Five top tips for increasing broiler efficiency

The past 10 years have seen a continuing shift in expectations for broiler producers, with consumer trends and escalating commodity prices sharpening the industry’s focus.

The challenge is to create a safe, welfare-friendly product and accomplish this at the higher level of feed prices seen over the past two years. Cost per kg liveweight of breast meat is the new magic number.

But many farmers fail to fully unlock the genetic ability to achieve greater efficiency because they do not provide for the bird’s requirements. These are the five areas that I consider the most important, but are often neglected from the bird’s perspective.

(1) Warm litter for chicks

The best guide for evaluating the environment is chick behaviour. On entering the house, you should observe, regardless of the age of the birds; some birds eating, drinking, playing and resting; birds evenly spread on the floor; and hear a content “babbling” noise.

Pre-heating is important and even in a warm summer, it should begin at least 48 hours before placement. Litter temperature should be at least 30-32C when the chicks arrive; colder litter will chill the chicks’ sensitive feet and so lower internal body temperature. Chilled chicks are less active, which leads to reduced feed/water intake, growth rate and possible death from ascites later in life.

(2) Air quality

The best return on any investment in a poultry house is in the ventilation system, particularly a minimum ventilation system to meet the chicks’ oxygen demand. Adequate oxygen provision is essential during the early stages of cardiovascular system development and during cold weather to prevent ascites.

A forced air heating system not ventilated to the outside will consume oxygen from inside the house and obviously also from the chicks themselves – a most common problem in winter when heating costs are high, minimum ventilation levels low and combustion greatest. Minimum ventilation should ensure the oxygen level is never less than 19.6% or the carbon dioxide levels are never more than 3000ppm (0.3%) from day one until slaughter, 24 hours a day seven days a week.

The fan capacity should be able to remove all the air in the room in eight minutes or less. This part of the ventilation system works best on a five-minute cycle timer, with the minimum run time of one minute to ensure that the incoming cold air has completely mixed and heated with the warm air at the top of the house before reaching the chicks and the litter.

(3) Water quality

Water is vital for all life and the chicken is no different to humans. The stockman should feel confident to drink from the same water lines as the birds.

With regular water sanitation, producers can increase overall bird performance by preventing biofilms and other potentially harmful environments.

Biofilms provide a place for detrimental bacteria and viruses to hide from disinfectants. Salmonella can live for weeks in such biofilms. Products containing 50% hydrogen peroxide, stabilised with silver nitrate, are outstanding for removing them.

Chlorination is the most popular method for sanitising drinking water, mainly because there is little chance for microbes to build resistance to chlorine. While chlorine is a great sanitiser, however, it is no miracle worker. Contact time, pH, amount and type of organic matter present, water temperature and presence of minerals such as iron affect its effectiveness. Check the free chlorine level at the end of the system – it needs to be 4-6ppm.

Measure water consumption at the same time each day and on a per bird basis, and any big changes from a steady daily increase should be immediately investigated. As a general rule, each chick should consume 1ml/hour for the first 24 hours.

(4) Beware higher density feed

Adequate amounts of feed and feeding space are essential, particularly for the first week. Use paper to cover at least 50% of the brooding area, with 50-65g of feed per chick. Provide the feed as crumb for the first 250g a bird to encourage intake.

Many businesses assess performance using only feed conversion data rather than feed cost per kg liveweight. Increasing feed density may reduce feed conversion, but at a higher feed cost per kg liveweight, lowering profitability. Increasing feed density may, in fact, increase early growth rate and lead to increased metabolic issues such as skeleton defects and cardiovascular problems.

(5) Even light intensity

A new European broiler welfare directive requires producers to keep the birds in six hours of darkness in every 24 from three days of age until three days before processing. Lighting programmes should begin after chicks reach 100g in bodyweight.

Light intensity during brooding should be 25 lux at floor level and deviate by no more than 20% from brightest to darkest areas. After the first week it is normal to reduce light intensity so that by 14 days the birds are in a reduced, but comfortable level.

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