The search for optimal broiler performance

27-05-2010 | | |
The search for optimal broiler performance

The objective of every broiler growing operation is to obtain maximum performance at the lowest possible expense. This begins with good genetic material. The challenge, however, is to find the balance between all the influencing factors.

By Dr Tahseen Aziz, Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, NC Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Raleigh, NC, USA

Each broiler chick hatches with a pre-determined genetic potential for growth rate (weight gain), feed conversion, meat yield, and resistance to infection and stress. Individual birds of the same genetic line do not have the same potential for performance.

Broiler primary breeder companies are doing a good job of improving growth rate, meat yield, feed conversion, and, to some extent, resistance to diseases. The grower cannot do anything to alter or modify the genetic potential of the chicks placed on the farm, but he can certainly do a lot to optimally express the genetic potential of the birds. Every broiler primary breeder company claims that its broiler chickens are the best. It is true that broiler chickens of certain genetic lines have a better genetic potential than others for one or more of the aforementioned performance parameters, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the growers to get the best out of the broiler chickens placed. If a flock that receives a good quality, balanced diet does not perform well, then the grower should blame no one but himself for the poor flock performance.

Expressing hidden potential

The genetic potential of a bird is hidden, and nobody is able to see or measure this potential in the day-old broiler chickens on a commercial farm, as all commercial, day-old chicks look alike. A flock of broiler chickens with the best genetic potential can have the worst performance if not managed well. Every broiler grower would like to achieve the best livability, weight gain, and feed conversion in the flock, and the best thing any broiler breeder company can do is to work with the growers to optimally express the birds’ genetic potential.

Much can be written about different aspects of egg incubation, nutrition, flock management, and disease prevention, each of which impacts the performance of commercial broiler chickens. Below is a summarised version of what can be done to optimally express the genetic potential of broiler chickens.

Begin properly

Start with healthy, vigorous chicks, and place them in a clean, disinfected environment. It is frustrating to see high mortality in young chicks due to dehydration, starve-out, yolk sac infection, or omphalitis. It is difficult to understand why in this era of “science and technology” one cannot prevent these easy-to-prevent problems, especially when they occur repeatedly on farms that obtain their broiler chicks from a particular source. These problems are usually identified (diagnosed) but in many cases no one bothers to investigate why they occur. If many of the one-day-old chicks have yolk sac infection, then the company that supplied the hatching eggs should be given a failing grade, as this problem simply indicates significant contamination of the hatching eggs with bacteria.

Omphalitis (infection of the navel) simply indicate infection, usually with bacteria, of incompletely healed navel. If many chicks appear dehydrated and weak at the time of placement, then it is the responsibility of the company who supplied the chicks to investigate the hatching process and every step between hatching and delivering the chicks to the farm. A company should keep a detailed record of incubator/hatcher settings and of every event (including times) that occur between pulling the chicks from the hatcher and delivering them to the farm. The problem could simply be something went wrong during transportation of the birds to the farm.

One cannot emphasise enough the importance of quality assurance/control system that every broiler breeder company should have. Any complaint from a broiler grower must be documented and investigated; if a problem is found, a corrective action must be taken and documented.


Optimising management is extremely important, but what is management? Flock management is a broad term that should be defined in a way that is meaningful to and understood by growers. Management of poultry flock can be defined as the art and science of continuously providing the birds with a comfortable environment. There is more art than science in managing any poultry flock. The most important components of management are stocking density, management of feeders and drinkers, airflow (ventilation), ambient temperature, and litter management. These components are integrated and linked in a chain, meaning that any deficiency in one of these components will break the chain and weaken or disrupt the other components. Managing broiler chicken flocks is not a “rocket science”. Basically, basic knowledge, determination, and hard work is required.

Growers must realise that what they get from their flocks is in most cases proportional to the quality of flock management. In any company, it is the responsibility of the upper management to educate and motivate the growers. It is interesting to note how many companies have a continuing education programme for their broiler growers?

Essential nutrients

Everyone knows that human and animal babies grow well if they eat food that contains the essential nutrients at the correct levels. Here comes the role of the poultry nutritionists, who can be left with the science of this topic.

Disease prevention

In today’s intensive poultry production sector, prevention of diseases is one of the most challenging tasks that face small and big poultry companies at all levels of management. Clinical and subclinical infections can have a significant negative impact on the performance of broiler flocks.

Whenever a disease is suspected, the grower should consult a poultry veterinarian to investigate the problem. Sales and service people, nutritionists, and live-production personnel in any company should never think that they know poultry medicine, which nowadays is a specialty within the profession of veterinary medicine. Health problems have been occurring in successive poultry flocks on some farms because professional veterinary help has not been sought to investigate and solve the problems.



One cannot talk about prevention of infectious diseases without touching on the basis on biosecurity. Hundreds of articles have been written about biosecurity on poultry farms, but many of them are lengthy and do not cover the critical points of biosecurity.

Every company should have a short version of biosecurity policy for its employees. This short version should not be longer than two pages, and it should be read, understood, and signed by every employee. Do not expect people to read and comprehend a 30-page document.

How can a company ensure that employees comply with the biosecurity policy? Most, if not all, companies try to enforce the biosecurity policy by only threatening employees with disciplinary actions or termination if not complying. That is fine, but additionally, employees and growers should be periodically educated and reminded about the importance of biosecurity. Providing incentives to the farm employees and live-production personnel may be a good approach to motivate employees to comply with the policy. Threatening language alone is not the best way to ensure compliance of employees. A framed copy of the short version (with large letters) of biosecurity should be hung on the wall in each farm, hatchery, and feed mill. Employees should also be aware and fully understand that most disease outbreaks occur because of complacency in biosecurity, and for this reason they should never be complacent any time on any aspect of biosecurity. Again, the best written biosecurity policy may fail if the company does not have a strategy to motivate its employees to willingly comply with the policy.

Never rely only on vaccination and preventative medication to prevent infectious diseases. Many people in the poultry industry have the perception that if a flock is vaccinated against a particular disease, then that flock is guaranteed to be fully protected against that disease. Unfortunately, this is not the case as infectious agents, due to different reasons, can break through the vaccinal immunity. Biosecurity is the first line of defence against infectious diseases. Vaccination or preventative medication is the second line of defence. So, biosecurity and vaccination or preventative medications are complementary to each another.


Natalie Berkhout Freelance journalist