Canadian Poultry Magazine

ABF Turkey Production

By R. Michael Hulet Associate Professor Department of Poultry Science Pennsylvania State University   

Features Production Turkeys Poultry Production

The key is good management

A Niche Market. Although ABF turkey production is a small market, its market share continues to grow. To be successful, good management is essential.

The key to producing antibiotic-free (ABF) turkeys is good management, Pennsylvania State University professor R. Michael Hulet said at the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in March. “We have often used antibiotics as a substitute for poor management or when management was inadequate,” he said.

“When growing ABF turkeys, it is important to start right, monitor bird health at each stage of production, and be vigilant in our management of our facilities and use of our tools of production. If we fail at any portion of our management plan, we can pay for it in much higher losses during the times that we can least afford it,” he said.

Management is especially important today because of rising feed and other production costs. “With higher feed prices and other increased costs of production, the margin needed for ABF production demands management and care of turkeys at a high and consistent level,” he said.


Although demand for ABF poultry remains small, it is increasing because of consumer fear of a possible increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could theoretically be caused by feeding therapeutic levels of antibiotics during the rearing process of meat animals. This has encouraged a search for alternatives for use in the diets of commercial poultry and other livestock.

An increase in the marketing of “natural fed” (use of no animal protein products), organic, and “antibiotic-free (ABF) diets” is a direct result of increased consumer demand for these products. It is estimated that around 2.3 per cent of the commercial turkey production in the U.S. is ABF, and market share continues to grow. However, it remains a niche market.

The Risk of Resistance
Information has been published to investigate if consumption or association with food animals treated with antimicrobials increases the risk of human resistance.1 Reports such as these and many others address the risk of bacterial resistance to human pathogens that can be increased by use of antimicrobial agents in commercial agriculture. The main issue is that some antibiotics used to treat specific human pathogens are also used on the farm to treat livestock.2

The selected growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could contaminate foodstuffs if consumed by endangered human populations remains a potential risk. Some human populations are immunologically challenged by diseases that affect the immune system, such as surgery, age and chemotherapy, or by other circumstances that would increase their susceptibility to potential pathogens. In order to maintain efficient production of commercial agriculture, management practices, vaccines and other alternative treatments have been used to effectively produce poultry.

In 1998, the European Union instituted a ban on the feeding of antibiotics that are valuable in human medicine to livestock for growth promotion. Since Jan. 1, 2006, antibiotics used for growth promotion have been eliminated from prophylactic use in all of the EU. This tool was replaced by the use of antibiotics for treatment of animals that develop disease symptoms and then followed by probiotics and other treatments to reduce morbidity and mortality and restore intestinal gut florae. Even in the United States, our antibiotic tools have been limited and in some instances, such as blackhead, eliminated.

Supplements are added to antibiotic-free diets in order to improve livability, feed efficiency, carcass quality, and growth. Some additives are formed as fermentation products and act similarly by changing the microbiological florae in the digestive tract as well as by eliminating potential pathogens that would diminish growth productivity. Some products help to enhance immune effects of the bird as well as use of vaccines that can reduce the challenges to the health of the birds. What is known is that morbidity and mortality of the poult is exacerbated by the presence of more than one disease or management challenge. That is, a disease such as bronchitis can become more severe when either wet litter or high levels of ammonia are present in the environment. These are critical elements of management that must be controlled and will be discussed below, along with the use of prebiotics, probiotics, essential oils and organic acids.

To be successful with ABF turkeys the following areas of management are necessary: breeder/hatching egg management; precise incubation; poult quality; vaccination efficiency; temperature control during holding, transportation, and brooding; air, water and feed quality; litter moisture control (ventilation); bird density; and morbidity/mortality evaluation and intestinal monitoring. Reducing the environmental challenges to the poults can yield bird performance that can rival what is seen for commercial toms and hens. However, failure to control these factors can lead to disastrous results.

Clean Hatching Eggs
The process starts with clean hatching eggs, which involves clean nests, no floor eggs and control of egg sanitation. Cleanliness of nests and concentration of the cleaning solution is especially critical as breeder flocks get older. As the production season progresses, the eggs increase in size but the amount of shell deposited doesn’t change greatly. This means that the shell thickness decreases as egg size increases and the opportunity for bacteria to go from outside the shell to the embryo increases. Bacteria can enter the egg pores within the first 15 minutes until the shell dries and makes a clean nest environment essential to egg sanitation. Some producers or hatcheries will use black lights to monitor proper sanitation of eggs on the farm. Maintaining temperature and cleanliness of the egg storage room – free from foreign matter as well as moulds and fungi – is important. Taking environmental swabs of clean eggs and storage room walls on a regular basis is a good verification practice to check for bacterial and mould load.

Embryo Temperature / Poult Quality
Incubation has gained importance for poult performance, with recent research showing the effect of embryonic temperature on leg strength and growth efficiency. Recent research has shown that shell temperature of 100-100.5 F is optimum during the incubation period for development and maturation of the embryo into a quality chick.3

Shell temperatures lower or higher than this contribute to reduced hatchability and embryo development. Multi-stage incubation tends to provide lower than optimum embryonic temperatures during the early incubation stages and higher than optimum during the latter stages.3 Poults are quite sensitive to high temperatures. The effects of high temperatures are increased yolk sac and smaller poults. When the poults don’t consume most of the yolk sac, they lack part of the immune capability, the stomach is extended, which makes exiting the egg more difficult and results in red hocks and unhealed navels.4 Lack of uniformity of leg length can also contribute to imbalanced birds.5

