Poultry veterinarian Dr. Suzanne Dougherty of Pecking Around Consulting recently spoke to poultry industry professionals about implementing a raised without antibiotics program. She gave the presentation to approximately 200 attendees at the 10th annual Diversified Imports Distributor’s Meeting in Las Vegas.

“A few years ago, ABF and organic were really a small segment,” said Diversified Vice President Zur Fabian. “In the last few years we have moved forward by demand of our consumers, and more companies have transitioned to antibiotic-free programs making education critical.” In 2013, antibiotic free meat sales accounted for about 9 percent of the $9 billion to $10 billion spent on fresh chicken.

Dougherty presented a brief history of the factors driving the insurgence of antibiotic-free (ABF) programs in the U.S. and gave an update on the status of various integrators’ positions or adoption of ABF programs. Dougherty also provided clarity on the numerous types of programs. She began by commenting that the industry is trying to get away from the term ABF due to its lack of clarity.

While all programs are geared toward more responsible antibiotic use, Dougherty said, “There are so many different programs out there that raised without antibiotics means a lot of things to a lot of different people. In theory, we are already all ABF in terms of antibiotic detectable residues,” referring to the Food and Drug Administration mandated withdrawal times that ensure there is no detectable antibiotic residue in the meat by the time the animal reaches processing.

As an industry, the most common terminology includes Raised without Antibiotics (RWA) and No Antibiotics Ever (NAE), which typically means the birds are raised without any antibiotics, including ionophores, or any in the feed, egg and water. No Antibiotics Fed (NAF) requires that no antibiotics be added to the feed. 

U.S. versus European approach to antibiotic limitations

Removing antibiotics from production can present a series of challenges. “Antibiotics are an incredibly important tool to have to maintain animal health and welfare, to keep the birds healthy and not suffering,” said Dougherty. “There’s a perception out there that antimicrobial use is directly related to antibiotic resistance, and that is simply just not true nor has it been proven in animal agriculture. But that’s why we’ve been driven to where we are.” That perception is creating some stringent limitations on antibiotic use in the U.S.

While the U.S. market was behind the European market in the adoption of antibiotic limiting programs, Dougherty pointed out that the U.S. market has actually removed more classes of antibiotics. Some European producers can use traditional antibiotics to treat disease as well as ionophores, which are used primarily for coccidial control, and have no human use. Most raised without antibiotic or NAE programs in the U.S. market, however, are not allowed use of antibiotics for treatment of disease or ionophores. Both markets do not allow antibiotics in the hatchery or the use of antibiotic growth promoters. The label for antibiotic growth promoter is being eliminated in the U.S.

Increasing production challenges

Removing antibiotics from a producer’s toolbox has the possibility to create more intestinal issues, according to Dougherty, which in turn could lead to more salmonella issues. In addition to food safety, other issues can arise such as animal welfare, sustainability and environmental responsibility.

“You can’t have it all. You can’t have everything,” said Dougherty. “When you remove antibiotics, you have to decrease house density, which means more houses and that is not supporting sustainability.”

Transitioning from conventional to antibiotic free

“Moving from conventional production to raised without antibiotics is a process that takes months to years of preparation to do it right and to reduce as many of the health issues as possible,” commented Dougherty. “Over time you must change or reevaluate every single aspect of grow-out.”

The predominant issue seen in birds raised without any antibiotics is gastrointestinal health, primarily challenges from coccidia and necrotic enteritis. “If you remove antibiotic growth promoters alone, you can survive. If you remove ionophores alone, you’re ok. The main problem is when you initially remove both of them. That’s when you see the majority of the issues with necrotic enteritis.” Producers then must shift toward prevention rather than treatment.

Farm management must also dramatically change. “It is very difficult to have conventional farm downtimes, litter programs, stocking densities and conventional diets without the use of some form of antibiotics. It’s a whole new ballgame. Growers must be better managers.” Otherwise producers can expect to see a 0.75-1.5% increase in mortality when first changing over from conventional to No Antibiotics ever.

Some of the intervention and management strategies Dougherty discussed that could contribute to better success in a NAE program included controlling breeder microflora by looking at other options for how we feed pullets and hens, enhancing egg room conditions and improving the cleanliness of egg packs. “As soon as a pullet goes to the traditional restricted feeding, they eat litter. That’s the worst thing because that’s where the bacteria live. Getting away from this could do wonders for intestinal health and the bird’s microflora.”

Dougherty also discussed the importance of:

  • Vaccination programs—look at every detail of vaccination technique and monitoring
  • Yolk absorption—critical to gain immunity from the hen
  • Hatchery sanitation—Clean water and sanitizers are crucial. “We must clean and disinfect every hatch day with very clean water or you’re going to have mortalities of 2%.”
  • Avoiding overheating— If chicks get overheating during incubation or in the hatcheries, it will damage the GI tract

Necessary changes to broiler brooding

Dougherty emphasized that the first seven days of a broiler’s life are the most critical to future performance. During that time, producers needs to focus on getting birds on feed quickly to help the intestine mature, and acidifying drinking water and ensuring water temperature is within the birds’ comfort zone to promote consumption.

Without antibiotic use, many producers can also benefit from:

  • Full house brooding to help reduce bacterial exposure when young
  • Decreasing densities to positively affect bacterial and cocci load
  • Careful waterline management that addresses proper waterline height, pressure and nipple function
  • Leaving supplemental feed pans in longer than three days to ensure adequate availability and easily accessible feed
  •  Eliminate all feed outages
  • Increasing farm downtime from the conventional accepted 14 days to 18-20 days
  • Carefully manage the litter to decrease bacterial load, and reduce litter moisture and pH
  • Rodent and darkling beetle control
  • Consistent feed ingredients and particle size to limit aggravating the gut

Dougherty also discussed the various feed and nutrition strategies that are being used to prevent disease, stating that “One thing that works in one complex will not necessarily work in another complex. There is no gold standard, but the overall goal is the same—to keep the gut happy.”  

Dougherty concluded with comments on the Veterinary Oath predicament and the conflict between animal welfare and raised without antibiotics production. “We agree as an industry the need to reduce antibiotic use, the question is how. Even when you’ve done everything you can, birds can still get sick. We have to have tools to help maintain animal health and welfare.”