Expert advice to reduce the costs of veterinarians and poultry medicine

Health problems are inevitable on every free-range farm, but veterinary intervention can be costly.

The key to keeping margins in the dark is to maximize the genetic potential of birds by optimizing herd health, says Philip Hammond, poultry veterinarian and partner at Crowshall Veterinary Services.

The overall health of free-range herds in the UK is good. High levels of management work under insurance programs and the British Egg Industry Council’s Lion Code, but there are challenges.

The main difficulties are:

  • Parasitic disease; red mites and worms in particular
  • Bacterial enteritis, causing deterioration of intestinal health
  • Bacterial and viral respiratory diseases – Mycoplasma gallisepticum, Mycoplasma synoviae, Ornithobacterium rhinotracheale (ORT), infectious bronchitis and avian rhinotracheitis.

See also: What the Lion Training Passport Program Means for Poultry Staff

Seven steps to optimize bird health

1. Food

Check that the diet specifications are rationed according to the size of the eggs. Underweight birds will need additional nutrition to support production levels.

But overweight birds often produce eggs that are too large, which can lead to stress, peritonitis and prolapse, often causing aggression in the flock. Review the diet regularly with a nutritionist.

2. Water quality

Poorly maintained boreholes and watering systems can contain harmful bacteria and minerals.

This can be easily resolved by regularly checking equipment, taking samples, and using hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants and routine flushing systems.

3. Ventilation

Insufficient airflow causes ammonia to build up, especially when pop holes are closed at night, which irritates birds’ airways and makes them more susceptible to disease.

Wet litter can also be harmful to health and inhibit dust bathing behavior.

4. Range management

Bare runs and poor drainage increase stocking density around ejection holes, increasing the risk of disease from pests and contaminated water.

Provide staggered cover to attract birds and use the rotation of pasture, limestone and deep litter bark wood chips around the knockout holes to improve soil condition, reduce disease and worm load and keep the birds clean.

The rotation period is a good time to harrow and set up additional drainage if needed.

5. Vaccination protocol

Review the use of the vaccine with the veterinarian. A program that is not tailored to the specific disease problems of the farm will not be effective. Information from diagnoses – blood, stool and autopsies – can shed light on individual challenges.

Additional vaccination on lay may be necessary to protect birds against pathogens such as E coli and infectious bronchitis.

6. Biosecurity

Check the bioexclusion and biocontainment measures. Gaps in the protocol can leave new challenges of disease on the farm, between houses or from vermin and wild birds.

Having clear procedures, the right equipment, and training to practice good biosecurity and thorough pest management will minimize the risks.

7. Health audits

Every farm needs a herd health and welfare plan and must work with their veterinarian to tailor it flock by flock.

Use annual visits to review health and performance metrics, and see the vet when metrics drop – typically more than 5% drop in egg production or quality.

Keeping a herd planner from mandatory tests and other dates can help avoid fines of up to £ 4,000.

Diagnostic tools

Diagnostic tools are generally underused. A typical example is worms. Performance often drops significantly before a problem is identified and investigated, at which point bacterial enteritis has become a secondary disease (see “Cost of poor poultry health”).

Integrating regular monitoring into health strategies – such as worm control – can prevent such situations, improve producers’ understanding of on-farm diseases and enable them to implement a more tailored approach and proactive disease management.

Common diagnostic tools and average cost




Blood (serology)

Used to detect a wide range of diseases


Polymerase chain reaction

Used to detect viruses

£ 40 for 10 swabs

Number of worm eggs

Used to detect internal parasites (worms)


Physical examination of the deceased bird for disease, condition, trauma and cause of death

£ 60 for six to 10 birds

Cost of poor poultry health

Production parameters such as total number of eggs for each housed bird up to 76 weeks, egg quality as a percentage of discards, feed consumption and viability are all useful indicators of poultry health that reflect the probability of profit from reaching genetic potential.

Health is a variable cost that producers can control and it has the greatest impact on whether a bird achieves its genetic potential.

For example, treatment for bacterial enteritis costs around £ 50 per 1,000 birds for five days of antibiotics – all birds in the shed will be treated.

In addition, there are losses in production and quality – expect a 10% drop in egg count with lower egg quality and seconds.


