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St David's poultry industry update

Richard Turner MA VetMB MRCVS

St David’s Poultry Team was formed back in 2006, yet we have a long history of poultry veterinary work as the practice at Exeter was working in the South West poultry industry from the 70’s.

Over the last 30 years the business has developed considerably. We are now the largest independent poultry veterinary practice, with more than 25 vets and 10 field technicians working from 15 bases across the UK and Ireland. Innovation has been the core of our approach to bird health. We strive to be at the forefront in introducing and developing the latest technology and alternative products, continuously running a number of trials to ultimately find the best solutions to today’s, and tomorrow’s, challenges. Within our group of companies, we now have Applied Bacterial Control Ltd, a company focused on gut health and water sanitising in all farm species, FarmWater Ltd, a company with a specific focus on clean water and chlorine dioxide application in the agricultural sector, and St David’s Poultry Supplies Ltd. This company is based in Ireland, and we look after a considerable amount of the Irish poultry industry. During the last 2 years of Covid we have opened 2 new branches in the UK and will continue to expand.

Return on investment

In my time as a vet in practice I have seen the change in approach, from a veterinary focus on the individual animal to the flock and now the total farm microbiome. With the price of feed so high now, it is more important that the management of bird health is integrated into the overall management of the farm business. This means that our vets and field team are trained to look at the return on investment to the farmer by better management, which we are sure during these difficult times will be vital.

Therefore, it doesn’t take me as a poultry vet to tell you as a farmer that the biggest threat to the egg and poultry meat industry over the next 12 months must be the price of feed and fuel. I have never seen so much pressure on our clients’ incomes, and so many price rises. The retailers are doing all they can to stop paying more for meat and eggs, and this is going to only end up preventing farms from operating. Then of course we end up in shortage, with the inevitable time lag to get back into production. All pretty depressing, so I will instead try to offer some hope!

Driving efficiencies

There is no doubt in my mind that we can all be more efficient. The layer sector has for too long accepted a 75-80 week flock age and we should now focus on getting our birds to live longer and have an extended and more profitable egg production period. Feed is a big cost but so is the cost of pullets, down time of the farm, detailed cleanouts and of course the time a new flock takes to come into lay. There are challenges in achieving a target of 100 week flocks, but it is not impossible. We have flocks that have achieved this however it requires attention to the rear as well as the lay, and a focus on red mite control, feed quality and how we can best help the bird develop a competent and tip top immune system. We now provide various feed solutions to game birds, as well as layers and broilers, which use mixtures of nutraceuticals to ensure a healthy gut and in reality, the gut is the main site of the interaction of the microbiome and the bird. Of course, this adds costs, but efficiency increases profit. What we must not do is cut costs on such areas as red mite control as this will only reduce profitability further.

In broilers, the impact of good coccidiosis control is essential and poor control leads to huge financial losses. Cleanout, environmental management, and the type of coccidiostat used has in many cases not been a big enough focus. In some situations, the farmer is not involved in the decision on what coccidiostat to use and a much more tailored approach is needed.

Getting back to basics

We have spent considerable time with farms improving these areas and the impact on EPEF has been huge with 30-point increases. Gut health, microbiome health and tight (really tight) coccidiosis control will make a big difference to the bottom line. We have to get back to basics. The vet and the farmer need to refocus on cleanout as the big chance to change performance. In the future, we need our clients to be able to use feed additives which will suit their farm’s needs. It is interesting to see how feed mills in Holland for example, where competition is immense, will make up specific feeds for a farm. We have focused over the last 10 years in this country on using the water line as a route to influence bird performance, but this has shown us how difficult it is to keep water clean. In an ideal world, we would use a lot less in the water and focus on the feed. However, for that to happen we need vets, nutritionists and feed mills to work together to provide the farmer with another route to improve bird health and profitability.

Do the present challenges worry me? Of course they do. Their impact is so immediate and large. Am I worried about the medium-term challenges to the farm? Yes, in that it will make farms without the ability to improve efficiency likely to leave the industry. But above all I am optimistic that with the tools we have now and the knowledge we as an innovative vet practice have developed over the last decade, we can make farms more efficient and help them survive this crisis.

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