Research and reality: Bridging the gap

The NFU Poultry Research Seminar went online this year in the form of three virtual seminars in March. Hosted by NFU poultry board chair Thomas Wornham, the seminars gave farmers, academics and industry a fascinating insight into cutting-edge poultry sector research. The sessions were made interactive with the use of polls which allowed attendees to share their views on a selection of topics throughout the sessions Here's what caught the ear of NFU Agricultural Policy Graduate Alastair Heinrich.

Watch recordings of the seminars here.

Where next for poultry diets?

The first seminar heard from three experts about their work on alternative feed protein sources.

Brian Kenyon of ABN reviewed broiler trials which had previously been carried out on a customer’s farm, assessing lupin inclusion in rations. The commercial trials demonstrated that soybean meal could be reduced by 2.9% in current broiler diets without impacting performance. Still, widespread adoption would need industry and supply chain commitment. The poll answers showed 46% of the audience viewed legumes as an alternative to soybean meal, but availability was a barrier to inclusion.

Miha Pipan of Better Origin reviewed the health, welfare and productivity benefits of feeding live insects to laying hens based on a trial at Wood Farm, a commercial laying unit owned by NFU members the Mear family. The trial results indicate that birds showed better human interaction, a 3% increase in egg production and improved gut health. In this particular trial, feeding black soldier fly larvae has not only benefited bird health but also reduced the level of soya in the feed.

The final speaker, Professor Jos Houdijk of Scotland's Rural College (SRUC), gave an in-depth insight into his research into how homegrown protein sources could reduce the reliance of the UK poultry industry on soybean meal. Interestingly, 93% of the attendees agreed that there is potential for the inclusion of alternative protein sources such as fava beans for poultry diets. Prof Houdijk went on to explore the options for combined alternative proteins to meet industry demands.

The future of bird welfare

The second seminar focused on the development of welfare monitoring and improvement methods for exploring how the UK poultry meat and egg sectors could help improve public perception of the poultry industry. 

Egg producer Glenn Haggart of Addington Farm shared his novel method of playing music to counteract stress and improve his laying hens' tolerance to external noise. Rebecca Swinn of Innovative Farmers explained the opportunities of field labs which support projects like Mr Haggart’s. This project is at the beginning of an interesting journey and could offer an array of potential benefits to industry, as improvements to health, productivity and general welfare behaviour have already been seen at Addington Farm.

He shared his novel method of playing music to counteract stress and improve his hens' tolerance to external noise. Rebecca Swinn of Innovative Farmers explained the opportunities of field labs, which support projects like Mr Haggart’s. This project is at the beginning of an interesting journey. It could offer an array of potential benefits to industry, as they have already seen improvements to health, productivity and general welfare behaviour on Addington Farm.

The theme of sound continued with Professor Lucy Asher of Newcastle University and her research surrounding automated monitoring of distress calls in broiler flocks. Professor Asher’s research has shown that by recording and analysing the distress calls of broiler chicks, flock weight and mortality can be predicted up until day 32 of the bird’s life. Her work offers a unique and innovative insight into the welfare of a broiler flock in its early stages of life. When asked, 92% of attendees said that they believe industry would see more automation for the monitoring of bird welfare in the future.

Public perception is key for all businesses and 78% of the audience agreed the poultry industry should undertake more consumer engagement. Nuffield scholar Hannah Eastaugh of Noble Foods shared examples from around the world of how farm businesses have improved public engagement, created great consumer relationships and improved industry perception. Her research highlighted the importance and potential benefits of farmers meeting the challenge of public engagement and bringing consumers face to face with farming.

Exploring innovation on farm

In the final seminar, Professor Emily Burton of Nottingham Trent University introduced the REACT-FIRST project, a carbon recycling biotechnology trial producing protein using industrial CO2 emissions.

Professor Burton also provided an in-depth insight into what the poultry industry’s nutritional requirements might look like in the future and the ability of the sector to effectively remove soybean meal from feed rations through optimising protein sources.

In this increasingly digital world, 83% of attendees believed that data analysis using artificial intelligence and automation to  aid management decisions would be helpful to stockpersons. David Brass of The Lakes Free Range Egg Company spoke about his use of data analysis and how this assists stockpersons on his farm. By using the data he collects to inform management decisions, he has reduced mortality from 1.5% to 0.38% in his rearing units and attained 11.7 more eggs per bird in his laying unit.

NFU poultry board member David Speller of the Applied Group explained how he uses robotic sensors and data analysis within his poultry units. Mr Speller talked about using a range of sensors including sound, temperature and cameras to monitor the birds 24/7. Image analysis software looks for behavioural change indicators in his birds, allowing him to track disease throughout flocks and detect problems up to three days ahead of clinical symptoms.

NFU poultry board chairman Thomas Wornham said: “The third NFU Poultry Research Seminar built upon previous events to act as a conduit between academia and industry, introducing new and innovative research and ideas that may be unheard of or something you could see benefiting your business.

"Our industry continues to evolve as businesses invest in new facilities and infrastructure. The aim of these seminars was to enable poultry businesses to keep pace with new and upcoming trends, practices and even some blue sky thinking for the vision of the future.”

Find out more

It was a thought-provoking week of research and innovation that promises great potential for the future of the UK poultry industry.  If you were unable to attend watch recordings of the seminars here.