The facility replaces the current, much smaller poultry research centre, which was housed in a Victorian farmyard.
We caught up with Dr Emily Burton, head of the NTU poultry research unit, to hear about that development and the goals of the center.
“It is a step change for us. We had been gradually increasing capacity in the research unit, growing very slowly; in December 2014, the new vice chancellor [of the university] looked at what we had achieved, and he decided to invest in our work.”
The NTU unit comprises three academics; working alongside Burton are researchers, Dawn Scholey and Melanie Le Bon. They are supported by five technical staff, specialists in poultry production and laboratory work. “We have poultry housing and a laboratory combined in the same building.”
The in-house feed manufacturing capabilities allow the academics to work on ingredients with limited volume. “It is relatively easy to get large batches of feed produced externally. However, for precious ingredients such as novel wheat cultivars, which may have taken two to three growing seasons to generate, we need to limit the amount we use. We can make mixes from 15 to 100 kg ourselves.”
Gateway to the poultry sector
Burton said the research unit has always been seen as a gateway to the poultry sector. It has strong links to the UK animal feed industry and also engages with local businesses, multinational companies and students.
“We really enjoy working with agronomists,” she said. The NTU poultry researchers aim to plug any end-use knowledge gaps in cultivar trait development.
“What we are good at is honest, clear support. We also advise individuals or companies outside the sector who believe they have a [service or material] that could be useful for poultry production. They often don’t know enough about animal production or even the right language to use when introducing their idea to the sector.
“A classic example of an individual from another sector approaching us for advice would be where we had a chemist colleague in the university who works on materials that mimic nature. She had developed a novel form of silica that she felt could be easily absorbed - she believed it would work well as a feed supplement to reduce poultry lameness.”
Indeed, that particular project has gone from strength to strength.
“Some companies who come to us with an idea might eventually walk away, or others may pursue a new avenue of research,” added Burton.
Lameness, gut health, sustainability
The NTU poultry research unit currently has the three strands to its work: lameness in birds, sustainability of poultry production and gut health.
“We have been trying to get a good understanding of bone mineralization in broilers.” The center is hoping to extend that research work into layers.
Such research, though, was being held back, she said, by a weakness in bone mineralization measurement methodology.
“There was a lot of variability in approaches. Under a PhD project, we combined all methods and arrived at a consensus of how such measurement should be done.”
Burton said four papers in relation to that thesis are in the preparation stage now.
Under the sustainability strand, the researchers assess novel raw materials from insect meal to bioethanol co-products.
The unit’s evidence-based research resulted in a patent for recovering yeast from bioethanol production. The US industry is now using this process to produce high-quality protein for poultry feed alongside bioethanol production.
In terms of insect meal, the NTU research center provided input into trial design for a UK government funded project; a paper is pending on that initiative.
“Our work on enzymes [such as phytases] also falls under the sustainability pillar.”
In relation to the poultry gut health, Burton said the team is making the “same, incremental contributions as other researchers elsewhere to the understanding of what the gut is like without antibiotics.”
The NTU researchers are exploring the gut microbiome and immune response, relying on both traditional microbiology cultures to do that as well metagenomics profiling, she added.