By Shawn Conley
Advantages of benchmarking and using best practices
By Shawn Conley
I used to wonder what the “ISO 9000” or “ISO 14001” banners hanging in front of businesses meant. Being a part of the management team at a few companies, I quickly realized that these were best practices and benchmarking accreditations. Many companies have this status, and generally speaking, even those companies that don’t apply the same principles on some level. From equipment manufacturers to feed suppliers, climate controller companies, processors and live production, they are everywhere in our industry. They are utilized in all industries to establish a framework for management and to measure performance throughout processes to ensure that small problems don’t balloon into larger ones. Best practices, if properly developed and used, can prevent many problems, and benchmarking performance will help identify and minimize any problems that do develop.
It’s OK to have an opinion about what works on your farm, but it’s better to observe and truly figure it out. Building a template for your farm / business is a process, and takes comprehensive analysis of performance and methods used to reach the performance levels already attained. Constant tracking of data, which may include feed and water consumption, weight gain, medication and supplement use, heater run time, ventilation rates, humidity, ammonia, carbon dioxide levels, and labour, among other things, is the first and most important step. If accurate and detailed records aren’t kept, it is impossible to analyze your system. A great way to illustrate this concept is through the example of weight loss. I was not able to lose weight because when I was working out a lot, I would not track my eating habits, and vice-versa. But doing both at the same time showed results quickly and maintained them.
The concept of benchmarking is defined as comparing your performance metrics to other similar organizations, or other similar industries to figure out how and why yours are better or worse. In our industry, Agri-Stats is currently the standard for collecting and comparing performance data. It is a good place to see how your operation compares to the average of U.S. poultry companies. It does not, however, provide an in-depth analysis of the data and what it really means, and it is really only applicable at the company level. At the farm level, the processor / hatchery, breeding company, and equipment companies can provide this data and analysis in a way that benefits the farm. They have done the research necessary or collected enough data over time to establish recommendations for use of equipment, supplements, ventilation and heat.
Basically, best practices are a set of recommendations assembled to obtain the best results based on current knowledge. That doesn’t mean that once they are established, they won’t change; one of the great things about them is that they evolve as a company learns. But they provide a great starting place for farm management, and a place to reset to if there are recurring performance issues. The highest performing farms generally meet or exceed these guidelines.
Water treatment is an excellent example. It has become common knowledge in our industry that we look for a 6.5 pH, and use a volt meter to measure oxidative reduction potential, targeting a level of 650. This number appears in most company’s best practices, and getting a higher number generally will result in even cleaner water. There are other examples where being right on target is the key. If a drinker company recommends 25 to 30 birds per cup, this is because they have done exhaustive studies to get to that number. Going under may result in insufficient water levels in the cup, going over will result in reduced water consumption due to lack of space. Both those scenarios can, in turn, lead to reduced feed consumption, which leads to lower average daily gain, which means less pay at the end of the flock because you had to house the birds longer to get to target weight, or they shipped on time with lower yield. A third example would be the application of vaccines, antibiotics or probiotics. Applying these through the water can cause many problems. No withdrawal period, not pulling the chlorine in time or not administering in the correct time period can lead to reduced efficacy, or even total failure of the product, opening up the opportunity for disease challenges.
If a processor / hatchery / company has provided best practices guidelines, it is in your best interest to follow them as closely as possible. They do not develop them to create more work on the farm but to assist the farmer in producing the best performing, healthiest animals possible. Lighting and heating are the prime examples of this. Companies invest a lot of time and resources into figuring out the best ways to manage these variables. Light intensity and time can affect birds in many ways; for example, it may influence feeding or cause aggressive behaviour such as picking, which we know can lead to mortality, and cost a ton of money – especially late in a flock.
Heating is so complicated because there are so many options. Setting up a turkey brooder may take up to 60 BTUs per square foot, whereas a finisher is only 40, and a broiler house, 50. That number can be higher if not using radiant heat, but your company, the heater company or the primary breeder likely has a heat profile detailing the heat requirements of your bird (which can even vary by breed!). How does this cost money? Too few BTUs, and you are using feed to heat the birds and risking disease; too much, and you risk having birds flip, dehydrate or constantly move because of extreme repeated temperature fluctuations.
Following best practices for air quality is extremely important. Ammonia, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, humidity and dust can hurt not only the birds, but farmers and labourers. Dust levels are hard to quantify, but it is clear that dust is not good for birds or humans with extended exposure. The other four components are easier to quantify using handheld and computer linked measuring tools. In general, targeting ammonia levels under 25 ppm, carbon monoxide under 10, and carbon dioxide below 2500, with humidity under 60 per cent is a pretty solid guideline. High carbon dioxide leads to decreased weights and low activity, while carbon monoxide is similar, but with the added negative of increased mortality. Ammonia’s effects are well known, including opportunistic respiratory infections, blindness and footpad damage. Humidity leads to ammonia and also makes it difficult for birds to cool themselves because respiratory heat exchange is a major part of the process.
It is very obvious that all of the best practices discussed can affect bottom line and animal welfare to a great extent. Following best practices and constantly researching and reviewing them to make improvements is extremely important. If you, your company, your feed formulator, hatchery, primary breeder, processor, or equipment manufacturer has assembled these recommendations for you, they have put a lot of work into it because they know the importance of getting it right. And believe this —they appreciate your feedback to make the best practices better and want nothing more than to see you succeed. When the farm does better, everyone does.