After easing its way into antibiotic-free production, Fieldale Farms made the move in 2011 to raising 100 percent of its broilers antibiotic-free. Doing so has presented a few challenges, including increased costs of production and greater risk for certain avian health problems, but the company has met those challenges head-on.

Dr. David Wicker, vice president of live operations for Fieldale Farms, told of how the corporation has dealt with the ongoing issues involved with delivering poultry raised without the use of antibiotics during the International Production and Processing Expo’s Meat and Poultry Research Conference, held January 31 in Atlanta, Ga. Wicker said Fieldale Farms began looking at the antibiotic-free movement in the early 1990s. At the time, there was not enough grain without antibiotics available for an operation of Fieldale’s size. But as the decade progressed, they began making the switch. In 1998, the company started producing between 100,000 and 150,000 antibiotic-free broilers per week. It was mainly a trial, Wicker said, “to see if we could do it, and do it economically enough that we could supply some of our consumers what they were asking for.”

The operation went 100 percent antibiotic-free in 2011, and went from raising 100,000 to 200,000 antibiotic-free broilers a week, to 2.8 million to 3 million a week. 

Economic challenges

“Raising broilers antibiotic-free has issues," said Wicker. "Especially since the veterinarian tells me every day that antibiotics work." The most significant issue is it costs more money to raise poultry in an environment free of antibiotics. Wicker said the company is still tabulating the added cost for the most recent fiscal year, but he added expenses are more than the public thinks.

Some consumer reports say it only costs about one cent per pound more to raise antibiotic-free broilers. Others say it is between 3 and 5 cents. “I can’t give you what it costs, but it’s more than that,” he said.

Poor feed conversions are one problem. When you go to a 100 percent antibiotic-free, feed conversions will become worse. Part of this is due to the ingredients in the feed, but it also is partly because of the birds in the operation, he said. 

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In an operation of Fieldale Farms’ size, one lost point of feed conversion can cost beyond $20,000 per week. Broilers in an antibiotic-free environment tend to gain weight more slowly, Wicker said. At certain times of the year, it takes two or three days longer for a chicken to grow to an average weight of 6 ¼ pounds. Growth rates tend to be seasonal, he said, as the period from January to April is when the weight gain is the slowest. During the summer and fall, growth rates are not affected as much.

Wet litter problems are also increased without the use of antibiotics, and taking corrective measures to prevent this from happening and subjecting the birds to burns and other health issues as a result, also takes away from the grower’s budget. “When you put all of this together, it does cost more to produce,” he said.

Changes in consumer demands

Ever since Fieldale Farms began its foray into the antibiotic-free movement in the 1990s, the company has seen new definitions to the term antibiotic-free. Wicker said those definitions have changed along with consumer demands. Wanting to deliver the type of product the customers want, Fieldale has adapted to all of those industry standards.

Fourteen years ago, the main concern was that there were no antibiotics in the chickens’ feed. The early focus was grain with no antibiotics, but it soon shifted to no animal fat or protein mixed with the grain product. As time progressed, the consumer desire was that the birds’ water supply also had no antibiotics.

The next step was that the birds or the soon-to-be hatched eggs not be injected with any antibiotics. The biggest obstacle here, Wicker said, was that injecting the eggs on day 19 of incubation had been a good move to vaccinate for Newcastle disease. But Fieldale Farms adapted to that consumer request as well. The company still has incidents when a chicken gets sick from a lack of vaccinations, and those birds are treated and removed from the antibiotic-free flocks, Wicker said.