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Pullets on rice hull bedding.
| Terrence O'Keefe
on July 27, 2016

Top broiler companies weigh in on antibiotics

Representatives from top U.S. broiler companies Sanderson, Perdue, Mountaire and Fieldale shared their positions on the future of antibiotics in the rapidly changing industry.

With the tide turning away from the use of antibiotics in poultry farming, the U.S. broiler industry is working to understand how it can remove some or all antimicrobials without losing productivity.

On July 12, a panel of veterinary and nutrition experts from some of the nation’s largest broiler companies gathered at the Poultry Science Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans to discuss the situation. Dr. Randolph Mitchell, vice president of technical services at Perdue Farms Inc.; Dr. Amy Batal, corporate nutritionist at Sanderson Farms Inc.; Dr. G. Donald Ritter, director of health services at Mountaire Farms Inc.; and Dr. David Wicker, vice president of live operations, at Fieldale Farms Corp., spoke at the event sponsored by Alltech.

The experts shared their company’s experience on antibiotic reduction and gave advice for others who are moving away from antimicrobial use.

Perdue Farms: Less antibiotics, higher production costs

Mitchell said Perdue’s experience stretches back to 2002 when it started to consider removing antibiotics from its production to satisfy forthcoming demand and expected regulatory pressure.

Perdue learned removing antibiotics doesn’t necessarily mean less efficiency. It does, however, mean higher production costs. Mitchell said increased costs come from elevated scrutiny of processes and sanitation rather than reduced performance and increased mortality.

He gave the following pointers for no-antibiotics-ever (NAE) or antibiotic-free (ABF) production:

  • The sanitation of the entire operation: from the breeder, to the hatchery, to vaccination, to the feed mill, to grow out must be prioritized.
  • Marketing of ABF or NAE products cannot dictate the pace of the transition or veterinary decisions. The veterinary and nutritional side of the operation should set the timetable for the transition. Birds should not miss treatments just to maintain ABF or NAE status.
  • Not every farmer can be an ABF or NAE grower. They must be willing to spend more time and effort on the operation and may need additional training to understand what special attention NAE or ABF flocks need.
  • The layout of an NAE or ABF grow-out operation is critical to an ABF operation, as is downtime between flocks, stocking density, litter quality and dryness.
  • There is no cure-all feed additive that can wholly replace the effect of antibiotics. Some gut-health additives may help, however. Using high-quality ingredients – like animal protein and grains – is important to maintaining a healthy flock.

Sanderson Farms: Is removing antibiotics the responsible thing to do?

Batal questioned whether removing antibiotics is the responsible thing to do.

She said Sanderson does not want to use antibiotics, but it uses them because it believes it is the humane thing to do for sick animals, it promotes better food safety and makes chicken farming more sustainable.

Batal asked whether removing antibiotics because they might contribute to antimicrobial resistance in human medicine or because a segment of consumers don’t want them is truly responsible. She argued antibiotic-free flocks need more time, energy, food and water than conventional birds. Using antibiotics, therefore, is the responsible choice.

The nutritionist urged the audience to not work against its own interest. She said the consumer perception that hormones or steroids are present in poultry meat were created and fortified by the industry itself. The industry is now marketing ABF chicken meat as better than conventionally raised products.

“We’re not honestly helping ourselves,” Batal said. “Let’s really look at it for a scientific way and to work together, instead of doing this again.”

Mountaire Farms: Finding a middle ground solution

Ritter said the industry needs to find a middle ground and work together to establish it as the new standard for production.

Consumers, he said, say they want ABF products and it’s the duty of the poultry industry to give the market what it wants. However, only higher-income consumers are willing to pay a premium price. Most just want a safe, affordable product to feed their families. A middle ground for raising broilers that serves all consumers, as well as the industry, is needed to solve this problem.

NAE is not the best route forward, he argued. Data from Agri Stats Inc. shows NAE birds suffer from twice the mortality and condemnation as conventionally raised birds. He said producers feel pressure to not treat sick animals rather than compromise their premium value as an NAE product. This means the birds are paying for the price premium with their well-being and sometimes their lives.

A good middle ground that will satisfy the needs and wants of consumers as well as preventing the growth of antimicrobial resistant bacteria might be the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use program (CRAU), a school-lunch focused program promoted by The Pew Charitable Trusts that covers health, safety and well being of animals as well as the minimal use of medically important antibiotics. The production specification is both certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and close to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines addressing antimicrobial concerns. Ritter said it’s a sustainable program that’s drawing lots of interest in the industry.

Fieldale Farms: Tips for new ABF operations

Fieldale has raised ABF chickens for about 20 years, Wicker said, and it’s a long way down the steep learning curve.

While he could not share the secrets for ABF production, Wicker offered some tips. He warned that the transition cannot be made overnight and the first few flocks to come out of a nascent ABF program will not be perfect.

  • An ABF program shouldn’t start with the hatchery; it should start with the breeder. If the bird is not vaccinated before it gets to the farm, something is wrong.
  • Feed quality is essential, producers must know the minute details about their feed ingredients to say it is high-quality.
  • Stocking density must be lower in ABF operations. Less density in the house means less stress on the birds.
  • Biosecurity is pivotal to ABF operations. Those located far away from other farms will do the best. Those located in close proximity to other chicken farms must prioritize biosecurity.
  • The experience level of the individual farmer plays a big role in the success of the flock. It may take five flocks to learn the proper husbandry practices and consistent execution will take time, too.
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