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Mycotoxins may be an overlooked stressor for antibiotic-free poultry producers

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/eakkachaister
© iStock/eakkachaister

Related tags Poultry farming

In antibiotic free production, mycotoxin presence may be an overlooked gut health challenge for poultry, says researcher.

We caught up with Kayla Price, poultry technical manager with Alltech Canada, at the Alltech event in Kentucky this week to hear more about how to address mycotoxins in poultry production especially when using an antibiotic-free management method – and about why she’s highlighting the issue.

“Everyone talks about all these big things that come up – when you’re talking about Never Ever 3 (NE3) – you’re talking about necrotic enteritis, you’re talking about coccidiosis, the big diseases, the big mortality, but one of the things that people don’t really think about would be more of the low-level issues that you’re seeing,”​ she said. “I’ll be focusing on mycotoxins with RWA [raised without antibiotics] or NE3 [systems].”

Because the focus for producers may be on the larger challenges that lead to bird mortality, it is possible to overlook lower level stressors, she said. “You can think about it as a low-level gut irritator and how these potentially can lead into some of these problems,” ​she added.

However, if attention is given to the potential for mycotoxins to be present in feed, then there may be straightforward steps that could taken to reduce the risk they pose, said Price.

“Mycotoxins are one of the overlooked things,” ​she said. “People are looking at many of the other things but not necessarily thinking about mycotoxins as a problem in birds.”

Overlooking mycotoxins and challenges

One reason that mycotoxin presence may be overlooked is that it can result in something minor like birds not gaining weight as quickly as expected or a decline in egg production, said Price. “It could be something as simple as that, so you start thinking it’s something else and you don’t necessarily go to the mycotoxins,”​ she added.

“It could show up as something entirely different like a secondary bacterial challenge, and you see that and you’re trying to work with that, but perhaps it’s that low level causing that production to come down,” ​she said.

The stress caused by the presence in feed of mycotoxins also may be underrated, she said. In some research studies, even low or acceptable levels of mycotoxins were found to cause a reaction.

“In my opinion, and from what I’ve heard, people seem to underestimate that challenge and underestimate what it can do in poultry because, for whatever reason, they’re told that it’s not really a problem,”​ she said.

Global awareness and preventing problems

Although considerations of the problems mycotoxin presence can cause within an antibiotic-free system may be more regionally focused on areas like North America and Europe, mycotoxins are a problem globally, said Price.

“In terms of being concerned about mycotoxins, or thinking about the low-level problems, whether we’re talking conventional production or alternative, it’s something you really have to take into consideration,”​ she said. “Even though my focus is on this RWA production, it’s something that I think that any poultry farmer could take to their farm.”

There are ways to test for mycotoxin levels in feed ingredients or feeds, she said. But they do not always offer results in the needed timeframe and some producers who mix on-farm will have ingredients they need to use regardless of mycotoxin level.

In an effort to reduce the potential for mycotoxin presence in feed for antibiotic-free systems, some producers have cut back or stopped using ingredients like dried distiller’s grains with solubles (DDGS), said Price. “They’re spending more time on the diet formulation – some companies are looking into being able to say that the diet is right, not necessarily the cheapest,” ​she added.

It’s a different way of feeding than in a conventional system not to say that conventional is wrong it’s not but there are two different ways of doing it,” ​she said. “Because how you raise a conventional bird, even though it’s done well, it’s certainly not how you raise an RWA bird.”

There also are products, like mycotoxin binders and absorbents, that can be used in poultry feed as a preventative to address low-level presence, or with more intention if a higher amount is anticipated, she said.

“This is something can be added within the feed that helps to bind the mycotoxin within the feed, so even if there is a low level there, you’re using something to protect those birds,” ​she said. “You’re not running into the same problems and they’re protected from it.”

Additional antibiotic free considerations

However, said Price, mycotoxins remain just one factor that has to be considered in the use of an antibiotic-free production system.

“For those producers trying to get into raised without antibiotics production or Never Ever 3 production is think about the details, think about the components that are impacting the bird,”​ she said. “It’s kind of going back to the basics and focusing on them again – it isn’t necessarily that different from conventional production, but certainly something more to think about.”

In addition to aspects like feed quality and the potential for mycotoxin presence, other factors to consider include bird management, facilities, litter used, lighting, feed height, she said. “It’s holistic – you really have to take everything into consideration,”​ she added.  

“I’m highlighting this [mycotoxin challenge] because it’s something we don’t pay attention to necessarily, but we also can’t ignore everything else that could have an impact,”​ she said. “When we start moving toward this raised without antibiotic production everything sort of becomes highlighted so we really have to pay attention to those details and all those other things related to management, related to the barn, related to what’s going on just as much to the feed and the water.”

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