Poult Processing  and Holding

Handling of the poults after hatch is important to avoid two significant problems observed – pre and post-processing temperatures and vaccinations – that could lead to other problems. Poults are most comfortable at a rectal temperature of between 102 and 104 F. Prior to processing, stacks of poults can be pulled and stacked side by side, preventing airflow over the poults that can cause overheating. After processing, if the holding area is either too hot or too cold, it can cause heat stress on the bird. If the temperature is about right, the poults settle down and maintain a good body temperature. If birds are noisy, they need to be checked for too high or too low a temperature, or too drafty an environment. Putting air directly on the birds can cause a draft that will chill them. Chilling through drafts or too cool a temperature can cold stress the poults. Too high a temperature can contribute to increased respiration and dehydration in these small birds. Some vaccines are sprayed on the birds without adequate light or warmth to allow increased activity levels and consistent uptake of the vaccine. The moisture from the spray can also contribute to chilling without adequate temperature control in the holding area.

Transportation and House Environment
Humane handling of birds has become an important and audited element of poultry production. It is especially important for ABF production for two reasons: 1) To prevent stress and promote health of the poult, and 2) most retailers of the ABF product demand strict animal care and handling standards. Therefore, attention to details regarding truck temperatures, bird rectal temperatures taken from birds located at different sites in the truck, litter temperature on arrival at the brooding house, and ammonia and carbon-monoxide levels during brooding are important to monitor and maintain at acceptable levels. Treatment of the litter by thermal fogging has been shown to have positive results in reduction of bacteria levels and providing a clean environment for the poults.

Brooding is critical to bird health and growth. Having level littered areas with fresh water and feed and consistent temperatures for the brooder rings will allow a proper start for the flock of turkeys. Too high a temperature for too long can be as damaging as too low a temperature. Many flocks have different heat requirements based on floor temperature, poult size, perinatal temperature, vaccination response, etc., and monitoring behaviour of the poults during the first day is critical to adjusting the starting house temperature of the flock. For the finisher stage, use of equipment to recondition the litter, removal of caked portions and in some instances windrowing litter, have been positive in reduction of bacteria levels, release of ammonia, and reduction of moisture in the litter in preparation for moving the birds to the finisher stage.

Ventilation is extremely important to promote health and growth of the birds. If the gut florae are maintained healthy, growth and feed conversion can be optimized. Proper mixing of air and control of humidity to remove moisture from the house is a strategy that is important not only for foot pad scores, but also for dust, ammonia and respiratory health. Infrequent tilling can actually cause spikes in ammonia, mould and fungi being released into the air. Regular tilling of feed and water lines can be done without injury to the birds and can help in moisture control and leg health of the birds. Tilling, along with other treatments to limit darkling beetles, has been shown to help reduce the reintroduction of disease organisms from one flock to another and thus improve health. Rodent control, as well as beetle control, is something that needs to be done to prevent buildup and recurrence of disease problems, especially salmonella.

Water and Feed Quality

Water pH and quality need to be monitored because water hygiene is an important means of preventing bacterial challenges to the gut of the birds. Water pH has been shown to be beneficial when slightly acidic (6-6.5). When chlorine is used, free chlorine levels of 35 ppm at the end of the water line are desired. Cleaning bio-film out between flocks can help in maintaining water sanitation. Litter moisture and quality are helped by proper ventilation and drinker control, and consistent tilling of the litter. Nipple drinkers have helped in reducing over-consumption and spilling of water onto the litter.

Although yeast byproducts have to date met with varying success in terms of promoting growth and growth efficiency, other prebiotics, such as oregano, mannan-oligosaccharides, fructo-oligosaccharides, chicory and probiotics, have been proposed to help replace the use of antibiotics and growth promoters. Some nutritional supplements have shown promise in sustaining turkey growth and performance. ABF turkeys have mortality rates that average one to two per cent higher than those of non-ABF turkeys; this fact, along with lower placement densities, increases the production costs of this segment of the industry. Hence other nutritional and management research is needed to help production performance for this segment of the industry.

Bird Health and Monitoring
Monitoring of bird health and efficiency has to be done on a regular basis. Evaluation of gut integrity early in production (four to six weeks) for the presence of coccidiosis, worms, bacterial damage (Clostridial sp., especially) is important to assess products used and individual treatments for farms. Diagnostic skill and resources are important tools in proper treatment and application of additives.


  1. Spring, Peter, 1999. The move away from antibiotic growth promoters in Europe. In: Under the Microscope: Focal Points for the New Millennium. Proceedings of Alltech’s 15th Annual Symposium (T.P. Lyons and K.A. Jacques, eds.), Nottingham University Press, Nottingham, 173-183.
  2. Salyers, Abigail, 2000. Why poultry producers should worry about bacterial sex. Poultry USA, February, Watt Publishing, 22-25.
  3. Hulet, R.M., G. Gladys, D. Hill, R. Meijerhof, and T. El-Sheikh, 2007. Influence of egg-shell embry-onic incubation temperature and breeder flock age on post-hatch growth performance and carcass characteristics of broilers. Poult.Sci. 86:408-412.
  4. Barri A., C.F. Honaker, J.R. Sottosanti, R.M. Hulet, and A.P. McElroy, 2011. Effect of incubation temperature on nutrient transporters and small intestine morphology of broiler chickens. Poult. Sci. 90(1): 118-125.
  5. Oviedo-Rondon, E.O., M.J. Wineland, S. Funderburk, J. Small, H. Cutchin, and M. Mann, 2009. Incubation conditions affect leg health in large, high-yield broilers. J. Appl. Poult. Res. 18(3): 640-646. (Oviedo-Rondon, et al., 2009).

From a paper presented at the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in March 2011

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