True animal welfare, no use of antibiotics, no foot pad dermatitis. The Danish broiler industry is seen as a shining example for the whole of North West Europe. There is much to be learned, and this also includes the problems.
By Fabian Brockötter, Pluimveehouderij
In Europe, but also worldwide, to this day relatively large quantities of antibiotics are being prescribed. The use of antibiotics leads to increased antibiotics resistance and that is not the only problem in the broiler industry. For instance; Animal welfare is suboptimal due to foot pad lesions and salmonella as known problems.
Denmark seems to be the shining example because it has solved many of these problems. Especially the yellow card system for improper use of antibiotics and the separation of prescribing and selling of antibiotics, have the potential to be copied to other countries in order to reduce the use of antibiotics. The fact that Denmark has appointed antibiotics resistance as a top priority during its presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2012 further reinforces its exemplary role.
Ten years of experience
“We set ourselves the goal to produce the best broiler chickens of the world, or at least the best documented chickens, over ten years ago,” says Jacob Pedersen. He is the president and designer of the KIK quality system and he is also chief veterinarian of Denmark’s largest slaughterhouse Danpo. Pedersen: ‘In addition, we are steering to reduce foot pad problems by means of extensive regulations in the field of management, feed and water quality, hygiene and litter quality for almost ten years now. And sanctions are applied if the foot pad quality turns out to be insufficient.’ Poultry farmer Mads Nielsen recalls: ‘I can still remember when the foot pad standards were introduced years ago. A score from 0 to 2 points was given to one hundred feet: 0 to healthy feet, 1 to feet with small spots and 2 to feet with significant foot pad problems. 80 points was the maximum number of points allowed.’ The lowering of the maximum stocking density to 40 kgs instead of 45 kgs per square metre in 2005 was a huge eye opener to the Danes. ‘The lower density, combined with management measures, leads to a workable situation.’
KIK knows it all
The strength of the Danish poultry meat industry lies especially in the manageable size of it with only 190 companies, 5 feedstuff suppliers, 2 slaughterhouses, 1 hatchery, 1 specialised poultry veterinarian practice and the fact that these parties together are rowing in the same direction. All parties have therefore long conformed to the KIK quality system. KIK not only has regulations on quality, safety and animal welfare in the poultry meat production, it takes a few extra steps when it comes to data registration and integration. Whereas different quality and control systems exist more or less separately in many Northern European countries, KIK contains all in one and can link data sets together. Designer Pedersen: ‘All parties register everything. The hatchery registers a batch in the system by entering all information of the parent stock, the poultry farmer lists mortality figures, medication and the reasons for both, water and food consumption, but also growth and business data in the system and the slaughterhouses record the data on foot pads, slaughter rates and payment. In addition, feedstuff suppliers provide data on composition per delivery and on its destination. There is complete traceability of the feedstuff and the chickens: we know which truck driver transported what delivery in what truck, including the route. Everything is updated online on a daily basis.’
The KIK system normally generates 60 different reports with all kinds of cross-references enabling the poultry farmer to compare his results to the average results in Denmark. In the end, the system exists to benefit the industry itself. Every poultry farmer can look up specific information, for instance on foot pad problems or feed conversion rate per feedstuff supplier. I know from experience that this has led to discussions between a poultry farmer and a feed supplier where the outcome was an improvement of the feed or a switch to a competitor. Such transparency keeps every party in the production chain on their toes,’ knows Pedersen. In cases of emergency KIK can be consulted to immediately determine cross-connections. ‘This makes the database unique. For example, if we find a salmonella, we will know within one day about everything and everyone the company has been in contact with.’
Denmark cannot reach healthy poultry meat production through sound registration alone. The real results are being achieved in the poultry houses, by the individual poultry farmers. ‘Poultry farmers have grown younger since the stricter rules were implemented ten years ago. With the bank breathing down our neck we really need to deliver a perfect product,’ poultry farmer Nielsen explains. In some countries, it is sometimes assumed that farming poultry in Denmark is easier, because there is less pressure: less financial pressure, less production pressure and therefore less pest pressure. Nielsen quickly sets the record straight: ‘I deliver broilers weighing 2.2 kgs to the slaughterhouse on day 35. We load on a Thursday and get the new day-old chicks on the following Monday and thus run 8.5 rounds per year, and that is not just us. Immediate and aggressive cleaning prevents increased pest pressure. That is the way it was ten years ago and back then we also had our problems with persistent coli’s and salmonella.’
KIK tutors the poultry farmers on the importance of hygiene. Nielsen: ‘Access to the breeding houses is kept to a minimum. We do not walk from one house to another without changing our clothing, washing our hands and putting on new gloves. These measures prevent disease transmission from the outside in and from house to house.’ Willem and Marieke Dekker, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Denmark, recognise his story. Their stables are only accessible to themselves and even then only while wearing industrial clothing for that specific house. Marieke: ‘Even the vet cannot enter. He receives chickens he needs for dissection outside the house.’
The very high hygiene status keeps Gumboro disease, IB and NCD at bay and allows the chickens not to be vaccinated, before or after entering the Danish breeding houses. Yet, the day-old chicks are not cheaper than elsewhere in Europe, but even cost a few cents more. This additional cost enables Denmark’s only hatchery organisation Danhatch to compensate poultry farmers for any potential financial setbacks. Willem Dekker: ‘All mortality above 1% in the first week which is due to a coli or to incorrect brooding is for the expense of the hatchery. We reclaim the costs for vet visits, tests, medicines, chicken costs and loss on the feed conversion rate per chicken in case of mortality. This is another strong impulse for the hatchery to deliver the best possible chickens.’
