‘Feed factor’ proves critical for ABF poultry

Wetaskiwin, ALBERTA — As more poultry farms across Canada and the U.S. make the shift to antibiotic-free (ABF) production, a growing body of industry examples points to feed and nutrition as a critical factor in success.

“Whether you are talking about health and welfare, performance and profitability, or quality and safety – the area of feed and nutrition is an important nexus point,” says Dr. Nancy Fischer, poultry nutritionist at Country Junction Feeds, a pioneering antibiotic-free feed manufacturer serving customers and partners across Canada and the U.S.  “Feed and nutrition connects and strongly influences each of these outcomes. As a result, it is one of the most powerful tools to support successful ABF production.”

There’s no silver bullet to achieving a sustainable ABF operation, she says. “You have to be an attentive manager and you have to be prepared to make some changes.” But in working with numerous operations and industry partners over the past several years, the Country Junction Feeds team has found that taking the time to develop a more sophisticated approach to feed and nutrition can go a long way to ensuring a positive transition. “It’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

Big piece of the puzzle

For one thing, transparency and verification requirements are getting tighter, says Fischer. To meet new retailer and food company branded program standards, operations increasingly will need not only to prove no antibiotics use on-farm, but also to prove that feed is sourced from antibiotic-free feed mills. Country Junction Feeds is the first large-scale feed manufacturer in Western Canada, and one of the first in Canada and the U.S., to achieve verified antibiotic-free status for its facilities.

In addition, shifting away from antimicrobial use means operations need effective diversified approaches to support animal health and welfare as well as performance. With advances in science, knowledge, technology, sourcing and bio-based additives, poultry operations now have a much wider portfolio of resources and strategies to draw upon. “The reality today is that you can get a lot more value and benefits out of feed than you did in the past. We have seen many advances over the past few years. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.”

Shift to greater precision, customization

Along with the spike in demand for ABF feed sourcing, among successful ABF operations, Fischer and colleagues have observed a strong drive toward more individualized nutrition plans and greater use of the latest generation feed additives. Specifically, bio-based products that can get more out of feed and play a role as antibiotic-alternatives by supporting animal health and welfare along with performance. Top examples include pre- and pro-biotics and multi-functional enzyme formulations.

“Precision is one of the keys,” says Fischer. “For example, we’re finding that even small tweaks to the types of protein used and protein levels can make a big difference for gut health. Additives can do a range of things from boosting nutrition density and supporting health to reducing stress. The key is to look at the feed sources and dietary strategies as a whole, and link that to the specific needs of the birds in a particular environment and production system. Getting an overall updated analysis done by a trusted advisor is a good starting point.”

Anchoring an integrated strategy

Improvements to feed and nutrition approaches can help anchor an integrated strategy supporting ABF production. Additional key measures include use of vaccines, enhancement of barns with improved circulation and temperatures controls, housing with more space, stringent disinfecting and cleanliness protocols, strict biosecurity measures, improved water quality and enhanced monitoring. Further essential measures include training programs and education efforts for producers and service technicians, along with strengthened veterinary relationships and oversight.

Operations also need plans in place to allow for antimicrobial use when needed, says Fischer. “Even if you’re doing everything right to minimize the need for antibiotics, no system is bulletproof. Birds sometimes get sick and treating illness is a responsible part of animal care. When this happens producers can work with animal health experts and veterinarians to determine if an antibiotic is needed. For cases where antibiotic use disqualifies the birds from an ABF market, it’s important to have a ‘Plan B’ in place to direct those birds to a different market.”

Driving innovation

Based on the examples Country Junction Feeds has observed, producers who combine these approaches have an excellent framework for achieving ABF while maintaining competitive performance, says Fischer. “The added bonus is that by taking a stronger hands-on approach to management – often you can see better results on all outcomes compared to a traditional system.”

This stems from greater management attentiveness, as well as from upgrading areas such as feed and nutrition that may have been taken for granted. “With the right approaches, typically what we hear from our customers is there are much fewer health issues and the results are better than ever.”

Any type of operation can benefit, she says. “Ultimately it’s about innovation. Anything you can do to get better is going to make it easier to farm more efficiently and more profitably. Improvements will also help poultry operations qualify for new programs coming down the pike from retailers and food companies. People make the difference. If you’re committed and willing to put in the work, that work will pay off whether you are ABF or conventional.”