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Poultry flock health planning

Course: Poultry diseases and pests | Last Updates: 7th October 2015

Michael Clark
Director Minster Veterinary Practice in Leicestershire
Biography >>

In days gone by, a good stockman was content in the knowledge that if his birds were alive and producing eggs or gaining weight, then all was well with the world. Production has moved on since then and now a farm health plan is an essential part of a modern poultry unit.

Who needs a health plan?

To some this has been perceived as an additional burden on the producer who often must feel he is disappearing under a mountain of paperwork. Certainly when a farmer is a member of Assured Chicken Production (ACP), Quality British Turkey, Freedom Foods or other schemes then no health plan means a non compliance.

It is difficult to put a figure on how many poultry units have a health plan, but it is fair to say that anyone tied into a contract with a big egg packer or integrator will have to be part of an assurance scheme and will, therefore, need that relevant document.

reviewingThe question is, should you produce this document under sufferance or should you make it work for you? Also if no one has asked you for a health plan should you develop one anyway? My answer is that if you have commercial poultry you need a health plan and the more you put into it the more you will gain from it.

The health plan should not be developed with your vet then never referred to again. It is a work in progress that always needs updating as the health and welfare of your birds alters. Though most of the health plans we have issued have been paper documents, this ever-changing picture lends itself to computer records.

Who is the health plan for?

Primarily the producer and for any site that has numerous interactions with other people. Though the health plan is normally developed with a vet, it does allow a new incoming vet to get a quick handle on the status of the birds. By documenting the health planning it demonstrates to your customers, should they wish to scrutinise, the health and welfare measures adopted on farm. Also your partners in an integrated operation may wish to assess health.

Documenting the normal

It is essential to record the normal site parameters, number of birds, age, breed etc. Then the daily changes need noting down. Egg numbers or daily live weight gain, water consumption, dead and culls, plus leg culls.

Documenting the abnormal

At some point the recorded data may veer from the normal. In the health plan there needs to be a clear marker as to when intervention is required. In many instances this is the start point for a vet investigation.

Health investigation documents

When vet visits, post-mortem examinations or lab work have been carried out they should be added to the health plan. It is then possible to cross reference the recording of abnormal performance parameters with a possible diagnosis.

Vaccination programme

All commercial birds receive some form of vaccine schedule and this should be incorporated into the plan. Often a schedule can remain in place for many crops or placements. However, when the health status changes or vaccines come or go off the market the schedule can change and this must be documented.

Medicine use

In an ideal world commercial birds should be produced without the need for antibiotics. However, when illness dictates that a flock would benefit from medication this should be recorded in the medicines book, added to the health plan and have an appropriate prescription.



So often a disease threat is recognised where vaccination or medication are not options. An example fresh in our minds at the moment is avian flu. It is the responsibility of the producer to keep this disease off their site by tight control on the movement of people and equipment onto the unit.

He should also eliminate the chance of vermin or wild birds bringing disease to his flock. However, it is inevitable that older birds at depletion will have been exposed to some infectious diseases and to reduce risk to future placements a cleansing and disinfection programme should be developed, documented, implemented and checked for effectiveness.

Slaughterhouse data

Many producers breathe a big sigh of relief when the last module leaves their site and forget that some useful information is soon to come their way from the processing plant. Obviously you get paid for the number of birds fit for human consumption and their weight. From a health and welfare aspect the factory reject sheet from the Meat Hygiene Service is so important.

When the agricultural causes of rejection are above normal parameters you want to know the specifics (eg, FSK is the code for skin rejects and FEM the code for emaciated rejects). Then is it possible to correlate this information with disease problems that occurred on site? Or was this an unexpected phenomenon? Armed with these data should an alteration be made to the health plan in time to reduce the chance of a similar problem occurring in the next flock?

Measuring the cost of disease

It is so difficult to know the true cost of any disease challenge to a site and thus by default the true benefit of any measure incorporated in a health plan to combat the disease. The reason for this is that often diseases do not occur in isolation. How much is a coccidiosis challenge costing a site if concurrently there is Marek's Disease? Also the risk of infectious disease may be greater in debilitated birds or those of poor quality. However, when a producer records the presence of clinical disease or injury and the general condition of the birds he has a start point. He is then able to see if there is a correlation with measured parameters such as weight, feed consumption and water consumption.

chicksThere should then be an investigation to determine the cause of the health or welfare issue. The impact of the problem on the bottom line can be determined by the affect on the European Poultry Efficiency Factor (EPEF), margins, feed conversion ratio, egg numbers and quality.

Once an alteration has been made to the health plan to combat the challenge – such as antibiotic medication, additional vaccine cover or tighter biosecurity – the impact of the change should be monitored. It is assumed that a well-intentioned change to a health plan will result in improved performance parameters, but it need not be the case.

With the relentless updating of health planning it reveals how a site needs to be constantly under review to determine whether a health plan is delivering the health, welfare and ultimately performance required. Where there is a shortcoming an investigation needs to be launched to identify the problem and to offer a solution. The plan needs to be put in place and then assessed to ensure it has the desired result. This should be ongoing as new threats and challenges assault your site.

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