
As a team, both our vets and clients took on board the need to reduce total usage and willingly removed antibiotic inputs, other than where necessary. After years of exploring and testing alternative products, we are clear that our aim is to understand the microbiome, how it develops, and to try to make it more resilient to external challenges. We have moved from treating the bird to considering the impact on the animal’s micro flora, the microbiome of the house and indeed the overall microbiome of the farm. These changes have made us recognise we need to go back to basics and do everything just that little bit better.
When the big guns of antibiotic mass usage were silenced, we needed more data across farms, hatcheries and feed mills to understand trends and measure outcomes from our interventions. This data has had to be easily available, robustly accurate and used by the overall veterinary and farmer team to develop a healthier and better performing bird.
Every veterinary practice will need a data analyst just as much as a post-mortem specialist to ensure its clients achieve maximal performance from their flocks. Yet, somewhere along the road of antibiotic reduction we see that many have left one of the most important foundations of microbiome manipulation to outside contractors and suppliers with little true knowledge of the impact. I am talking about the disinfection of the site, reduction of microbiological contamination and setting a suitable cleaning plan to suit the site’s challenges.
Often, we see that the products are wrong in either concentration, application or actual choice and efficacy. All of our clinical team now have the knowledge to make decisions for our clients on what to use and how to use disinfectants, and every vet should now detail in the Vet Health Plan the products to use and how they should be applied.
Cleaning between batches of birds is the foundation for future flocks’ health. However, under commercial pressure turnarounds are short, but every farm should have planned into its annual production a longer turnaround to allow a deep clean.
Water sanitising is also an area where there are a lot of wasted products due to poor administration or lack of understanding of what the product can reasonably do. Lookalike generic products of questionable provenance and manufacture flood the market and are sold on price. Decisions should not be made on price or what cleaning product to use, it’s the cheapest area to get right and the most expensive area to get wrong. What further avenues are left to explore?
We now have a much wider range of natural support products from seaweed-derived marine sulphated polysaccharides to water-based, medium chain fatty acids working against enterococcal infections. Soon we will see commercial spore-forming bacterial cultures in the UK which will produce natural bacteriocins against E. coli, Salmonella and clostridial bacteria.
We must develop techniques to add these to the birds’ diets, and there’s an essential need for the data to ensure there is a good financial payback for the farmer. It has been proposed that the bacterial population in the house remains from one crop to another, and that the disease status and performance of a house of birds should also influence how the flock is fed.
Clean sites with low disease will perform well on a high quality rations but poorer sites where the gut health is not optimal will find the same ration ‘too hot to handle’ and lead to wet litter and complete bacterial disruption. We have loaded the drinker lines with products to enhance health and performance, but it is the feed we need to tailor to the farm. This means that on-farm addition in feed must become a reality. Water lines are best left to deliver clean water with nothing added.
Is antibiotic reduction over? No, but we have achieved the first step. We will in the medium term need to move to zero antibiotic usage and for that, we must have financial support from the consumer. Asking a farmer and vet to produce antibiotic free birds while not recognising the added cost is wrong and will delay what we are trying to achieve. It’s time to properly value meat and pay correctly for its provenance, high welfare and see it as a healthy part of a human diet.