Demand for antibiotic-free (ABF) poultry is growing fast, and what was once considered a passing trend has become a well-established, health-conscious requirement for consumers worldwide.
However, ABF production presents challenges for meat producers, who are taking distinct approaches to its development, with different results.
While some producers still have difficulties in controlling health challenges, others have had success, due to improvements in housing and changes in feeding, management and health programs. There are some key factors to consider in ABF production. These are:
1. Managing nutrient intake
A common misconception in ABF production is to focus only on controlling intestinal diseases. These are the main health issues when any ABF program is implemented, but the reality is that they are the consequences, not the causes, of the real problem.
Excess nutrients, especially protein and fat, may not be well digested and absorbed by the bird. Undigested feed increases microbial proliferation in the ceca, leading to potential infections. Appropriate digestibility is key to broilers’ overall health and can help control microbes and resultant diseases.
Factors such as a balanced diet and sufficient water consumption are essential to improve digestibility. A pH between 5 and 7 and water temperature between 16C and 25C are ideal conditions to support the activity of most enzymes.
To further strengthen the effect of endogenous enzymes, additives such as phytases and xylanases can be added to feed. Moreover, to guarantee acidic crop, organic acids are a good option.
Feed management plays an essential role too. Grain damage and conditions that could increase mold and insect spoilage must be minimized and, at the same time, fat storage conditions should be frequently revised in order to control rancidity within the feed mill.
2. Modulate microflora
The gut flora plays an important role in supporting the immune system. In addition to a balanced diet and good housing conditions, feed additives and minerals can help maintain a healthy microflora in all gut regions.
For example, alternative feed additives, such as probiotics, can introduce desirable live microorganisms in the gut and, with the support of prebiotics, can help maintain a healthy gut balance.
Enzymes are an alternative to eliminate the anti-nutritional effects of water-soluble polysaccharides, while organic acids cause the inhibition of bacterial growth, and essential oils can support gut microflora balance, stimulate digestive enzyme production and the immune system.
Regardless of the above single benefits, it is extremely important to understand that only appropriate testing and use can guarantee success. One solution working in one flock may not work in the next as the environment may have changed, e.g. the feed raw material properties.
3. Improve house environment, biosecurity
Proper environmental conditions are the foundations of effective ABF poultry production. Optimum temperature, air velocity, and relative humidity according to the age, phase of production and size of the birds should be considered.
Environmental stress, due to heat, cold, very dry or very humid air could affect feed intake and intestinal motility, causing reduced digestibility.
Lighting programs may also affect feed intake, motility and digestion. Light intensities lower than 10 lux and 4 to 6 hours of total darkness per day improve feed conversion ratios, indicating slower feed intake and better digestibility.
Good house ventilation is key for ABF programs to maintain litter moisture below 30 percent, and to minimize condensation and caking.
Flock management is also important to allow the flock more space during the brooding period. This helps avoid excessive stress.
4. Maintain flock health
Preventing coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis are normally the main concerns during ABF production.
In cases where no anticoccidial medications are allowed, coccidiosis vaccines and litter management are the principle controls. Cocci vaccination for broilers has been applied in traditional poultry production systems and new ABF programs for years, in many countries.
Furthermore, the appropriate feeding regime and use of feed additives, such as the eubiotics category, may help maintain healthy microflora adding to flock health.
Control of other intestinal parasites, worms and poultry diseases that affect intestines and immunity is also necessary.
Practices including bio-exclusion, limiting visitors, vehicles and equipment that visit other poultry farms, and bio-containment, isolating the houses, controlling insects, rodents and entry of wild birds and other animals to the houses, can help prevent new infections.
5. Improve breeder health
Broiler breeder nutrition is fundamental for adequate development of their progeny.
Embryo development is totally dependent upon egg nutrients deposited by the hen, and specific nutrients, such as vitamin D, trace minerals, carotenoids, and fatty acids, are key in immunity and gut development.
Hens also affect embryo nutrition and development via eggshell properties, including porosity and thickness, which determine conductance. Eggshell conductance dictates the capacity of eggs to exchange gases and water vapor, consequently affecting embryo yolk and general nutrient utilization.
These physical factors, especially the capacity to obtain sufficient oxygen, limit the type of metabolism, rates of tissue development, and embryo growth.
This is more important during the last three or four days prior to hatch, when development of many tissues, including the gastrointestinal tract, bones and muscles, is fastest.
As breeders can transfer intestinal microbes and immunity to their progeny, companies practicing ABF production should make sure that intestinal health is adequate in breeders and that vaccination programs are effective.
There are numerous concepts around the ways ABF systems in poultry meat production can be implemented to improve productivity.
As ABF programs for poultry production become more common, and to make these programs successful, a holistic approach along the whole production system is needed. Not only are feed, feed additives or enteric pathogen control important, but also are housing management, water quality and biosecurity at breeder and grow-out levels.