Early life focus at poultry intestinal health conference

Chicks need to have the best possible start if they are to perform well during grow-out.

Getting broiler chicks off to a good start once they arrive at the house will be beneficial throughout grow-out. Trouw Nutrition.
Getting broiler chicks off to a good start once they arrive at the house will be beneficial throughout grow-out. Trouw Nutrition.
Icpih PresentationDuring ICPIH, Rosa Franco RossellĂł, Poultry Researcher Trouw Nutrition, presented findings from a study that evaluated starter feeding strategies as an alternative to the use of antibiotics. Trouw Nutrition.


Emerging research and practical production strategies to support intestinal health, flock performance and producers’ businesses came under the spotlight at the 7th International Conference on Poultry Intestinal Health (ICPIH), held earlier this year, in Cartagena, Colombia.

Sessions on the relationship between bird welfare and gut health, managing chronic intestinal diseases and scientific insights on intestinal microbiota and strategies for modulating immune response, drew over 760 attendees, reflecting the growing interest in, and understanding of, gut health.

That chicks need to be given the best possible start, including where gut health is concerned, is also increasingly recognized and many presentations emphasized the importance of early life and the role of nutrition.

“Broilers are slaughtered at younger ages, and a strong start is very important for good performance,” said Maarten De Gussem, DVM, organizer ICPIH, and a Ghent University Faculty of Veterinary Medicine member.

Ensuring a good start

Good farm and chick health management are essential to help birds get off to a strong start.

Preparing the house for newly hatched chicks’ arrival, for example through thorough cleaning and disinfection and ensuring the right temperature and humidity levels, will help in giving chicks a good start. Carefully controlling the light schedule during the first few days is also important to help chicks find food and water.

Chicks hatching in a hatchery undergo significant handling, from hatching through transport to arrival at the farm, that causes stress. An absence of feed and water would be a significant additional stressor, and efforts should be made to ensure that chicks have access to feed and water as early as possible, delegates heard.  

De Gussem noted that on-farm hatching is one way to reduce newly hatched chicks’ stress. The no antibiotics ever concept means that ever more attention needs to be paid to early life feeding in the hatchery and on the farm, he continued.

Starter diets

A chick’s nutritional requirements change rapidly within its first week of life due to the continuous and rapid development of organs. However, newly-hatched chicks also face other challenges, such as an immature digestive system, abrupt disruption in maternal immunity protection and exposure to environmental pathogens.

Early life nutritional strategies can help to address these issues, thereby supporting performance and production goals.

Enriched diets, for example, are tailored to address production concerns typically seen in the earliest days post-hatch, when reduced feed intake and a high feed conversion ratio (FCR) may reduce weight gain and compromise the chick’s immune response.

Enriching the chick diet with easily digestible proteins, such as spray-dried porcine plasma (SDPP), and feeding diets with lower calcium levels, may improve chicks’ gut health development and growth without in-feed antibiotics, delegates were told.

There is a correlation between a bird’s weight at seven days and at market age, and enriching the starter diet with lower calcium levels and SDPP from days zero to four and up to day 10 has been shown to help improve performance through to market age.

Other precision interventions can also support chicks. For example, the inclusion of functional proteins in the starter diet aims to support a chick’s immune system, while lowering calcium levels targets improved phosphorous absorption which, in turn, is involved in several metabolic pathways, and necessary for skeletal development.  

Chick EatingEarly feeding and the right starter diet can help chicks overcome a number of stresses. Trouw Nutrition.

Antibiotic alternatives

As poultry producers seek to reduce antibiotics in their production practices without sacrificing performance, research findings shared at ICPIH suggest enriched starter diets may be a good alternative to antibiotics in challenging conditions. Chicks undergoing a challenge were fed an enriched diet and compared to chicks receiving a standard starter diet and in-feed antibiotic. The chicks receiving the enriched diet developed a higher relative abundance of short chain fatty acids producing bacteria and gut health biomarkers.

The correlation between greater bacterial diversity and improved production indicates a potential opportunity for an enriched diet to support production of more robust birds with better functioning immune systems. 

Persistent production challenges continue to inspire research on dietary strategies to manage flock health and performance. Research presented by Trouw Nutrition at ICPIH included findings on empowering birds’ natural defense mechanisms to reduce on-farm Salmonella prevalence, the use of feed additives to replace AGPs and feed particle size as a means to stimulate gizzard development.

Insights following the 6th ICPH

Since the sixth ICPH, held in 2019, poultry producers around the globe have navigated difficulties across the supply chain.

As climate change affects raw materials used in animal production, De Gussem noted, mycotoxin risk is now a growing concern, and detection and mitigation have become more important. Similarly, heat stress is no longer confined to only very warm climates.

“Poultry performance is affected by heat stress and, with climate change, more birds are produced in regions with warmer temperatures for longer periods of time,” he said.

Disruptions due to the global pandemic have affected consumers’ habits with, for example, lower poultry meat consumption in restaurants, while the war in Ukraine is resulting in a region that formerly produced a lot of raw materials for livestock production now seeing major lapses in production, threatening food availability.

On a more positive note, however, interest in circular production is growing, De Gussem said.

Challenge of coccidiosis

Poultry producers in the ICPIH host country of Colombia and around the globe share some enduring challenges.

Coccidiosis, for example, remains one of the main instigators of bacterial enteritis issues according to De Gussem. Evaluating feed additives, farm management practices and health interventions brings an integrated solution to the challenge of supporting birds’ gut health and performance.

For producers in Colombia, and some other Latin American countries, heat and the altitude of production mean that anticoccidial programs must be adapted to local circumstances.

Adaptations should consider the choice of anticoccidials with relation to heat stress, and how feed and lighting are managed.

As all of these have an impact on gut health, this means that a higher degree of sophistication for designing gut health programs is needed in the Latin American region compared with other countries,” De Gussem said.

The next ICPIH conference will be held in Manila, Philippines in early 2024.  


Experts share latest poultry gut health research

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