Reducing infectious disease in the gut of broilers without relying on antibiotics is a major challenge for individual farmers and the poultry industry, both in terms of animal welfare and to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Scientists from Nottingham Trent University (NTU) fed 240 broiler chickens differing doses of a yeast-based feed supplement and monitored them every day for 42 days. Except for their feed, all other conditions were identical. Their findings suggest that a feed supplement containing a carbohydrate found in yeast resulted in the birds having greater natural defences to harmful bacteria entering their guts and that younger broilers gained the most benefit from the supplement.
Lead researcher Harriet Lea, a BBSRC funded Industrial CASE student based in the university's School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, explained: "Gut related disease in broiler chickens affects 184 million birds in the UK annually, resulting in poor animal welfare and reduced growth. There are several non-antibiotic feed supplements on the market, but there is a real need to understand how exactly they support gut health in chickens so that farmers have a better chance of increasing their efficiency and improving flock welfare. This will have the knock on benefit of reducing the need for treatment with costly antibiotics and help tackle the serious issue of antibiotic resistance in poultry."
The research, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition, suggests the benefits of this supplement Actigen™, made by Alltech, could be age-dependent with younger birds having increased storage capacity of mucin - a substance secreted by the gut lining, which can help defend against infectious agents.
The natural carbohydrate fraction investigated is a feed supplement already used in some commercial broiler diets but there is uncertainty as to how it works. Although the supplement is likely to work through several mechanisms, these findings help clarify how the supplement improves the immune defences of the bird through altered mucin production.
These new findings may lead to more widespread use of yeast-derived supplements in broiler feeds to improve gut health and immunity.
Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "The UK poultry industry is of great importance to consumers and the economy, but animal welfare and antibiotic resistance are serious issues within the industry. This research highlights the crucial role bioscience can play in helping to address both. This work, looking at a supplement already on the market, also shows the value of academics collaborating with industry partners to ensure world-class research can be translated into practical applications for end users quickly, in this case farmers and consumers."
Dr. Jules Taylor-Pickard, Solutions Deployment Team Manager, Alltech, said: "We are extremely excited about the results; Actigen is used commercially around the world but we really wanted to investigate its exact mode of action in detail and this provides us with some of the answers. Within Alltech, we endeavour to develop natural, cost effective solutions for agriculture that are backed by robust science."
The next stage of the project is to investigate the effects of this natural carbohydrate fraction on gene expression of the bird to investigate at a molecular level how the supplement induces change in bird development and gut health," said Miss Lea.
The project will continue in the recently established Nottingham Trent University Poultry Research Unit, led by Dr Emily Burton who added: "It is a real pleasure to see the new unit achieving what it set out to do - provide scientific support to industry challenges."
BBSRC CASE studentships are collaborative training grants that give top bioscience PhD students the chance to experience first-rate research at both an academic institution and a partner organisation, usually from industry.
"The CASE-studentship has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the poultry industry it has also raised the profile of the new NTU poultry unit and the high quality research which is carried out there and as a result the facilities are now used for contract research by several companies working in the UK poultry sector," said Miss Lea.