A day in the life of a poultry vet

From pigeon fanciers to multinational integrators, a typical day for a poultry veterinary practice can be extremely varied. One activity runs fairly constant though – dissection, as Jake Davies reports

 Pigeon fancier

A poultry vet’s morning begins much earlier than a journalist’s. Groggy, I meet Minster Vets’ partner Keith Warner at his first call of the day; a man needing a health certificate for some pigeons destined for the European Jacobin Show.

These birds, owned by veteran pigeon fancier Nick Smith, are in high demand across the world – particularly in the USA and the Middle East. As such, the right bird can be quite valuable. He expects to show a few, and sell a few. After checking the condition and health of the birds, a certificate of health is issued.

Nick says that, while the Arab markets are buoyant, and the UK “probably has the best breed examples in the world”, the once popular hobby is now in decline. “While breeding poultry in general is experiencing growth, the difficulty of breeding Jacobin pigeons seems to put people off, which is a shame,” he says.

This is the last contact with live poultry for Keith today. Despite the need to visit several sites, this now has to be delegated to other vets in his team so as to adhere to strict biosecurity rules.

 With an integrator

The next item on the “to-do” list is to meet with one of the major integrators and discuss the health status of its farms, as well as develop company strategy and future planning. “We have a whole range of clients,” says Keith, “We will deal with people with a few chickens in their backyard, through to multinationals processing millions of chickens a week.”

Although Poultry World has to sit out of this meeting, Keith later explains that these stragety sessions with senior management are a regular part of his role, as well as field work on both company and contracted farms.

“When you’re dealing with integrators, you can have a much more overarching approach to things,” he says. “A business will tell us where they want to get to and how they want to achieve that – it’s easier in terms of health planning. We’ve also got access to the hatchery and the feed mill.”

Keith adds that it is often much easier to drive change with the integrators compared with smaller independent farms, where the owners are more inclined to do things “the way they have always been done”.

He explains that attitudes towards the use of medication has shifted dramatically in the past decade, as retailers and other interest groups demand reductions in antibiotic and other drugs’ use.

“Reaching for a drug-based solution of any type is historically what vets have done. It’s an easy option, relatively cheap and predictable. But politically there’s more interest in medicine use in agriculture, and the drivers are there through retailers as well. There’s more to it than cost.”

How they got started

It seems that many fall into becoming poultry vets by accident.

Keith Warner’s veterinary ambitions began at the age of nine, but he can’t explain what triggered them – or whether it was farm or small animals that interested him at first.

Later he studied at Edinburgh University, qualifying in 1997 and joining what was then called the Grant and Partners Vet Practice – today known as Minster. He started with farm and small animals, but as the surgery began to compartmentalise and foot-and-mouth hit, the practice changed and the farmwork dried up. “I just wandered across into the poultry lab one day, to see what was going on, and ended up taking an interest and getting involved,” says Keith.

He moved south to set up the company’s poultry practice serving the West Midlands, between Abergaveny and Hereford.

Carol Lopez-Margolles definitely started out with a view to working with small animals. She graduated from Zaragoza University, in the Aragon region of Spain. “In school, chickens aren’t any vet’s choice,” she says, pointing to the lack of interest some students show when on placement at the practice. But it’s more interesting than I’d ever have thought.”

Keith adds the profile of poultry vets is on the rise. “Over the last five years or so it’s become a lot more buoyant in terms of getting poultry vets. I remember trying to recruit five years ago and you just couldn’t find anyone; no one was interested.

“I think there’s now more recognition that there’s a need for vets, and also how important the poultry industry is.”

In the laboratory

Back at the Minster Vets lab south west of Hereford, there is a steady stream of post-mortems to be done. These typically take up a few hours of every working day. “Around 75% of the job is post-mortems,” explains Carol Lopez-Margolles, a poultry vet who works between different Minster practices across the country. “Carcasses won’t lie; if I see something important, it will be here,” she says.

It’s standard for barn-reared broilers to have some evidence of coccidiosis. But if there are signs that enteric health has degraded further, or bacteria are present and have damaged the bird, it’s time to involve the vet.

“The most common thing we see is enteric upsets,” says Carol. She adds that they will be even more common when, and in regions where, the weather is wetter or there is high humidity.

The first set of birds she examines confirms the wet litter that had first raised the farmer’s concerns. He has sent in a sample of six and the carcases variously display signs of bacterial infection, enteritis and mal-digestion through passing wheat.

Carol decides to follow up the post-mortems with a phone call. “There has to be good faith on both parts, I have to rely on what the farmers tell me, to an extent.”

After a 15-minute chat with the farmer, it’s decided to medicate the birds for three days. Then the next set of dead birds is brought in.

A typical dissection involves removing the breast, looking at the tip of the thighbone for evidence of bacterial degradation and inside the sinuses for unusual liquid or mucus.

Following this, the organs are checked for discolouration or growths and, finally, the guts and gizzard are checked for digestion, swelling or any other evidence of pathogenic interference.

Of course, if a backyard chicken keeper has four poorly hens, autopsying a quarter of the flock won’t go down well, so a diagnosis has to be based on fieldwork; an examination of the birds and an appraisal of symptoms.

On the farm

The last job of the day for Carol is a visit to a farm managed by “young” Andrew Howells, and owned by “old” Andrew Davies. The farm has a capacity of close to 250,000 birds in six sheds.

“Around day 26 in a cycle a vet comes and visits because it is a big site,” explains young Andrew. “It’s to reassure us that there’s nothing going on close to the end of a crop.”

A makeshift post-mortem table is set up in the grain bucket of a top loader and, as the light fades, Carol dissects a sample of birds from each house and makes an assessment of their health. One shed had a health challenge earlier in the crop and the visit is as much about checking the condition of that shed as making sure no others are experiencing problems.

The post-mortems reveal nothing serious, but Carol still wants a final walk through two of the sheds, checking the litter condition, how active the birds are and if they display signs of illness, such as panting or evidence of smothering.

It’s also an opportunity to check water consumption, growth rates and advise on any management tips that can be gleaned from being on the site. One possible issue raised is nearby construction that may have caused some stress in the birds.

Once satisfied, it’s time to pack up and head back to the lab for a final debriefing on the day.

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