by Rebecca Sherratt, Features Editor, Milling and Grain


Earlier in April, Milling and Grain attended Biomin's webinar 'Antibiotic Reduction Experiences in the UK Poultry Industry'. This webinar discussed antibiotic stewardship and the gut microbiome was discussed by Dr Daniel Parker, Senior Veterinarian in Slate Hall Veterinary, UK.

Dr Parker opened his discussion by first referencing the British Poultry Council (BPC). The BPC was established in 2011 and manages standardisation, trade and policymaking for the UK poultry industry. Dr Parker also addressed the common misconception that the goal of antibiotic stewardship is to use absolutely no antibiotics. The aim of antibiotic stewardship is, in fact, to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance to 'preserve the limited armoury of antibiotics we have available'.

Sales of antibiotics in the UK farming sector have seen a decline over the past few years, which Dr Parker expressed as a very positive change for the industry. In 2012, sales of antibiotics for animals exceeded 450 tonnes in the UK, which reduced to less than 250 tonnes by 2017, a rate which continues to drop year-on-year.

Overall, antibiotic reduction has been a success story in the UK poultry industry. In the past six years we have seen an 80.2 percent reduction in the total use of antibiotics, with an 82.6 percent decrease in the use of critically important antibiotics in poultry.

Challenges in antibiotic reduction

There are many challenges associated with reducing the use of antibiotics in broilers, and these can be difficult to manage. Dr Parker noted that it becomes increasingly vital that broilers have access to a good environment, quality feed and optimal biosecurity which 'in practice, is not as easy to achieve as when put onto paper'. One point that Dr Parker placed great emphasis on was the importance of stricter cleaning measures. High pressure flushing is necessary to reduce the risk of diseases taking hold.

The UK government has taken steps to provide farms with incentives to provide safe conditions for their livestock. Renewable Heat Incentives (RHI) reward farmers for adopting green energy systems. The indirect heating provided through traditional green energy systems creates a safer environment for poultry and is proven to decrease risk of coccidiosis and improve gut health.

Ensuring optimal broiler health

Clinical studies in 2019 noted that antibiotic use in broilers is linked to two main health issues. 43 percent of antibiotics are used to mitigate issues with chick quality, such as yolk sac infection and septicaemia, whilst 47 percent are used to optimise leg health and prevent issues such as femoral head necrosis and osteomyelitis.

Dr Parker noted that clinical coccidiosis is only the tip of the iceberg. It is, in fact, subclinical coccidiosis and the symptoms it raises (reduced weight gain, worsening performance, increased feed conversion ratio (FCR)) that can cause big issues in profitable and healthy broiler production.

In a 2005 study by Lotta Waldenstedt on Swedish broilers, costs of coccidiosis prevention and treatment was assessed, which highlighted the significant amount of money that is spent treating symptoms of subclinical coccidiosis. In total, 30 percent of coccidiosis-preventing antibiotics were used for the prevention of coccidiosis prior to occurrance. Only 2.2 percent of antibiotics were used to directly treat symptoms of clinical coccidiosis (mortality and condemnations), whilst an overwhelming 67.8 percent of coccidiosis treatments are directly used in the treatment of subclinical symptoms such as reduced weight gain and increased FCR.

Dr Parker explained that the best way to ensure optimal broiler health is for us to gain an improved understanding of the microbiome. Experts can examine the microbiome for biomarkers of better health and productivity within broilers through shotgun metagenomics sequencing (a system that enables researchers to combine and analyse multiple samples to evaluate biological diversity). The variety of microbiota within the microbiome is incredibly complex, which is why we need to undertake further research on the matter. Dr Parker notes that every broiler is different, and research shows that there is also a 'great deal of diversity [of microbiota present in the microbiome] as the bird ages'.

When asked how to manage and improve intestinal integrity whilst also trying to minimise the use of antibiotics, Dr Parker recommends adopting competitive exclusion, probiotics, prebiotics, essential oils and organic acids.

'We need to get a handle on reducing antibiotics and ensure we have quality control throughout the supply chain and in our production system to make sure that we have healthy stock. We need to be ensuring that we have got quality in terms of our feed to ensure we support the microbiome.'

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