Keys to RWA success
By Melanie Epp
Eight tips for promoting healthy flocks.
By Melanie Epp
Raising poultry without the use of antibiotics is not for everyone, but it’s a challenge Lisa Jones and her husband Dan are happy they took on. While it’s more time consuming and requires serious attention to detail, it’s very rewarding once you get it right. Four experts, including Jones, offer these eight tips for success.
1. Success starts at breeding
Raising poultry without the use of antibiotics is challenging, but not impossible. Success starts at breeding, says Paul McCartan, director of live procurement and field service at Sofina Foods Company. McCartan runs the raised without antibiotic (RWA) program at Sofina, and has also raised RWA broilers as a farmer. Sofina’s 17 RWA growers are part of a program designed by McCartan and Poultry Health Services’ veterinarians, the foundation of which is their breeder program.
The immune system of the chick starts with hen nutrition, disease status and maternal antibody status.
“We have got an autogenous vaccine in our breeders. We have built what I hope to be one of the most robust breeder program vaccine programs in Canada,” he says. “Our progeny, they have very high internal antibody titers. The immunity that those chicks come into the barn with is quality number-one.”
The program, in fact, starts with the selection of eggs from prime breeders. From there, Sofina hand selects broiler farmers based on their ability to work with the company.
2. Hatchery hygiene is key
But not all producers will have the opportunity to work so closely with a program director, nor will they know what’s going on in the hatchery. Hygiene is king in the hatchery, says retired hatchery specialist Donna Hill of Donna Hill Consulting. Hill offers technical consulting to hatchery managers with emphasis on incubation quality.
Sanitation and hygiene inside the hatchery are crucial, Hill says, pointing to egg sanitation and hatchery disinfection. Eggs should be nest clean, as should all egg-handling equipment, she says.
3. Know the signs of incubation problems
In addition to sanitation, good incubation itself is crucial to the success of RWA production, Hill says. Chicks that were developed under good incubation quality have a better chance of maturing their immune system after hatch.
Unless producers switch to on-farm hatching, this is next to impossible to control, but the signs of poor incubation quality are hard to miss. Signs of incubation problems include, but are not limited to: large unabsorbed yolk; yellow down around the navel; strings; red hocks, diffuse and bilateral; clubbed down; brown wiry feathers; small-sized chicks with pale, short down; bloody egg debris; leg problems; and areas with no feathers.
Hill recommends that farmers work closely with their hatcher. She also advises RWA producers to switch to a system that provides chicks with early access to feed and water like HatchTech or an on-farm hatching solution like Nestborn or X-Treck by Vencomatic.
4. Take your time in the barn, especially in the first weeks
The first week in the barn sets the stage for the rest of the production cycle. First-generation farmers Lisa and Dan Jones run a 15,000-unit broiler operation north of Fergus in Ontario. Lisa is in charge of day-to-day operations in the barn.
“In the first week, you need to pay extremely particular attention to the environment in the barn,” she says. “If you don’t take that time to do that, the rest of your crop generally isn’t going to go very well.”
Most importantly, Jones says, you need to know your birds. “I find it’s really important that you have one main person who’s doing chores so that they know those birds,” she says. “They know their mannerisms, their little quirks, and if anything’s changing, they’re going to be picking that up.”
Key management factors include ensuring timely feed and water intake, stress reduction, moisture management and maintaining barn and chick temperature.
5. Help chicks develop balance and diversity in the gut
Probably the most important factor for ensuring strong development is promoting good intestinal development, technical manager for Alltech Canada Kayla Price explains.
When chicks first arrive from the hatchery, it’s important to start with a strong brooding period, making the first 10 to 14 days especially important. Early access to quality feed and clean water is also incredibly important, as it aids in intestinal development and later maintenance, Price says. When a bird is first hatched, she says, it has very immature microflora. It takes time and management to develop a mature microflora.
“When we talk about microflora, it’s not just the total number of bacteria that is there, it’s also who is there and what are they doing,” Price says. “We’re looking to balance our good guys, our potentially bad guys – those opportunists – as well as those bad guys.”
“That diversity is going to help protect them from other challenges that come through,” she adds.
Developing strong microflora means managing environment conditions that create stress and potentially support opportunistic bacteria in the gut.
6. Careful moisture management helps vaccine intake
It’s important that RWA producers monitor temperature and litter moisture closely in the first weeks of life so that the coccidiosis vaccine can properly cycle through the birds. Chicks are sprayed at the hatchery with the vaccine, which is spread through pecking and walking on feces on the barn floor. Doing so lowers the risk of losses to necrotic enteritis later. This mean checking the barn several times a day to ensure humidity levels are high enough for sporulation to occur, Jones says. Ventilation also needs to be just right to improve air quality without removing moisture.
7. Later, keep litter dry and feed and water accessible
Litter need only stay moist for the first week or so, though, Jones explains. “When we think the cycle is through, that’s when we increase our ventilation and reduce that moisture and dry up the litter as much as we can,” Jones says.
This helps to reduce the risk of developing footpad issues later in the bird’s life.
Food and water should be accessible at all times throughout the bird’s life. If feed runs out, even for a relatively short period of time, broilers will go looking for food. When they can’t find it they’ll start pecking litter, which can create problems in the gut.
A water outage can be equally as damaging, Price says.
8. Remove dead stock and cull, if necessary
Ensuring flock health sometimes means knowing when to call it quits. This means culling sick birds and birds that are not going to do well, and picking up dead birds as soon as possible, Price says.
“When we’re talking about birds we’re really talking about flock health over individual health,” she says.
McCartan agrees, which is why Sofina offers a prorated program where the price farmers get paid increases as they get closer to finishing a flock. “We do not want management to be making decisions purely on the financial implications associated with that type of decision,” he says. “That’s a welfare decision that we encourage our veterinary oversight to be part of.”
“But at the end of the day, we will pull the flock if necessary,” he says.
The final word
RWA production can best be described as ‘finicky’. It is hard production that requires great attention to details, but it is doable. All four experts offered one last tip for success: Build a strong network of experienced individuals.
“It’s important to have those resources to speak with to help with the things that come up because it’s a completely different way of raising birds,” Jones says. “Having those resources was very helpful and probably key to our succeeding.”