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Successful antibiotic free broiler production

As more companies around the globe consider antibiotic free (ABF) broiler production, it is important to understand all the factors that 
can impact daily activities and the success of such a move. Managers will expect similar costs 
and performance, but should realise that ABF 
production will require changes within their own systems. Not simply adjustments to feed profiles and brood programmes.

By Dean Creasey, Cobb world 
technical support team, USA

A number of factors are 
known to affect antibiotic free (ABF) performance 
in broilers:

  • Farm management and husbandry must be near perfect to minimise any insult to the chicks. In partial house brooding, poor turnout or any feed outage will make the birds more susceptible to necrotic enteritis. Insult equals stress that will lead to intestinal problems and/or high mortality three to five days later.
  • Lower stocking density favours improved performance. In regions where the house is cleaned every flock, the depth of replacement litter must be sufficient for moisture control.
  • In regions where litter is used for multiple flocks, there should be a defined programme for number of flocks between total cleanouts, downtime between flocks (>14 days), and windrow or litter treatments.
  • Coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis programmes must be constantly monitored.
  • All vegetable diets are favoured.
  • Farm water sanitation programmes are vital to keep bacteria and 
biofilm out of the drinker lines.

Measuring performance
All these factors apply after the chicks arrive at the farm. The industry has been using antibiotics applied at the hatchery to compensate for any insults from egg quality, hatchery process, transport and delivery. Seven-day broiler mortality is a useful tool for measuring hatchery and brooding performance. High early 
mortality is often correlated to health problems later in the flock as well as final liveability and performance.

In considering an ABF programme, take into account factors outside the broiler farm. The goal of ABF or conventional programmes should be to keep mortality as low as possible. Typical rates are <0.90-1.0%. abf birds are more 
challenging with normal weekly rates averaging 1.20-1.40%. on problem deliveries or individual houses, this rate will often climb to 2.5-3.0% or more, which then drives up the weekly 
percentage above the 1.0% norm.>

So what internal factors need to be 
discussed when you are challenged to produce ABF broilers and still meet your business goals? Will operational costs and capital costs need to be evaluated and budgets potentially increased?

Operational costs
Will the complex be 100% ABF or combined with your current conventional programme? The differences between conventional and ABF farm programmes, feed regimes, hatchery processes and even egg supply could make it necessary to have a dedicated administration/logistics person. Will your farms be dedicated to ABF or on a rotation programme? Inevitably, chick placement routine can be much more complicated.

Assess your current hatchery quality assurance programmes and staffing. QA support will need to identify problem placements and reduce their frequency. Dedicated, detailed records allow the hatchery manager to adjust set and pull times, vaccination application, cleaning and disinfectant programmes, egg quality assessments and chick transport.

Field technician training is key to good performance. Not only will the technicians need to understand quality issues affecting baby chicks and bird health patterns, they will need to be competent communicators to the farm owner or flock supervisor so they operate within compliance of the ABF agreement.

Who will be responsible within your complex for ensuring that your processes, auditing and records meet the customer agreements?

Will there need to be cost share programmes for farm litter? This could be necessary to ensure the correct quality and depth, windrowing, number of flocks or acidification programmes proven beneficial to ABF performance.

Breeder management
Compare your current laying patterns to standards. Young flock sources tend to be more of a challenge in achieving low seven-day mortality (Figure 1). This 
pattern is often magnified with ABF programmes due to egg/chick size and the simple fact that the hatch process and temperature controls are more stressful in eggs from young breeders.

While hatching eggs from young flock sources is a normal part of the business, can they be used in conventional programmes or logistically planned for a non-ABF hatch? Having breeder farms adhere to a minimum 50 or 48 gram hatching egg weight will be more important.

Older hen flocks or hatching eggs collected outside the nest increase bacterial challenge. Holding flocks over 65 weeks during times of shortage will also have more of a negative impact on ABF 
mortality. Hygiene within the nests, 
collection practices and equipment will require more emphasis on bacterial 
control on the breeder farm. Micro cracks from nest design or automated collection systems should be evaluated as these eggs may become 'bangers' in the setters and increase bacterial load.

