MSD Animal Health: Poultry health in an antibiotic-free (ABF) production environment

Monday, November 7, 2016

MSD Animal Health: Poultry health in an antibiotic-free (ABF) production environment


Fernando Vargas



A new generation of consumers is changing the way that poultry meat has been produced for decades. Especially in developed countries, the increasing demand for healthier food products and lifestyle is leading to a bigger and faster market growth for those special products, in comparison to the conventional ones. One of the main aspects of these changes is the use of antibiotics.


Many big food chains and retailers in the United States have already set timelines to be followed by the producers, when all poultry meat should be produced without antimicrobials. Used to overcoming its challenges, the poultry industry is working hard – and fast – to meet these demands while keeping the business profitable and sustainable.




In an ABF production environment, antibiotics are not an option and we need to constantly seek alternatives to ensure bird health and performance. For chickens, this means they will depend more on their own organic resources to fight against pathogens, building an effective immune response. Some conditions commonly found in the conventional production system play a more crucial role in an ABF environment. Effective alternatives to antimicrobials are needed and they can be classified in three different segments, as follows.




This is the most important aspect for broiler production. Under ABF conditions, the margin for error is significantly reduced. For food producing animals, health doesn't mean "merely the absence of disease", health is a key factor that could determine how and if, a business will be profitable or not. Managing health programs for birds raised without the use of antibiotics requires more attention to detail and more effort to ensure that all planned procedures will be put in place.


Prevention becomes first priority. A strong vaccination program needs to be put in place, designed for each country/region, according to local challenges. And, it needs to be reviewed often, as those challenges tend to change overtime. A comprehensive and permanent monitoring system will ensure that the right vaccines will be used at the right time.




Feed ingredients, formulation and feed milling are important aspects in any production system. For ABF birds, high quality feed ingredients/proper formulation will play an even more relevant role. The key word is digestibility. Undigested, not-absorbed nutrients will feed undesirable microflora species in the lower gut, promoting their growth and leading to dysbacteriosis.


Bad quality feed ingredients can't make a good final product, but poor feed milling could turn any high quality, raw material into a bad quality final product. Each step in the feed production process must be monitored, with special attention to dosing, mixing and pelleting.


Formulation is another critical point. Nutrient levels need to meet all bird requirements, according to their age, breed, time of the year, etc. The use of special ingredients such as enzymes or prebiotics (like organic acids, herbal extracts, essential oils) can help to maintain the gut health and thus to improve performance. The mode of action of prebiotics is not totally elucidated, but is supposed to include immunomodulation and microflora balance enhancement.




Husbandry practices can have a really big impact on poultry production. Poor management could be the cause of many problems, like higher feed conversion and mortality rates and lower weight gain. There is a long list of potentially harmful steps on the production chain linked to management and this list starts with the last hours of incubation. It then goes to the brooding period until the last days the flock is in the poultry house before processing.


Flock uniformity is a very important aspect for the processing plant. Incubation and brooding periods can affect chick quality and thus flock uniformity at the end. Uniformity, body weight and mortality rate during the first week should also be monitored as an indicator for good chick quality.


Uneven flocks will slow down the lines at the processing plant, having a negative impact on cost of production, also affecting the quality of the final product.


Birds raised without the use of antibiotics will be more susceptible to small changes and management deficiencies when compared to those kept in a conventional production system.


Consider reducing bird density when working in ABF conditions, keep records of all changes implemented, and follow standard procedures and production design. Get people involved and give them all the information and training needed.



Consumer unmet needs will continue to grow, and being prepared to meet those needs is a key driver to success.

Switching to an ABF production system is a learning curve, and a transition process that will take time dedication and investment. But doing so, will lay the foundation for success.

How different factors are handled in each of them, as briefly discussed here, will make all the difference.



For more of the article, please click here.


Article made possible through the contribution of Fernando Vargas and MSD Animal Health