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Chickens are usually kept in flocks or group housing cage systems, not as individual birds. Yet, better and more efficient production figures with lower excretion should be possible when birds are fed according to their individual needs. Precision feeding seems to be the answer and is not unreal, according to Professor Laura Star. Practical solutions are underway.
“We should rethink the way in which we feed poultry”, says Laura Star, professor of precision feeding and sustainable poultry farming at Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Dronten, The Netherlands. Also, Laura is a senior researcher at the Schothorst Feed Research institute in Lelystad, The Netherlands.
“In current commercial production systems, poultry is usually kept in flocks, rather than individually”, she continues. “Consequently, feeding chickens is done according to this traditional system. They all have access to the same feed supply resources through feed distribution systems, like chains or pan feeders. But birds are different from each other and ideally they should be fed a ration that meets their individual requirements. The aim is to thus let nutrient intake be as effective as possible. This is not just a matter of using feed ingredients effectively and hence save on expenses. Even more important is to minimize excretion of nitrate and phosphorous. After all, these put a heavy burden on the environment. Particularly in densely populated areas, this is truly an issue.”
Split feeding in place
“Currently split feeding systems are in place already”, according to Laura. “Think about layer flocks, which are fed different rations in the morning and evening. Yet, this is still based on feeding complete flocks the same diet, rather than on the birds’ individual requirement.
Another good example is separate feeding of males and females on breeder farms. Simply, males are completely different from females. Because of their different sizes, it is not too difficult to feed them separately. Usually a chain feeder with a device, such as a grill or a tube on top of the gutter, is used to only feed the females and to prevent the males from reaching the feed of the females. The bigger males only have access to higher positioned pan feeders.
Back to layer feeding. Hendrix Genetics measured feed intake of individual layers in their breeding stock. From the results it became clear that there was a wide range among the intake of individual birds. On average, daily intake accounted 106 grams per bird, with a variability ranging from 50 – 140 grams. With precision feeding, a bird with too low intake might benefit from a more concentrated feed with a higher nutrient level, whereas heavy birds might be fed a ration with a lower nutrient level. Prerequisite of course is that a lower nutrient level does not affect egg production.”
To what extent all this is practically feasible is another question. But the idea is clear: to every bird a ration at its own requirement. An option could be the availability of various feed resources in the house, allowing the birds to select what fits them. Compare this with a buffet in a restaurant, from which one can select their food of choice.
“The idea is clear: to every bird a ration at its own requirement. An option could be the availability of various feed resources in the house, allowing the birds to select what fits them. Compare this with a buffet in a restaurant, from which one can select their food of choice”
Another option in group housed poultry is feeding the birds individually. Research among broiler breeder pullets, carried out by Dr. Martin Zuidhof at the University of Alberta in Canada, made clear that achieving a high uniformity among the birds is possible. Zuidhof created a system during rearing, in which the pullet hens are carrying a chip through which they are recognized by the feeding system. Once they enter a precision feeding station, they receive the feed volume which they deserve. Thus, it is possible to achieve a flock uniformity of 97-98 percent. Through this, it is possible to feed a uniform flock during the productive period. On the other hand, it is to be questioned if it is a natural way to “create” birds of the same size in one flock. After all, in every population of a species, there are differences in size and shape of the individuals.
In broiler flocks it is more complicated to individually feed the birds. After all, their life span is quite short. An idea could be to monitor a number of individual birds and thus, based on the average of these findings, provide a ration to the entire flock. Another option could be to provide different kinds of feed, like in group housed layers. ”
All in all, many questions on precision feeding in poultry are still open. Laura Star and her team will gradually move on, however, to eventually develop systems which are practically feasible. The aim remains to improve the efficiency of nutrition in poultry.
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