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Back-to-basics for managing health of cage-free pullets

Poultry producers with cage-free pullet systems should go back to the basics of bird management to keep their flocks healthy and productive, reported Darrin Eckard, Hy-Line North America cage-free specialist. This is a change from flocks kept in cages that may face less disease and fewer parasites.

“The one big thing I deal with is talking to people [to help them] understand this is what we used to deal with and it’s coming back now because birds are accessing the floor,” he told Poultry Health Today.

Handling parasitic disease

Eckard sees more coccidiosis, roundworms, tapeworms and cecal worms in cage-free systems.

“People forget about the worm issue because we haven’t really dealt with it in big numbers,” he explained. “Now in cage-free systems, it’s really starting to pop up.”

To handle frequent coccidiosis challenges, Eckard recommends a vaccine program that starts in the hatchery and continues at 7, 14, and 21 days to build strong immunity. Correct building temperature and humidity also are key to reducing coccidiosis incidence.

Other parasites can either be routinely treated during the lifetime of the birds, or carefully watched for symptoms and then treatment administered, he added.

Infectious diseases increase

“We are definitely seeing an increase in infectious diseases,” Eckard said. “We’re seeing more E. coli pop up when people are not paying attention to earlier feed nutrition in the pullets…The body can’t sustain itself to the last 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-week time frame and the birds run out of energy.”

Other diseases like mycoplasma and egg-drop syndrome also show up in weakened birds.

“Vaccine protocols really need to be adjusted to understand that in cage-free environments, birds are experiencing more load because they’re on the floors and around other birds,” he added. “Definitely get with a vaccine company and your veterinarian to get a good, structured program and understand the challenges in each building. One building will have a load that’s different than another building.”

Diets for cage-free birds also must be reformulated because they burn more energy moving around than caged birds, Eckard said. Producers should work with their nutritionist to make sure birds have enough calories to handle the extra activity and egg production.

“Birds nowadays lay so hard and their production is so good that once you fall behind on the nutrition part, you can’t catch up,” he said. “You need to stay ahead of them to really make them perform where you need it.”

FLAW final piece

Good management of cage-free pullets requires attention to environmental basics, Eckard said. He uses the acronym “FLAW” for feed, light, air and water to drive home his point.

“Aviary and cage systems are very similar until you let the birds out [of cages],” he said. “Then feed, light, air, and water really become important for how you get the birds to move around. [It’s important to] understand how the air and different temperatures spread in the building and where the birds start moving to try to stay warm. Keeping on top of that is very important.”

An understanding of FLAW also helps producers address problem-bird behaviors like piling and pecking. Changing the lights, temperature, and even feed times will help address some behaviors.

“The piling seems to be more related to a too-bright house,” Eckard said. “Birds will gather in different places and start pecking each other.

“Everything in the house needs to be set up almost in a perfect situation for the birds to [exhibit] normal behaviors and not become aggressive,” he added.



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Poultry producers with cage-free pullet systems should go back to the basics of bird management to keep their flocks healthy and productive, reported Darrin Eckard, Hy-Line North America cage-free specialist.

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Posted on December 26, 2022

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