Foot pad management
Delivering the broilers healthy and above all without foot pad problems to the slaughterhouse requires more than just a strict hygiene protocol. ‘Keeping feet healthy is possible, but does demand very precise management’, says Willem Dekker. Part of such management can be deducted from the KIK system. Details on temperature schedules, water pressure, water-feed ratio, light exposure have all been figured out and tested.
Poultry farmer Nielsen: ‘Foot pad quality is in the end all about keeping the litter dry. First of all, we do everything we can to stimulate the chickens to be active: we provide a lot of light – 20 up to 40 lux, with 2×4 hours of darkness – and a good house climate. By keeping the water pressure, and consequently consumption, low for the first 20 days, we keep the manure dry.’ Dekker adds: ‘Manure should be hard and dry. If we see wet litter as a result of changing manure, we try to calm the intestines of chickens by adding more wheat to their diet, not by means of medication. ‘Poultry farmers actively pick up any wet spots under the drinker lines and scatter new litter. However, this does not occur often, because in accordance with KIK regulations drinker lines are being replaced every 5 to 7 years so that they are clean and above all leak-proof. Drip cups and a good nipple height takes care of the rest.’
‘To use or not to use’
Many people outside of Denmark regard the frugal water supply to the chickens up to day 28 to prevent foot pad problems as bad for animal welfare. After all, this is at odds with one of the five freedoms on behalf of animal welfare as formulated by professor Brambell, namely that animals should be free from thirst, hunger and malnutrition. ‘Sure, we are meticulous when it comes to water supply, but without having the chickens suffer from thirst,’ believes specialised poultry veterinarian Soren Astrup. The chickens on the prescribed schedule grow exactly to their maximum potential without drinking too much water. If the vet does, however, incidentally see excesses: ‘If there are major problems in a batch, a poultry farmer sometimes pinches the water supply, but seldom for long. You quickly lose many kilograms and that costs a lot more than a batch with bad legs.’
Problems such as a dysbacteriosis, a persistent coli or coccidiosis are not uncommon in the Danish broiler industry. The big difference with other countries, however, is that the Danish poultry farmers are very reluctant to revert to treatment with antibiotics. The central veterinary clinic prescribed only 338 kgs of active substance in 97 recipes to 80 of the total of 190 companies in the whole of 2010. That comes down to 0.15 daily dosages per animal every year. Furthermore, a recipe is only valid to treat one condition in one batch in one breeding house of the company, enforced by heavy penalties for violations of these rules. Astrup: ‘I really have to use my powers of persuasion sometimes to convince the poultry farmer that it is in fact better for animal welfare to decide to treat them with antibiotics. Many poultry farmers have not used antibiotics for 10 years and if they are suddenly faced with this choice they are more inclined to let the sick chickens die and accept a somewhat less profitable round then to use antibiotics.’
To use or not to use antibiotics is the result of a certain mind-set according to the vet and that is partly due to the care with which it is being deployed. If a batch is sick, the poultry farmer first needs to call in a veterinarian to his farm. The vet takes a look and then takes some chickens to dissect and draws up an antibiogram to determine what the best active substance will be. Subsequently the poultry farmer gets a recipe for antibiotics available at the local (human) pharmacy. Prescription and sales are separated. ‘I can dispense a one-day-treatment in case of acute problems, but that does not happen often. It is more common that if something is prescribed the problems already have diminished before the medicines are even collected from the local pharmacy. When poultry farmers have experienced this a few times they naturally learn to wait before they call the vet.’
Putting up with mortality
According to the letter of the law Danish poultry farmers face the same dilemma as their European counterparts when it comes to European mortality criteria and maximum stocking density on the one hand, and the limiting of mortality rates by the use of medicine on the other. The scale tips, however, toward not treating and putting up with a higher mortality rate. ‘This is an option since the higher mortality rate is accepted and not punished by the government,’ explains Marieke Dekker. ‘Normally, mortality is around three per cent. In case of a coli in the batch you will have to accept a 5 to 7% mortality. If you are able to document this and have decided against treatment in consultation with a vet, the Government is accommodating and your maximum stocking density will not be reduced. Even though this does not fit the rigid European legislation.’ Veterinarian Astrup continues: ‘The same applies to increased mortality figures in case of euthanasia. The Government accepts an additional percentage of mortality if you, for example, euthanise animals with bone problems at an early stage from a human/animal welfare point of view. Provided, of course, that the rest of the operational management is in order.’
Using Danish expertise
The Danish experience in the field of scant use of antibiotics, the approach to decreasing foot pad lesions by management measures and increasing the hygiene status can certainly serve as a source of inspiration for the foreign poultry meat industry. The poultry farmers and authorities in Denmark both believe, independently from each other, that the geographical situation works in their favour. Besides, they can boast ten years of becoming aware of and gaining experience in implementing various systems and tactics. The KIK quality system is a central pivot in all this. Designer and veterinarian Pedersen on this: ‘We would not have been close to where we are now without KIK and its being fully integrated, in all of the branches of the sector.’
Denmark may pride itself on better animal welfare if foot pads are the norm, but in terms of, for example, pinched water supply or excesses in mortality as a result of the reluctance to curatively use antibiotics, Denmark is no utopia. Despite a decade of negligible use of antibiotics the dreaded resistant ESBL bacteria is also present in the country. The exact origin and solution of that problem still puts the Danish poultry industry at its wits’ end as well. In any case, further antibiotic reduction does not, given the current minimal use, points towards a solution.