If I had a quarter for every time I was asked what we put into laying hens to make them lay so many eggs….I would NOT be setting my alarm early so I could shovel my driveway out for the 4th time this week. I can’t keep track of the number of times or ways I have been told about the constant flow of antibiotics, hormones and additives that go into laying hens. It has stopped being a surprise, but it used to be….I always wondered what I was doing wrong as a vet! If everyone else was using all these good drugs on their hens, what was I missing? Then I figured it out….what I was missing was immersion in the internet. The amount of misinformation out there is staggering. I’m sure it’s true when I do a quick search on nuclear energy, or free trade coffee, or Beyoncé’s plastic surgery history (not that I would….honest).
The difference is, in this case, I KNOW how much is misinformation….on other subjects, I can be convinced by a smooth argument and repetition.
I can only swear to the truth about the birds I look after, here in Ontario. As the vet on record for over half of the laying hens in Ontario, I can state that it is much more common for flocks to NEVER see antibiotics than to be treated. I use antibiotics if a flock needs them to fight off a disease, but that is rare….I used antibiotics less than 20 times last year in the more than 300 flocks I am in charge of.
Professional laying hen farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money in PREVENTION of disease. This includes extensive vaccine programs, strict biosecurity programs, excellent control of the environment the hens are in, clean barns, high quality feed and water, and protection from wild animals (this is especially important right now, when waterfowl are shedding Avian Influenza in many areas of North America).
That and the fact that laying hens are mostly in cages, separated from their manure, means that it is uncommon for laying hens to get diseases that require treatment with antibiotics.
I think it is crucial for animal welfare to allow for the treatment of sick flocks when medically necessary. I also think it is crucial for farmers to take disease prevention and prudent use of antibiotics very seriously…..and, in my experience, they do. We manage flocks so we don’t have to treat, but will treat if it becomes necessary.
I still wondered if I was running a different practice than my colleagues though. I know the vast majority of the laying hen vets in North America, but they don’t tell me what they are doing on a day-to-day basis. I was in an international poultry expo in Atlanta last month….a who’s-who of the poultry world, and about 30 of us laying hen vets got together for a meeting (we are not a big group….there are more pro sports TEAMS in the US than laying hen vets). The subject of antibiotic resistance came up, as it does in every vet meeting I’ve attended in the past 5 years. One of the most distinguished vets in our group said he thought our industry was doing well in antibiotic usage….his quote: “I belong to a group called AA….Antibiotic Anonymous…..whenever I feel the urge to try to solve a problem with antibiotics, I phone another vet, and they talk me out of it”. That made me feel that we were all pushing in the same direction.
As for hormones, the last time I saw commercial laying hens administered hormones, they were given by a unicorn, and brought onto the farm by one of the giant alligators from the sewers. It’s an urban myth and, in reality:
It. Doesn’t. Happen. ……… Ever. If I could say it more clearly, I would. There is no hormone product for sale for poultry, there is not a farmer who would want it, there is no way it would make economic sense, and there is absolutely no reason to use such a product. Our hens have been genetically selected so well that they almost lay an egg every day….that is all they can produce! There would be no way to feed a hen enough nutrients to allow her to produce more than that! Besides…many of you readers have backyard hens, who also lay close to an egg a day…..where are you getting your hormone supplements from?
As for all the additives we use in laying hen feed, there is some truth to that. We add vitamins, lutein, Omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrient enrichments that are passed on to the people who eat the eggs. We also add things to improve the health of the birds….electrolytes (think Gatorade, without the sugar), calcium for bone strength, probiotics (similar to yogurt, but not as gross), and organic acids (similar to vinegar), to help with digestion and keep the gut healthy (actually this is one of the more recent focuses of disease prevention…..gut health).
I hope this makes some sense to readers who are unfamiliar with professional egg production….at first glance, it might make sense for us to use a lot of drugs or even hormones. But once you look a little deeper, disease prevention and good management do more good than either of those strategies.
Mike the Chicken Vet