Licensed veterinarians, who have a professional obligation to protect the chickens’ health and welfare, provide comprehensive health care programs for every commercial broiler chicken flock.
Veterinary Care: Do Broiler Chickens Receive Veterinary Care? How Do Veterinarians Treat Sick Chickens?
To help provide more detail on veterinary care for broiler chickens, Dr. Ken Opengart, who has worked for nearly 25 years within the poultry industry and oversees live operations, health and nutrition, animal welfare, biosecurity, pre-harvest food safety, sustainability and grain risk management programs, shares his professional expertise and experience, and answers the most frequently asked questions about veterinary care on broiler chicken farms.
WHAT DEGREE OF FORMAL TRAINING IS REQUIRED TO ENSURE A VETERINARIAN IS LICENSED TO PROVIDE HEALTH CARE TO A CHICKEN FLOCK?
Poultry veterinarians have a wide degree of training that can qualify them for poultry industry practice. Some veterinarians enter the industry and are able to work for an integrated poultry company right out of veterinary school and are able to learn on the job. For others, there are a number of post-veterinary graduate, intern and residency programs that give more hands on experience along with various amounts of classroom and laboratory study. The path is really up to the individual and their interests. Most integrated poultry companies require that a veterinarian that they employ become licensed in the states that the company has birds (or at least the states in which the veterinarian will work). Since the poultry company maintains ownership of the birds, the veterinarian is then able to work in and care for the birds in those states.
HOW MANY FARMS DOES A VETERINARIAN WORK WITH AT ONCE?
Most veterinarians that work for broiler companies have responsibility for the health and welfare of multiple broiler complexes. The average broiler complex processes 1,000,000 – 1,250,000 birds per week. A typical complex usually has between 100 – 200 farms that are owned by individual producers. Broiler complexes within the same company are spread over several states so travel is a part of a broiler veterinarian’s routine.
HOW OFTEN DOES A VETERINARIAN VISIT AN INDIVIDUAL POULTRY FARM?
Like most things, farm visitation subscribes to the 80:20 rule. 20 percent of the farms require 80% of a veterinarian’s time. For a multitude of reasons, the same farms need repeated veterinary service over time. Many farms never need veterinary service but the veterinarian may visit the farm to assess overall management as veterinarians are often asked to provide assessments ofbiosecurity, welfare and husbandry practices.
The way the system works is that veterinarians train technicians to implement the program, recognize signs of sickness and disease, perform necropsies (bird autopsies) on the birds if needed, take and deliver blood and fecal samples to the veterinary diagnostic lab, recognize lesions and then communicate all of that the veterinarian. The veterinarian cannot be on every farm at all times, but the technician is on the farm to work with the farmer once or twice every week. They are the eyes and ears for the veterinarian. The use of technology, tablets and smart phones to take videos, text pictures, etc. aids the technician to remain in constant contact with the veterinarian.
HOW CAN A VETERINARIAN ENSURE ONLY A SELECT NUMBER OF CHICKEN ARE SICK VERSUS THE ENTIRE FLOCK? IF ONE BIRD BECOMES SICK, HOW DOES THE VETERINARIAN ENSURE THAT THE REST OF THE FLOCK DOES NOT GET SICK?
If you work as a veterinarian for a broiler company, you practice flock health. In other words, because the birds live in close proximity to each other, inside a chicken house, if one bird gets sick, all of the others are at risk. The population is treated as an individual and the smallest unit is one house of chickens. In those cases where a disease is diagnosed by a poultry veterinarian, treatment would be assigned based on the causative agent to the entire house to treat those birds that are clinically ill and prevent the spread of the disease to other at risk birds in the house.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and this fits the practice of poultry medicine as well. Consequently, there is a lot of attention paid to preventing disease from entering a house (biosecurity) and ensuring the flock is best suited to be protected from a disease challenge (disease surveillance, vaccination, optimal environment and management, proper nutrition, minimal stress.)