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Life without antibiotics: field lessons learned the hard way

Producers need to think long and hard before jumping into “no antibiotics ever” (NAE) poultry production

16 April 2019, at 2:52pm

Producers need to think long and hard before jumping into “no antibiotics ever” (NAE) poultry production, Tim Cummings, DVM, technical service veterinarian for Zoetis, told Poultry Health Today.

Transitioning from conventional to NAE production requires a tremendous amount of planning as well as management changes at all levels of production, cautioned Cummings, who has been in close communication with several producers making the change.

A successful NAE program starts with breeder pullets. The vaccination program needs to be as strong as possible to pass adequate immunity on to broiler progeny. This means NAE producers will probably have to spend more on vaccines, and they must take great care to make sure vaccines are administered correctly, Cummings said.

There’s always a small percentage of eggs that breeders lay on the floor, and they always have a higher bacterial load than eggs laid in nests. Cummings advised they be discarded, not cleaned and sent to the hatchery.

Hatchery improvements

Sanitation at hatcheries in NAE systems must improve significantly, Cummings continued. When hatcheries stop using gentamycin, they soon discover the antibiotic was masking sanitation deficiencies that lead to increased mortality in week-old chicks.

Attention to the cleanliness of hatchery ventilation systems is an important but easily overlooked chore, he noted. It requires more than just adding a couple of ounces of disinfectant to the ventilation system. Equipment must be checked to see if it’s dirty and be properly cleaned and disinfected.

Water sources for hatcheries in NAE systems likewise need to be checked for cleanliness; that includes culturing at different points throughout the hatchery to test for contamination. Don’t assume the water is clean, Cummings warned.

A big deficiency he’s noted in NAE systems is inadequate washing of tray and chick boxes. Too often, there’s still organic material left. It’s vitally important to monitor and maintain temperature and disinfectant levels in washers, and in some of the older hatcheries, the washers need to be replaced, he said.

Detailed broiler management

On the broiler side, Cummings said husbandry during the first 2 to 4 weeks of life is critically important to prevent necrotic enteritis (NE), which has been one of the biggest problems NAE systems face, but producers are learning how to prevent this costly disease.

Keys to preventing NE include dry litter, good ventilation, reduced stocking density, increased downtime between flocks — and quality feed.

“You really need to spend more money and get good-quality ingredients in the feed,” he said. Eliminate ingredients that might make birds more susceptible to NE, like meat and bone meal. Constant feed intake is also key since running out of feed appears to increase the risk for NE.

At the heart of NE prevention is coccidiosis control, which requires proper coccidiosis vaccination. Every chick must get a full dose of the vaccine at the hatchery. Bioshuttle programs — administration of an in-feed anticoccidial at 3 weeks of age after birds have been vaccinated — can be helpful, although there is a limited number of products that can be used in NAE systems, he said.

Antibiotic alternatives have generated huge interest, and most NAE systems are using at least some of these products, which include probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids, essential oils, enzymes and mould inhibitors. However, Cummings said the NAE producers he’s worked with have yet to find an alternative product or combination of these products that consistently control NE.