Clean hatcheries
Keep the hatchery as clean as possible with regimented cleaning and disinfection. Include all areas where chicks are exposed - hatchers, hallways, processing rooms and holding rooms. Due to the bacterial bloom of the hatch process, 
use approved disinfection as chicks begin to pip.

Correct tray wash temperatures for cleaning chick boxes and hatcher trays is important. Assess egg quality and provide feedback to breeders, according to standard. Egg storage has a negative impact on chick mortality when the storage age nears 12-14 days.

Good maintenance of temperature and ventilation equipment is critical. More parts inventory and prompt response to equipment malfunction will reduce problem placements.

Early chick stress can occur due to 
temperature and ventilation control designed for people instead of chicks. Current practices in the processing or holding room may cause thermal stress on chicks. Overheating in the hatch 
process will always result in chicks with higher mortality and poor early growth.

In combination with a conventional 
programme, can the ABF chicks be 
processed at the start of each day with the system at its cleanest? Better 
technology and computerised controls will be needed in many older hatcheries.

Chick transport
Transport can stress any chick regardless of source age or pristine hatchery standards. Chick transport involves significant capital and operational expenses for a department with only two or three vehicles and drivers. Ensure this equipment can correctly ventilate and control temperatures in any regions with extremely variable conditions. ABF programmes will require better fleet maintenance. Be prepared to monitor temperature and carbon dioxide levels in more detail. Disperse multiple sensors within the trailer to monitor what is happening across larger loads. Distance to farms and journey time should be considered in determining the number of chicks loaded. Ensure that all boxes are evenly distributed before stacking chick boxes higher. Use all available floor space for better airflow. Determine a limit on number of chicks, and communicate this to your planning, logistics and hatchery managers. Will new chick box design or fewer birds per box reduce stress for ABF broilers?

Minimising impact
The ABF goal is not a sterile product or environment. It should be to minimise the stress and bacterial challenges that may impair health, performance and flock livability. The success or failure of ABF production will not be in one single process, just as no one factor is the cause. You will need to understand the challenges which begin as early as the planning and logistics of your broiler operation.

Source: World Poultry, volume 30, no. 7, 2014


  • Proper handling and transport are important to minimise stress of day old chicks.

    Proper handling and transport are important to minimise stress of day old chicks.

By Dean Creasey, Cobb world technical support team, USA


  • Richard kenei

    We are 1 year into antibiotic free rearing. The article on successful antibiotic free broiler production very enlightening.

  • gubbi lokanath

    How about considering (I) raising breeder population in production on oranic (antibiotic free ) farming for collection of hatching eggs AND (ii) using an antibiotic spray on the hatching eggs just a few hours before setting, to minimise bacterial load, subsequently followed by ABF raising post-hatch.? This procedure will surely minimise the cost of producing hatching eggs when compared to adding antibiotics as feed additive( as in the routine practice), besides meeting the basic aim of ABF chick production and rearing.

  • Mr Hiren Pancholi

    Bio-Security is equally important as the Nutrition management. It is a very good idea to spray hatching eggs with a Biocide capable of instantly killing organisms an hour or two before setting. Other precaution for Hatchery are mentioned below:
    1. To Control Bacteria, Taste and Odor in the Water Supply System
    You must give birds water quality which you should be able to drink that is given to birds.
    2. To Control Bacteria and Odor in the Hatching Egg Room
    3. To Control Bacteria and Odor in the Hatching Area
    4. To Control Odor and Bacteria when Separating Chicks in the Chick Room, Chick Grading Box and Sexing Room
    5. To Control Bacteria and Odor in the Incubator Room

  • Bala A

    To minimize bacterial load on the hatching eggs, eggs have to be drenched in non-hazardous disinfectants, as soon as after collection.

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