Business acumen, people skills and of course excellent animal husbandry have always been at the heart of all successful poultry managers. But, increasingly, an appreciation of new technology and new ideas has become an indispensable part of the industry. Keeping up-to-date with latest research findings and new product launches is essential for those businesses that want to survive in an increasingly competitive and globalised market. The question is, how do you sort the really good new ideas from those that just come and go?

According to Dr Chris Williams, Director of Technical Services for Pfizer Poultry Health, North America, new technology is usually judged purely on financial criteria, “Economics are the easiest reason for adopting new ideas and technology, but also the easiest reason for rejecting them. If everything had a six-month payback, then we would see it all incorporated.”

Dr Williams has spent a lot of his career conducting evaluative trials of new technology, from USDA approvals and clinical trials right down to individual farm comparisons. This experience has shown that the true value of new ideas and new products can sometimes be hidden by an obsessive focus on return-on-investment.

“The more simple and thorough you are with your evaluation, the easier it is to determine what the change has done and to show the value, but sometimes you just don’t get that chance. Sometimes the industry has a blind spot – adopting new technology purely for economic reasons. But we should be looking further than the immediate bottom line."

An example of potentially good innovation that was rejected on economic grounds was the application of chemical disinfectants to the shell on the breeder farm or in the hatchery for egg sanitation, he says. The idea was virtually abandoned because it didn’t show an obvious economic return. Now, with increasing concerns over microbial challenge, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, he believes the idea will make a comeback.

“The benefits of technology may not always be immediately obvious, and the longer the payback the more unique and robust the idea has to be. The problem is, there is a certain risk in evaluating and ultimately incorporating that idea.”

New ideas which require relatively little investment and which pay back in a short time are much more likely to be adopted than those that require a bigger initial investment and which pay back over a longer period. Disease prevention, for example with vaccines or better housing, has always suffered because it can look more like a cost than a return.

“It’s like insurance – if you pay the premium and don’t make a claim, then it might feel like you’ve wasted your money. But that’s the wrong mindset: what you need to consider is what it would cost if something went wrong and you weren’t covered.”

Dr Williams was involved in the development of in ovo vaccination technology during the 1990s, and says that this is a good example of how the added value of technology may not be immediately obvious, “Previously all chicks had to be manually vaccinated subcutaneously, which took a lot of labor, and the automated devices that we developed were initially accepted because they reduced labor costs.

“A less obvious, but equally valuable benefit was the reduction in the time taken between the hatchery and farm because the birds no longer had to be handled. We now get them to the farm up to 8 hours faster than we used to, with less stress on the birds, quicker access to food and water, and so improved production. In terms of disease prevention, in ovo vaccines also give the earliest possible immune response. Sometimes the real benefits are only obvious once you see innovations in action, rather than just on paper.”

Embracing technology 

The high level of organization and integration within the poultry industry may explain why it has embraced technology more readily than any other sector of the food animal industry.  The vast numbers involved in modern poultry production mean that improvements in efficiency or reductions in cost can be seen very rapidly even if they involve just fractions of a percent.

“I am very proud of our industry and its ability to adapt to the challenges it faces,” says Dr Williams. “We have had to deal with media blitzes on disease outbreaks and also with increasing consumer concern and legislation, but I am very impressed by the way the industry has reacted. The way in which the bird flu outbreak in the US was controlled is a good example of how organised we are and how far we have come.”

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He believes that most of the technological advances that the industry has seen over recent decades have been driven by those who work in the industry every day. If there is a problem or an unmet need in a particular part of the production system then they will come up with the solution.

“Identifying the problem is 75-80% of the solution,” he says.

Technological improvements have been achieved in all areas of production including disease surveillance, prevention, diagnostics, biosecurity, feed, genetics and environmental control, but one or two stand out. “Improved ventilation has really made a big difference in disease prevention. We no longer have cross ventilation; open-sided houses. Tunnel ventilation has enabled a lot of benefits in cooling and moisture control that have improved health and production.”

“Vectored vaccines have come into the market in the last 3 or 4 years and these are being used by a lot of companies. They are taking the live respiratory viruses out of the vaccination program and have improved the health of birds by reducing vaccine reactions. By just using part of the virus, the part that generates the strongest and specifically directed immune response, we can get better protection.”

Although in ovo delivery of vaccines has also made a major contribution, the hatchery is generally one area where technology has not been so readily or universally adopt.

“The hatchery is seen as a cost centre. You see a lot of investment in further processing equipment and in handling etc, because the genetics of the bird have improved to such an extent that you need to adapt and rapidly capture that potential. But the average age of hatcheries in the US has increased from 25 years to 35 years in the last 10 years. But the new hatcheries that I do see, have seen tremendous benefits – it’s an investment in the future, the next 30 or 40 years."

 The future 

So what new innovations are on the horizon for the next 10 years?

“I think that will depend on what challenges arise, but I’m optimistic and I see innovation continuing because we are going to meet challenges along the way and those challenges are going to spur innovation. We still have the potential to produce a bird closer to the ideal of the magic one-to-one weight to feed ratio.” Dr Williams thinks that separate sex rearing may be one of the developments over the next few years. "The market has gone to rearing mixed sex groups, but I can see many benefits in uniform bird size and targeted feeding programs utilizing separate sex rearing. We are now looking at sexing in ovo – it is not easy, but it can be done.”

Despite being an enthusiastic supporter of new technology, he has some concerns for the future. “Technology is unavoidable, but there is a danger that we are moving towards a two-tier system; those who embrace new technology and those who don’t.”

In addition, he believes that the industry will have to deal with the image of an increasingly technological food supply chain – something which doesn’t always fit the public’s idealised view.

“There is still an undercurrent of a romantic view of food production – the backyard system, with mom and dad on the back step and animals in the back yard; organic production. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it has its place, but it won’t meet the growing global demand for safe, high quality protein. The problem is that less than 1% of the population in developed countries work directly food production – and the other 99% form their opinions from the media. People are happy for technology to be used in many other aspects of their lives, but the idea of technology and animal rearing just doesn’t sit comfortably in some people’s minds. We need to educate people and to reassure them that the technology we adopt improves the health and welfare of our flocks and provides them with a safer, better quality and better value source of food.

"People who understand our industry see technology as the muscle that drives our industry forward.”