It's obvious that the gut turns food into fuel. But did you know that most issues in poultry health can be traced back to gut health in one way or another? From water quality to biosecurity, nearly any issue relates to the intestinal tract.
Part One: Stressors
Part Two: Challenges
A Healthy Gut After Hatch
Previously, we've covered the most important part of a bird's life: the first three days. Birds develop rapidly over the first week after hatch. The health of the bird's gut in these key formational days will set the stage for the rest of its life. The longer the intestinal tract is, the stronger the immune system, the better it is at resisting disease and absorbing nutrients, leading to improved health throughout the grow out.
Broiler chickens are one of the only production animals born into a sterile environment and not allowed to interact with adults of their own species. Although these measures are taken to prevent exposure to pathogenic bacteria such as C. perfringens and E. coli, it is possible that they influence gut health in a negative way.
These germ-free animals are presumably as healthy as possible, but as we learn more about the gastrointestinal tract and the bacterial populations that live there, it is becoming clear that intestinal health is dependent on commensal microbiota and their ability to mount an immune response against invading pathogens like bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses.
Because of their sterile beginnings, it's essential to consider your flock's gut health from day one. Animal science research has shown that exposure to microbes during birth serves as a scaffolding for intestinal health as well as other microbial populations. In the case of chicks, these bacterial populations would be deposited on the shell and serve the same purpose. Without this early exposure to beneficial bacteria, the door is left open for pathogenic bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses to occupy this space.
Gut and Intestinal Tract Health During Grow Out
How Poultry Protect Their Own Gut Health
Poultry have their own natural means in place to protect their gut health.
The chicken gut, like that of many other animal species, has the ability to respond to outside organisms and other factors that may negatively impact intestinal health. The host's immune system is able to employ defense mechanisms such as producing mucus as a protective barrier and recruiting immune cells. Host gut microbiota also have the ability to respond to viral or bacterial challenge by releasing antimicrobial compounds.
The gastrointestinal tract of chickens includes blind sacs, which serve as the site of microbial fermentation called ceca. Within the ceca, specialized bacterial populations are able to break down dietary components rich in fiber to short-chain fatty acids. The major short-chain fatty acids are acetate, butyrate and propionate. While other chain fatty acids exist, these are the most readily available for nutrient absorption.
How You Can Protect Your Flock's Gut Health: Prevent Stress and Leaky Gut
The biggest threat to gut health and a strong immune system that you can control is stress. The more you can reduce stress, the better you can protect your flock's gut health. But how are they connected?
When birds are under stress, the cohesion of cells in the gut comes apart on a microscopic level. This causes what we call "leaky gut." The lack of cohesion allows gut microbiota to escape, or "leak," into other parts of the body, which can cause serious issues. This is called bacterial translocation. Take kinky back for example—this debilitating disease can be caused by gut bacteria reaching the spine and causing an abscess.
Entering a period of challenge with poor gut health can result in decimation of the commensal microbiota, reduced nutrient digestion and disruptions of intestinal homeostasis until the disturbance can be corrected.
Controlling Stress for a Better Immune System
You can control stress by checking its sources: excessive noise, extremely hot conditions, extremely cold conditions, a feed outage or poor water quality. These can all cause stress in your birds (remember those leaky intestinal microbiota?) and therefore threaten their gut immune system.
It's important to remember that you can't see the instant impact of good poultry gut health. Sometimes the evidence of your actions working is the lack of proof—the absence of disease and mortality is the evidence of your efforts to protect healthy intestinal microbiota paying off! Promoting good gut health is key to the feed efficiency, healthy digestion and absorption and profit on your farm.
Challenges for Gut Health
The biggest challenge to poultry gut health is harmful bacteria. This is where we get "Poultry Biosecurity" from—all the biosecurity measures you take, like reducing traffic on your farm, using boot powder and sanitizing, are key to preventing devastating bacterial diseases on your farm.
Harmful bacteria, like Clostridium, exist in chickens' guts naturally. Southern Poultry Research Group's Dr. Hofacre found that there are as many as 600–800 strains of bacteria in an average broiler chicken's gut. So even with the strictest of biosecurity measures, bacteria can still pose a huge issue on a poultry farm.
The already existing bacteria become a real problem when birds face other challenges, like stress. The gut reacts to irritation by creating mucus. The mucus prevents the bird from absorbing feed in their gut, which can hurt your feed conversion. Cutting mucus is one of the reasons a lot of poultry farmers choose to use apple cider vinegars, like Mother Load, in their chickens' water.
When mucus is not cut, it provides a food source for bacteria Clostridium. This is when they multiply, divide and really get out of control. When Clostridium proliferates, it even creates a toxin that attacks the bird's organs. This is one of the main causes of necrotic enteritis!
But this incident is not isolated to Clostridium. Mycotoxins, feed outages and other gut irritants can cause the gut to create mucus and begin this vicious cycle. At best, this means reduced performance and at worst, it means high mortality.
Gut health also impacts factors like wet litter, which translates to poor paw quality and promotes growth of unhealthy bacteria in litter that then cause disease... and the cycle continues.
Dr. Hofacre mentioned organic acids, pharmaceuticals and probiotics as effective means for mitigating these gut challenges.
Maintaining Gut Health with Probiotics and Organic Acids
Many farmers we know like to boost their poultry's gastrointestinal tract with a probiotic like Big Ole Bird. This liquid supplement adds beneficial bacteria and organic acids to the gut microbiome, helping birds fight pathogenic bacteria, encouraging commensal microbiota and increasing nutrient absorption. This increased intestinal health leads to better feed conversion, lower mortality and better profits for you.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org! If you want to stay up to date on our content made just for poultry growers, subscribe to our Poultry Biosecurity YouTube channel.