Are you making the most of broiler breeders?

Every business wants to make more money, but too often the demands of day-to-day operations mean that there is too little time to think about and apply best practices - let alone to sit down and identify what those practices are.

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Aviagen Students 1411 P Ibroiler Breeder1

Every business wants to make more money, but too often the demands of day-to-day operations mean that there is too little time to think about and apply best practices - let alone to sit down and identify what those practices are.

Where breeding stock is concerned, the ultimate aim is to produce fertile hatching eggs in the most efficient way possible. But, how to do this may, at times, require a new way of thinking.

Now in its third year, the Aviagen Production Management School took place in early September, and focused on this very issue.

The breeder module saw 36 Aviagen customers drawn from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East come together to learn latest thinking on breeder management. They were then asked to apply what they had learned to solve problems that had been incorporated into data from a hypothetical breeder farm.

Additional classes on presentation skills enabled them, at the end of the course, to present their recommendations to the company and external experts that had been their teachers throughout the course, and to later effectively communicate what they had learned once back on farm, irrespective of individual circumstances.

This was a hands-on and intensive week for the students, with experience ranging from those that were recent graduates to those with many years in the industry. The course showed them where to focus time and attention to increase returns for their businesses.

Aviagen sought to challenge the students, to make them re-examine the practices followed in their own workplaces, and to look with fresh eyes at the various components of their businesses.

Role of the stockman

The farm manager can be seen as the “conductor of the orchestra” bringing the various elements together, attendees were told.

Students were told that, even with the oldest farm, a good farm manager can achieve good performance: the key to this is good stockmanship.

While computers and monitors can supply a lot of data, perhaps more important is to see firsthand the conditions in the house and how birds are behaving, and being able to understand and react to those factors accordingly. Bird behavior will tell you if conditions need adjusting, but the stockman needs to be motivated to inspect houses and act when necessary.

And students were further encouraged to think about the role of the stockman and that of the owner or investor and how to make them co-operate. Owners need to understand the importance of stockmanship and as importantly the stockman needs to understand that, without a profit, the farm will not exist.

Where to make changes

But assuming there is a motivated manager, where should you be looking to make change?

Ultimately, any breeder operation will want to make more money, but should this be achieved through having more hens, raising the number of eggs produced, raising fertility, or by building more houses?

Various topics including ventilation, health rearing, lay and nutrition were all put under the spotlight.

Martin Rishoj, breeder management consultant, looked at where farms commonly experience difficulties and how they might be addressed.

Among issues commonly faced by farms in the broader context are rising energy costs, volatile feed costs, the high cost of labor and difficulty in finding good staff. Along with the need to invest in more modern equipment to help today’s birds achieve their full potential, there is a growing threat from competition, and in addition, the meat price ratio is decreasing.

Furthermore, standards are continually rising. For example, while dirty eggs may have been acceptable in the 1980s, this is no longer the case. To achieve higher standards, there needs to be investment.

So where might company-specific problems lie? Might the issues be with rearing, with uniformity, mortality, health, ventilation or disease?

All of the above need to be carefully examined, said Rishoj, and it is rarely enough to address only one if a business is to perform as well as it possibly can.

When looking to optimize performance, there needs to be careful consideration of costs across all activities. It may be possible to use cheaper equipment, and reduce feed and labor costs, but this may not be the best approach and reductions in any way are likely to negatively impact performance. But it is not enough to simply look at what might reduce costs; any business also needs to look at what will increase value. 

Raising fertility, uniformity and increasing the health of birds – a healthy bird has a higher value than a sick bird – are all approaches likely to have a positive impact on the business.

For example, simply by reducing mortality, while feed and vaccination costs will go up, more hens will be produced and so costs per bird will go down – more is produced with the same assets.

A prioritized plan

Some activities and operations will have very low costs, and even doubling expenditure in these areas will have little impact on overall production costs, but the resultant changes may result in a big impact on performance.

And if changes in any of these areas result in only one additional chick per bird, when this is multiplied, the difference can be significant. With this approach, more is produced with the same amount of equipment, even if this increase results in corresponding increase in feed use and veterinary costs. Profitability can be significantly improved.

Any egg that does not lead to a healthy chick represents a waste of the resources that were used to produce it. To this end, Rishoj looked at the quality of hatching eggs and, particularly, hygiene. To help ensure the highest level of hatch, eggs should be visibly clean, a good shape, and heavier than 50 grams. Various factors can impact this.

But why is hygiene so important, what is its impact on hatchability, and how can it be improved?

Poor hygiene leads to contaminated eggs, decreased hatch, and poor-quality chicks with higher mortality rates and poor growth.

To achieve high hygiene levels, as many eggs as possible need to be laid in the nest and not on the floor which will be less clean than the nest and has the potential to result in contamination.

The hygiene status of the egg is determined during the first three minutes after lay. An egg’s first barrier to infection is the cuticle on the surface of the shell. When the egg is laid, the cuticle is wet and can still allow microbes to cross into the egg. It typically takes three minutes for the cuticle to dry and to become fully effective as a barrier to infection. If an egg is laid directly onto a dirty surface, then there is a high likelihood that it will become contaminated.

While some establishments clean eggs, it is not generally successful and results in a loss of hatch. Handling can lead to fine cracks which disturb function and, while the outside of the egg can be cleaned, it is impossible to remove any contamination that may have passed through the shell pores to the inside of the egg.

Not only do eggs laid on the floor tend to be dirty, they also tend to be cracked, and on average 33 percent are lost. In addition to quality issues, eggs laid on the floor demand more work for collection.

Encouraged into the nest

Birds must be encouraged to lay in the nest, not on the floor, and nests must be kept clean. While it is difficult to say how often nests need be cleaned, they should always be cleaned if they are dirty.

To improve hygiene and egg quality in breeder houses, floor slats should have no more than a 6-degree slope and the female feeder lines must be placed over the slatted area. Importantly, there must be sufficient manure storage under the slats. But it is also important to consider the openings between slats to protect birds’ feet. Ideally, they should have soft edges, and if possible be white, as white plastic contains no recycled material and tends to be better quality.

Lighting will also play an important role in reducing the number of floor eggs, and light sources should be as evenly distributed as possible. Distribution is more important than the type of light used. For those birds that cannot wait until lights go on to lay, guide lights can be installed that light up an hour before the main lights and guide birds back to the nests.

Producing a good egg, however, is not only down to conditions in the bird’s immediate environment. Egg belts also play a part in the number of eggs that hatch as, if poorly designed, they can increase cracks. Slopes and curves in the belt need to be kept to a minimum and equipment should be checked at least annually to ensure that it is running smoothly.

More than one solution

But of course, as the students were told, other factors, including ventilation, rearing, nutrition and health will all play their part in successful operations.

In the fictitious farm that students were asked to turn around, it was identified that vaccination levels were too high. Not only did this result in higher veterinary costs, but negatively impacted the health of birds and increased stress levels. The students also suggested managers from contract farms come to help encourage and train the imaginary farm’s staff, and it was also suggested by some that new houses be built. What was important was that, through data analysis and fresh thinking, solutions for an ailing farm were found.

Nick Spenceley, Aviagen consultant school director, said: “We try to teach people to have open minds and to look at alternatives. There is demand for more formalized education and we’re helping the leaders of tomorrow to understand good management and good practice to recognize challenges for what they are, but there is also a lot of learning between delegates. Following the course, the Aviagen technical team can then go on farm to see how changes have been implemented.

“Best practice and principles are what we are trying to impart. We have an obligation to make our birds perform, and it’s part of our service.” 

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