Poul­try farm­ers lead the way in antibi­ot­ic reduc­tion

Antimi­cro­bial resis­tance is a seri­ous pub­lic health con­cern and live­stock pro­duc­ers are increas­ing­ly under pres­sure to reduce antibi­ot­ic usage in ani­mals. In the UK, the poul­try indus­try is lead­ing the way.

The media love a good scare sto­ry, but the fig­ures behind antimi­cro­bial resis­tance are tru­ly wor­ry­ing. Already, at least 700,000 peo­ple die around the world each year as a result of drug resis­tance: At this rate, it will cause 10 mil­lion deaths a year by 2050, with many aris­ing from sim­ple infec­tions fol­low­ing rou­tine oper­a­tions.

These fig­ures form part of the inde­pen­dent glob­al Review on Antimi­cro­bial Resis­tance, chaired by Jim O’Neill and pub­lished in May 2016. Com­mis­sioned by the British gov­ern­ment in July 2014, the review engaged wide­ly with inter­na­tion­al stake­hold­ers to under­stand and pro­pose solu­tions to antimi­cro­bial resis­tance.

One part of the 10-point plan is to reduce the amount of antibi­otics used in glob­al live­stock pro­duc­tion. Although some have ques­tioned the link between antibi­ot­ic use in ani­mals and resis­tant micro­bial strains in humans, there is no escap­ing pub­lic pres­sure to reduce antibi­ot­ic use in agri­cul­ture.

Accord­ing to the Respon­si­ble Use of Med­i­cines in Agri­cul­ture Alliance (RUMA), which has set up a task force to help achieve sec­tor-spe­cif­ic tar­gets, about 35% of the UK’s antibi­ot­ic sales go to live­stock farm­ing. That is half the lev­el seen in the US. And a recent review of sev­er­al North­ern Euro­pean stud­ies sug­gest­ed that farm ani­mal use could be respon­si­ble for just one in 370 human cas­es of resis­tant bac­te­ria.

In 2019 the British gov­ern­ment pub­lished a five-year strat­e­gy to reduce antibi­ot­ic use in farm ani­mals by 25% between 2016 and 2020. That is quite a demand. But it’s not impos­si­ble, as the poul­try sec­tor is already start­ing to prove.

Good bio-secu­ri­ty and hygiene are key to reduc­ing dis­ease risks.


In 2011 the British Poul­try Coun­cil launched an antibi­ot­ic stew­ard­ship scheme, bring­ing togeth­er exper­tise from lead­ing poul­try vet­eri­nar­i­ans and pro­duc­ers. In just five years BPC mem­bers slashed their antibi­ot­ic usage by 82%, even though poul­try pro­duc­tion increased by more than 5% over the same peri­od.

The indus­try has also vol­un­tar­i­ly with­drawn cer­tain cat­e­gories of antibi­otics which are crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant to human med­i­cine, and it became the first sec­tor to pub­lish and review med­i­cine usage. Since then, oth­er sec­tors have fol­lowed suit, with more than 5m pigs now reg­is­tered on an indus­try data­base to record antibi­ot­ic use, and a cat­tle ini­tia­tive also under way. There are clear­ly mas­sive dif­fer­ences in antibi­ot­ic usage in live­stock across the world, as well vary­ing lev­els of under­stand­ing among the gen­er­al pub­lic. Indeed, some believe antibi­otics and hor­mones are still used as growth pro­mot­ers in the EU, even though they were banned in 2006 and 1988, respec­tive­ly.

But that’s not to say we can’t learn from indus­try best prac­tice around the globe. And that’s some­thing that St David’s Poul­try Team, based in Devon, has done. Its new approach to reduce antibi­ot­ic use; cre­at­ed by a group of sci­en­tists, vets and pri­ma­ry pro­duc­ers, has proven such a suc­cess that it is now being rolled out across much of the coun­try.


“Pro­duc­ing top qual­i­ty, high wel­fare chick­en at con­sumer-friend­ly prices with­out antibi­otics is a huge chal­lenge,” says part­ner Richard Turn­er. “That is why we have focussed so much on devel­op­ing a robust sys­tem that farm­ers can adopt. There will always be sit­u­a­tions where we have to treat with antibi­otics, but there hasn’t been enough time spent look­ing at alter­na­tive approach­es.”

