Broiler chickens are like elite athletes that can perform at the highest level. Unlike humans, broilers get no parental encouragement or guidance, training or coaching and have only one chance to do their best. So the question is: How much of their tremendous genetic potential can broilers express in a very short grow-out period?
Actual broiler performance depends on the genetics of the broiler breeder parent stock along with broiler health status, nutrition, management, and other factors. Among the other factors, some may not be obvious but turn out to be quite important.
For example, the nutrition of breeders affects broiler performance, especially when the offspring face certain types of stress during grow-out. In addition, a growing body of evidence — both peer-reviewed research and practical farm trials suggests that broiler breeder health, particularly immune function, plays a significant role in broiler performance, too.
If we take one step back from the broiler house, then we can focus on optimising the investment in the most valuable birds – the breeders. At first glance, the approach is not obvious as the poultry genetics companies provide very good guidance on management, nutrition, and veterinary care. Yet research shows it is possible to improve broiler egg and chick quality by effectively supporting the natural immune function in broiler breeders.
In studies at the University of Arkansas in the USA, researchers tested supplementation of broiler breeder rations with a commercially available, fermentation-based, immune support product (Original XPC, Diamond V). The researchers were looking for effects on broiler egg quality and subsequent broiler performance.
The Arkansas researchers used 760 Cobb 500 birds, divided into one Control and one Trial group. The commercially available immune support product on Trial was fed only to the female breeders. Males and females were kept and fed separately and males did not receive the Trial product. The usual procedure of ‘skip-a-day’ limit feeding was applied in this study. Females were fed the Trial product until 55 weeks of age.
In the breeder performance phase of the study, results showed percentage hatch of fertile and contaminated eggs from hens at 32 and 39 weeks of age fed diets with or without the Trial immune support product (Table 1).
At 32 weeks of age, hens fed the immune support product produced eggs with hatchability increased by 3.13% and with bacterial contamination decreased to zero. At 39 weeks of age, the Trial product increased egg hatchability by 4.04% but with no difference in contamination from Control eggs. If we consider this increase in hatchability in practical terms, then we can point to more broiler chicks per breeder hen housed. This outcome would benefit both the hatchery and the breeding company.
In the subsequent progeny performance phase of the study, the Arkansas researchers used 192 chicks divided into two groups based on the parent hen’s supplementation with the Trial immune support product. The progeny broiler feed was not supplemented with the Trial product as the purpose was to determine whether there was any ‘carry-over’ effect from supplementing the breeder hen diet. Looking at broiler performance, particularly performance of progeny from the second hatch at 39 weeks of age, showed overall improved feed conversion and breast meat yield (Table 2).
In previous research, the same immune support product used in the Arkansas broiler breeder study showed improved nutrient utilisation and egg deposition in layer hens as a result of improved intestinal villi development. Other research has demonstrated that the product helps strengthen immune function in poultry and other species.
In the Arkansas study, stronger immunity of hens may have helped to reduce levels of egg contamination at early hatch at 32 weeks of age. In addition, improved nutrient utilisation by hens through improved intestinal function may have contributed to better breeder performance. Improved nutrient status in the egg as a result of hen nutritional status may have enhanced progeny metabolism and thus improved tissue accretion as well as growth rate in the broilers.
We know from the Arkansas study that the immune support product improved broiler breeder performance. Hatchability of the fertile eggs increased, possibly as a result of enhancement of the egg nutrient contents and solids. Also, there was a positive effect on bacterial contamination on the surface of eggs. Most important for farmers, this study also demonstrated the carry-over effect of feeding the immune support product to the breeder hens, resulting in significantly better growth performance parameters in their broiler progeny.
Looking at the commercial feasibility of this approach, we could expect the broiler producer to achieve better results based on the investment of the breeder company in effective immune support technology. With today’s meat-type birds, very competitive feed prices, and slim profit margins, it is a challenge to supplement broiler feed with additives to help those birds perform better. The current global trend to reduce the use of antibiotics in poultry production further limits options. Therefore, focusing on optimisation of the most valuable birds — the breeders — can have great potential.
But for the broiler producer, the question remains: Where is the benefit? The answer is: Performance. How so? Optimising breeder performance plays a key role in broiler performance, along with directly helping those high performing broiler athletes to sustain efficient immune function, which spares metabolic energy for growth. We thus promote the things that broilers do best. They have the potential to grow quickly and efficiently. We just need to make sure that we do our best to help them achieve their champion-level potential.
References available upon request