Israel’s third-largest poultry producer, Of Tov, is raising almost 99% of its broiler flocks without antibiotics or coccidiostats, and has accrued several benefits from making the change.
While not without its difficulties, switching to antibiotic-free production has seen improved flock health and productivity, and a stronger commercial performance, allowing it to claim to be Israel’s largest antibiotic-free poultry meat company.
The transition to rearing birds without antibiotics was driven by concerns at the very top of the company over the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans and animals, said company veterinarian Gilad Ayali, continuing that the change is now paying dividends, with feed conversion rate improving by more than 4%, and product resonating with consumers, and demand growing particularly strongly for Of Tov’s higher-value products.
Route to success
Located in Israel’s Jordan Valley, Of Tov produces 25 million broilers annually. Becoming the country’s leading producer of poultry meat from birds reared without antibiotics was not straightforward, however, necessitating a re-appraisal of activities at various levels.
Initially, the company tested the use of various feed additives as alternatives to antibiotics on 40% of its best-performing farms.
When those test farms achieved performance equal to farms still using antibiotics, the company removed antibiotics and coccidiostats across its production sites.
However, the initial trial farms’ success could not be replicated across production sites, and a significant drop in flock performance was recorded.
To address this, the company consulted Trouw Nutrition and, together, they drew up a detailed customized plan, with changes at various levels, ranging from height of drinkers to much broader-scale biosecurity improvements.
Three primary goals were established: reducing the number of flocks experiencing health and performance issues, reducing the percentage of flocks receiving antibiotics for therapeutic purposes to less than 3%, and achieving performance comparable to those when antibiotics were used for prophylactic purposes.
Particular focus was given to three main areas: farm management, feed management and health management.
Of Tov sources birds from a mix of its own farms and contract producers and, as part of the change, technical farm advisers worked closely with farm managers to ensure proper implementation of Trouw Nutrition’s recommendations.
These included implementing climate-control measures during hot and cold weather, continuously adjusting the height of feeders and drinkers.
Special attention was paid to the hygiene and pressure of drinking lines and, with some farms receiving very soft water, this meant local recommendations specific to individual farms.
Substantial improvements noted during subsequent farm visits provided incentives for farms to continuously introduce additional management changes.
Feed management assessment began with a matrix calculation using Trouw Nutrition’s near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy calibration lines to evaluate percentages of digestible amino acids.
An important outcome of this calculation was that raw material suppliers started delivering better protein sources.
Sister company Zemach Feed Mill, which had been working with Of Tov for several years, switched from traditional commercial feed production to “precision nutrition,” improving feed quality to optimize broiler digestion and health.
Broiler gut health was evaluated by morphometric evaluation of dysbacteriosis in birds at three weeks of age. Regular scoring helped the team to identify factors influencing suboptimal gut health.
Based on evaluations, various functional feed additives were used to improve digestion, rebalance the gut microbiota, improve gut integrity and support immunity.
Gut health support became even more important as ionophores were also removed and a program to control coccidiosis without any anticoccidials was implemented.
Of Tov’s technical manager, Rami Izik said: “This healthy move was possible because producers received technical and management guidance from the early stages, including measures to support feed quality and the way birds are raised.”
The change necessitated a degree of fine tuning, to achieve the correct balance between use of products, adjusting nutrition, management practices and improving biosecurity and, over time, problems disappeared.
Driving commercial success
The collaboration led to positive results, with the Israeli Egg and Poultry Board recording significant improvement in the sensitivity of Escherichia coli isolates from Of Tov farms.
In particular, improved sensitivity was developed to five different antibacterial drugs after two years of antibiotic-free broiler production, compared with the sensitivity test of E. coli isolates from farms raised with antibiotics.
In addition to improved bacterial sensitivity, the company also recorded an improvement in feed conversion under the new approach, with conversion ratio decreasing by more than 4%. Now, 98.8% of the company’s birds are raised without antibiotics.
To support commercial visibility of its antibiotic-free product, the company launched television advertisements, in-store promotions and digital media promoting its antibiotic-free approach.
Of Tov's antibiotic-free schnitzel achieved recognition for innovation during the SIAL Inspire Food Business 2016 World Tour and, in February, the company’s popcorn chicken was approved in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service as no antibiotics ever (NAE).
While there were clearly costs incurred as part of the transition, the company has been able to recover these through growing sales of its higher-value products as opposed to whole birds.
Of Tov may have been the first poultry company to adopt antibiotic-free production in Israel, but others are now following suit, The next stage for the company may be to make its turkey production antibiotic free.
Supermarket aisle dedicated exclusively to Of Tov’s antibiotic-free product. (Courtesy Of Tov)