Richard Turn­er

St David’s devel­oped the ABC con­cept – which stands for Applied Bac­te­r­i­al Con­trol – to improve bird health through bespoke hus­bandry solu­tions for each farm, along­side the use of prod­ucts like fat­ty acids, essen­tial oils and pro­bi­otics.

In 2016, the team organ­ised an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence – Antibi­ot­ic Reduc­tion: The Next Step – which brought togeth­er key experts on human and ani­mal med­i­cine. Speak­ing at the event, Pro­fes­sor Col­in Hill from Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Cork, Ire­land, explained that chick­ens – and humans – are actu­al­ly 90% microbes and only 10% chick­en or human cells. “Every­one has a dif­fer­ent micro­bio­me, assem­bled from their par­ents, their envi­ron­ment, their food – there are over 1000 species and they play a key role in health,” he said.

Ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria help to out-com­pete pathogens, and a core prin­ci­pal of the ABC approach is Seed, Weed and Feed, devel­oped by Pro­fes­sor Stephen Col­lett from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia, Amer­i­ca. “You need to seed the gut with favourable flo­ra, feed the favourable flo­ra, and weed out the unfavourable microbes,” he says. For best results, ABC should be adopt­ed at every stage of the sup­ply chain, from breed­er to fin­ish­er, to cul­ti­vate ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria and pro­gres­sive­ly elim­i­nate the dam­ag­ing ones.

There will always be sit­u­a­tions where we have to treat with antibi­otics, but there hasn’t been enough time spent look­ing at alter­na­tive approach­es.

Richard Turn­er

In poul­try pro­duc­tion, the birds face a num­ber of chal­lenges over a short peri­od of time, from vac­ci­na­tions to dietary changes. Any such stress can have a neg­a­tive impact on intesti­nal health, result­ing in diar­rhoea and poten­tial infec­tion. Often, in these cas­es, vets turn to antibi­ot­ic treat­ments. The aim of the ABC approach is to over­come these chal­lenges through improved nat­ur­al immu­ni­ty and opti­mum gut devel­op­ment at an ear­ly stage.


St David’s approach is a very holis­tic one, start­ing with the par­ent stock and chick envi­ron­ment, and encom­pass­ing water clean­li­ness and pH, and over­all bio-secu­ri­ty. It also uses prod­ucts like Intesti-Flo­ra – a mix of short chain fat­ty acids, pre­bi­otics and oligosac­cha­rides – as well as bac­te­ria like Lac­to­bacil­lus farci­min­is (Biac­ton) to help to devel­op the cor­rect gut envi­ron­ment.

In Amer­i­ca, many farm­ers are already rear­ing chick­ens with­out any antibi­ot­ic usage at all, accord­ing to Dr Lin­nea New­man from Mer­ck USA. “Restau­rant chains and whole­salers have begun a dri­ve for antibi­ot­ic free pro­duc­tion,” she explains. One firm – Per­due, is shar­ing its for­mu­la for suc­cess. “The Per­due pro­gramme is to reuse poul­try lit­ter – the organ­ism is the house and you want it to be a like a yoghurt cul­ture,” says Dr New­man. “Antibi­ot­ic-free pro­duc­tion forces us into good man­age­ment, and as a result per­for­mance is often bet­ter.”

Antibi­ot­ic-free pro­duc­tion forces us into good man­age­ment, and as a result per­for­mance is often bet­ter.

Dr Lin­nea New­man

In the UK, farm­ers can­not reuse poul­try lit­ter – after each flock the house is com­plete­ly cleaned and dis­in­fect­ed to reduce the poten­tial trans­fer of dis­ease. How­ev­er, that nev­er gets rid of the bac­te­ria in a house com­plete­ly, says Prof Col­lett. “The bal­ance of good and bad bac­te­ria remains the same, albeit at reduced lev­els – it takes about sev­en cycles to dis­place the unfavourable flo­ra com­pared to three cycles in deep lit­ter.”

Pro­fes­sor Richard Ducatelle from Ghent Uni­ver­si­ty, Bel­gium, reck­ons the shift from try­ing to elim­i­nate microbes to cul­ti­vat­ing ben­e­fi­cial ones is a step-change for the indus­try. “To me, this is the future of the vet­eri­nary pro­fes­sion.”


Hav­ing proven the approach works in the poul­try sec­tor, St David’s is now turn­ing its atten­tion to the pig indus­try, which has many sim­i­lar­i­ties. “Ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria pass down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, so if you have healthy sows their piglets get a head start in life,” says Mr Turn­er.

