The basics of broiler litter management

Whether it’s exporting chicken feet, or even burning litter in biomass, the need for dry bedding is becoming ever more important.

Good litter is a basic tenet of a well-managed broiler farm, indicating less ammonia, a better environment and healthier birds.

“The most important function of litter is to absorb the moisture out of the excrement of animals,” says Felix Lamber, an area sales manager at environmental control company Fancom. “It minimises the bird’s contact with manure, and so avoids blisters, skin burns and pododermatitis.” This is because dry litter does not release ammonia as readily as wet litter.

It also insulates a shed from the cold ground below, and a well-heated floor surface will boost bird performance and uniformity.

If litter is spread at a reasonable depth, heated to 33C at the time chicks are placed, that warmth will remain stored for up to two weeks, says Mr Lamber. Dry litter will also keep condensation levels down.

Cause and effect

The first thing to look out for when preventing wet litter is drafts and leaks into the shed. Cold spots in that environment sap moisture from the warmer air around them and create damp patches. Birds are a simple indicator of a draft; they will be avoiding it.

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Other sources of wet litter may be drinkers that are set at an incorrect pressure or left unclean, so spitting out water. Leaking cooling or fogging systems are also common causes, says Mr Lamber.

Animals – another main source of condensation in a poultry shed – may exacerbate wet litter in the event of a health challenge.

Once condensation is under control, adequate ventilation to remove moisture from the air is crucial, he adds. If you cannot ventilate enough to remove the humidity from the house, damp air will remain stuck in the shed.

So air speed at the litter surface must be maintained and bird density needs to be managed carefully. “If there is a cushion of animals on your floor, the ambient air is not able to touch the litter – nothing will happen there.”

Another factor to consider is the environment outside the sheds. If it’s raining a lot, then heating and ventilation will need to compensate. “The only way to cope with rain is to heat up the air, to create an absorption capacity so that air can pick up water from your house.”

Closer inspection

“If we analyse the drying of litter on a microscale, we find it’s dependent on the moisture difference between the litter and the shed air,” explains Mr Lamber.

More moisture in litter and less in the air will mean better transfer between the two, and that’s where airflow comes in.

The faster air that’s laden with water can be pulled from the shed and replaced with a fresh, dry counterpart, the more friable litter will become.

Emerging disease threats bring biosecurity into focus

Three particular disease challenges have emerged over the last 12 months, according to Daniel Parker of Slate Hall veterinary practice, increasing the need for good hygiene at farm level.

The diseases are:

Transmissible viral proentriculitis –This viral infection causes poor feed conversion by damage to the proentriculus, the first part of a bird’s stomach where enzymes are mixed with feed to aid digestion.

Reovirus – Despite this challenge having a “question mark” placed over it, Mr Parker says incidences of leg lesions at processing have increased, but reovirus has not been definitively named as the cause.

“There are often no obvious lesions seen in the shed prior to processing, but rejects are elevated because hocks are swollen and don’t have a very nice appearance on the finished bird,” he explains.

Wooden breast – This is a new condition that’s been seen across the region Mr Parker serves. As with reovirus, there are often no obvious symptoms on the farm, but birds are rejected at processing because of a hardened “grainy” breast muscle.

The condition has emerged on some of the best managed farms and, to date, there’s no certainty of its exact cause – though there are thoughts that it’s a metabolic issue, that may be brought about by increased exercise.

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