The use of antibiotics is very low in the poultry sector. There is no prophylactic use and if there is a health problem, veterinarians can use diagnostic tools and antibody sensitivity tests to identify the most appropriate antibiotic to use.

There are very few antibiotics that have a zero egg withdrawal period, which makes them prohibitively expensive.

A typical treatment and a waiting period can add up to 12 days of rejection of the eggs. On a 32,000 bird unit that’s 30,000 eggs thrown per day, at an average farm gate price of 99 p / doz, that’s a huge cost.

Case Study: Tim Bradley

Tim Bradley © Ben Pike

Tim Bradley made sweeping changes to the family’s free-range egg business – increasing production by 30% through a proactive approach to poultry health.

The Bradley family operates a mixed farm on two sites; comprising 80,000 Dekalb white layers, 250 heads of Aberdeen Angus cattle and 324 ha of combinable crops.

Hens occupy both sites, with 40,000 layers in eight flat-deck sheds on the host farm, and an additional 40,000 layers in five sheds on the farm outside – four flat decks and a tiered system of 16,000 birds installed in 2015 to improve bird welfare.


Started in the late 1980s by Mr. Bradley’s father, the business has grown steadily over the years and operated as a multi-age system.

However, as the number of birds increased, managing a multi-age system became a challenge; inconsistency in management, compromised biosecurity and unsuitable breed, all attributed to deteriorating health and production.

“The main challenges of the disease were infectious bronchitis, Mycoplasma gallisepticum and bacterial enteritis,” says Bradley. “Each new herd would be challenged by the disease and would have to be treated with antibiotics.

“Production levels were low, egg quality suffered and mortality averaged around 15%.


In 2010, Mr Bradley enlisted in the Veterinary Services at Crowshall, using blood profiling, worm egg counts and autopsies to get an accurate picture of the health of the herd.

They also reviewed everything from race, population choice and water supply systems to range management, health planning and staffing.

“We had to start from scratch, and the biggest decision was to stop production in 2012 to break disease and pest cycles and rest the ground before coming back as a one-age system,” explains- he does.

“We stopped completely for six months, with a few empty sheds for 14 months – it was a big investment. “

Other changes include improving water hygiene by replacing bell drinkers with nipple drinkers and by flushing drinking systems regularly.

Restocking began in 2014 and the Bradleys switched to Dekalb White, a resilient breed more suited to an outdoor environment.

As a result of these changes, and with the one-age system that facilitates management and reduces biosecurity risks, health and well-being have improved dramatically.

“We now have a comprehensive health and wellness plan that incorporates production metrics and health strategies such as worm control and regular monitoring,” says Bradley.

All new flocks are tested for blood when they reach 16 weeks of age and have received an additional salmonella vaccination at the end of breeding.

Turnaround times have been extended to four to five weeks, and homes are sanitized twice before restocking.

And range management also looks different, with fixed storage and planting of native trees increasing range coverage from 5% to 20%.

Mr. Bradley also focused on staffing and training.

“We have improved biosecurity by assigning staff to the hangars, so there is less risk of cross-contamination. And we’ve invested in health and wellness classes and post-mortem training, so that we can quickly identify problems in a home, ”he explains.


Bird performance is now exceptional (see “Performance Comparison”), with minimal disease problems;

Mr Bradley has experienced a 30% increase in egg production and enjoys a 95-97% liveability, with a minor outbreak of worms and a very small number of rapidly recovered infectious bronchitis cases.

In terms of savings, his vet bills have fallen sharply from £ 25,000-30,000 in 2010-11 to £ 6,000-8,000 over the next five years.

And with total income close to the national average of 91.16 p / doz, its increased production has enormous value as well.

“We attach great importance to the welfare of birds; next year we will replace six flat platform sheds with a tiered system and we are working with the Woodland Trust to continue planting trees, ”he said.

“The health of the herd is at the heart of business; We will continue to work closely with our vets to review health, performance and protocols, as well as invest in our people, which are integral to their success.

Performance comparison



Bird breed

Brown (various breeders)


Age at depopulation

72 weeks

85 weeks

Number of eggs per bird up to 72 weeks



Peak bridge / maintained period

95% / three days

97% / three months

Average egg weight

63.5 g




Completion time

Two and a half weeks

Four to five weeks

Veterinary invoice

£ 25,000-30,000

£ 6,000 to £ 8,000

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