“How­ev­er, wean­ing and a change in diet adverse­ly affects the piglets’ gut, poten­tial­ly result­ing in gas­tric ulcers and slow growth rates.” Treat­ment with antibi­otics is rou­tine at this time, but this kills off many of the ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria, result­ing in a dys­func­tion­al gut and impact­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

Every farm is dif­fer­ent and requires a bespoke approach, but reduc­ing the rou­tine use of antibi­otics need not be feared.

Richard Turn­er

The answer lies in boost­ing and pro­tect­ing the ani­mals’ nat­ur­al bac­te­ria and health, remov­ing the neces­si­ty for rou­tine antibi­ot­ic use. “It’s vital that we keep the effi­ca­cy of antibi­otics to treat ani­mals and humans when they are ill,” warns Mr Turn­er. “Every farm is dif­fer­ent and requires a bespoke approach, but reduc­ing the rou­tine use of antibi­otics need not be feared.”


Char­lie Simp­son rears 542,000 broil­ers per crop at Low­er Heath Farm, Whitchurch, Shrop­shire, and has slashed his antibi­ot­ic usage by 70-80% in the first three years of adopt­ing the ABC approach. When he start­ed work­ing with St David’s vet Suzy Ack­er­ley, Mr Simp­son decid­ed to tri­al a range of essen­tial oils at about three weeks of age to sup­port the birds’ intesti­nal health. These help to sta­bilise the intes­tine and reduce leak­age of bac­te­ria into the blood­stream.

“At this time the birds are under­go­ing a feed change, being vac­ci­nat­ed against Gum­boro dis­ease and also going through their opti­mum growth phase,” says Miss Ack­er­ley. “This com­bi­na­tion means intesti­nal health can suf­fer; the essen­tial oils help to sup­port the birds dur­ing this crit­i­cal peri­od.”

Mr Simp­son tri­alled it on six of the 15 com­put­er-con­trolled hous­es and the per­for­mance ben­e­fits mean he’s now rolled it out across the whole site. “If you can get the birds off to a good start it’s a great help,” he says. “The stronger and health­i­er they are the bet­ter.” Mr Simp­son uses an LMS auto­mat­ed dos­ing sys­tem to improve water sani­ti­sa­tion and add acids to opti­mise intesti­nal health. “Hygiene is very impor­tant, but water hygiene is often over­looked,” he says. He also adds pro­bi­otics and pro­tect­ed butyric acid to the feed when­ev­er a flock starts to look as if it’s run­ning into health prob­lems.

The indus­try is push­ing for a reduc­tion in antibi­ot­ic usage and we’re keen to get on with it. It’s all about pre­ven­tion rather than cure.

Char­lie Simp­son

Gen­er­al shed hygiene is of course vital, as is using the best qual­i­ty feed. “It’s real­ly a com­bi­na­tion of every­thing pulling togeth­er,” says Mr Simp­son. “There’s no doubt that the indus­try is push­ing for a reduc­tion in antibi­ot­ic usage and we’re keen to get on with it. It’s all about pre­ven­tion rather than cure.”

Hav­ing made the changes, Mr Simp­son became the largest farmer ever to join Aviagen’s cov­et­ed “400 Club” which recog­nis­es the high­est per­form­ing broil­er pro­duc­ers in the coun­try. Tak­ing into account feed con­ver­sion, mor­tal­i­ty and dai­ly liveweight gain, his Euro­pean Pro­duc­tion Effi­cien­cy Fac­tor aver­aged 403 across all 15 hous­es. “It’s been a long time com­ing – I’m just very proud to have got there.”


  • Antibi­ot­ic resis­tance is a nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring process – but increased use rais­es the risk of resis­tance.
  • If the world fails to act, resis­tance will cost over US $100tn in lost out­put.
  • Increas­ing inter­na­tion­al trav­el means strong glob­al co-ordi­na­tion is required.
  • Requires a mul­ti-dis­ci­plined approach.


  1. Pub­lic aware­ness
  2. San­i­ta­tion and hygiene
  3. Antibi­otics in agri­cul­ture
  4. Vac­cines and alter­na­tives
  5. Sur­veil­lance
  6. Rapid diag­nos­tics
  7. Human cap­i­tal
  8. Drugs
  9. Glob­al inno­va­tion fund
  10. Inter­na­tion­al coali­tion for action