Skip to main content

John Cooper: Improving gut health to boost poultry performance

September 9, 2019

By improving gut health, birds can withstand challenges from everyday farm processes.

Can gut health improve efficiency on poultry farms? John Cooper, Alltech poultry technical manager for the U.K., explains the science behind gut health and the benefits that come with being proactive in addressing on-farm concerns.

The following is an edited transcript of Kara Keeton’s interview with John Cooper. Click below to hear the full audio.


Kara:              I'm here today with John Cooper, the Alltech poultry technical manager for the United Kingdom. Thank you for joining me today.


John:              Thank you for having me.


Kara:              John, have you always been interested in poultry production?


John:              Yeah. I actually started off when I was 15, just working on breeder farms through spread and feed, and went my way up to managing the different types of the integration — so broilers, layers, rearing birds and even hatchers, as well — so I’ve kind of grown up with the industry, I suppose.


Kara:              You've been with Alltech five years now, correct?


John:              Correct, yeah.


Kara:              What has your experience been like in working with Alltech and the research and challenges you’ve faced in the industry?


John:              The research side, I've actually found really interesting, because we've done quite a lot of that in the U.K. as well, so the information that we get is relevant. From the point of view of how I’ve found it, the whole industry really shifted, I suppose, with the onset of reducing antibiotic use and things like that, so it kind of came towards what Alltech was about, whereas I think, beforehand, it was not really something people had to do. Now, with the industry changing, we're very much in the right space, and we have the information, the data and the products to support what we're trying to do.


Kara:              And what you're trying to do with your research and, especially, with Alltech products is to look at ways to reduce antibiotic use within the industry, so tell me a little bit about how you have been working on research projects in that avenue.


John:              Okay, so, really, what we've been doing is looking at how our products interact with the microbiome — for instance, how it improves the structure of the villi, all these things that really contribute to the processes of poultry production, how we're basically going to get the biggest bang for our customers' buck, really. Also, when you're thinking of gut health, it's, first, limiting, so it's really about how you can improve gut health to achieve the performance that the birds are actually supposed to do.


Kara:              Gut health is always an interesting topic to me. What exactly is gut health, and how can you improve it with some of the research developments?


John:              Gut health is looking at how the microbiota, the feed — how the bird can basically use what you're providing it as tools so as not to have to use medication. By improving gut health, the birds, then, can withstand the challenges that they get from everyday processes. So, really, gut health is like the engine; you put good oil in it, you service it often and it all works properly. That's where we come in, by showing and using research to, really, I suppose, put a focus on — you can actually see the developments and what changes.


                        We've done a lot of work on the microbiota, seeing how the microflora play a big part in what happens with the chicken or any other animal that we work with. We can see the shift in the diversity and how that's important to achieving gut health. I try and explain it to my customers as simply as possible, because it's quite a tough subject to talk about. I would say it's like, in the U.K., we have the House of Commons. So, you have all these seats that are empty, and then you put the right people in those seats, you fill those seats, and then things that want to invade — like campylobacter, E. coli, all these things — those things then can't invade because you've already got a set presence there, so it kind of really does reduce the challenge when they get these coming on.


Kara:              I've heard the terms “postbiotics” and “probiotics”. Can you explain this to me and tell me how they impact gut health?


John:              Postbiotics are a byproduct of the fermentation of when we use prebiotics and they feed the probiotics. Probiotics are something that you're trying to give the animal a dose of, that either could be from the mom, I suppose, in a way, or even a beneficial bacteria. Like I mentioned about filling the seats in the House of Commons, you're trying to fill those seats as fast as possible, and then, the prebiotics are really there to improve the level of the bacteria that are not the good guys, that you're not wanting, so that'll remove them but also to promote the good guys, by doing that. I suppose, in a way, postbiotics is looking at what the byproducts are — so things like organic acids, enzymes, all these things that are beneficial to the bird. It helps with reducing E. coli coming from the alkaline living area, where it wants to be, and not actually getting into the more acidic area, which you're trying to keep them out of, so we find that organic acids work really well.


Kara:              Now, I read about the “seed, feed, weed” strategy. Explain that to me. I think it's a very interesting approach.


John:              Okay. Really, it's a concept that was developed by Dr. Steve Collett at the University of Georgia.


                        What you do is you're seeding the gut dam with the right commensal bacteria; then you're feeding that with organic acids, basically, so you can actually promote the good guys and also stop the bad guys from invading, as I mentioned, by keeping the area at a lower-acid pH level. Then, also, the weed part is weeding out the bad guys, the unwanted, and promoting the good guys. That's the concept, pretty much. It's a nice, simplified way of doing things, but what I find from working with customers is, whether we put one part together and then we add the other part so you could do the whole program, it's not something that happens overnight. It really is a whole different way of managing a farm. It's a different way of thinking in terms of — there are so many little bits. You've got to be more proactive than reactive.


                        Also, the biggest benefits come three to five flocks afterwards, because you're not just changing the microbiota of the chicken. You're not just working on that area; you're also seeing this happen on the farm. So, you go from an antibiotic background, where your bacteria could be high levels, even though, in the U.K., we clean out and disinfect. The profile doesn’t change; we lower the dose, but the profile doesn’t change, so it's how, then, we can make sure that what the bird first comes into contact with when it gets placed on the farm is actually more beneficial than what it's going to get from a more beneficial bacteria — so, something that we get that's more useful to them. So, you're shifting from an antibiotic to a more probiotic background, and that's where you start seeing that three-to-five flocks being really important to understand, where, once you hit that, there is a bigger benefit that comes after. Of course, good breeds good, so the more little pooping machines you have running down, spreading the better bacteria and promoting that, then everything works really well.


Kara:              So, when you are taking a more proactive approach to addressing concerns on the farm, this also has to have an impact on the bottom line for the farmers. What are the farmers seeing when they transition to this more proactive approach, instead of leaning and depending on antibiotics?


John:              As I mentioned, it's the evolution of the whole farm. Well, not just the farm, but the sheds as well. Really, being proactive, I suppose it's bringing the management style back to the manager that manages the farm, looks at the signs. There's a lot of technology out there, but you still can't get away from — you can't beat what the bird tells you. They tell you when it's too hot, too cold, or something is not right, so it's really stockmanship. You can't really put a price on that, and I think that's where “seed, feed, weed” really does bring it back to the stockman, to work with the animals and, I suppose, use the tools that are available and use them as best as possible to get the best results.


Kara:              How do you see the development of a proactive approach, a sustainable approach, impacting poultry production down the road five to ten years? Do you see this as being a progressive approach that more and more farmers are adapting?


John:              I think everybody is doing something similar to a “seed, feed, weed” approach. Sometimes, they're not doing it how we would do it, but that's the whole point of it; it's a concept that gives you an idea of how to do something better and different. So, really, I think, as we understand what happens and what changes, I think it really does open your eyes, and then, you're able to actually see right, like, “I understand this is what's happening,” and it kind of makes sense in your head. It's just a different way of reacting to things, rather than picking up the phone and calling the vet. That's a cost as well, so it's kind of how you take things into your own hands and manage what's happening on your farm. I think, going forward, I think it's only going to become more and more important with the more information and research different companies are putting out there, whether it be Alltech or someone else. I think it's all very relevant, and the more we know, then the more we can actually say, “Well, this is what's actually interacting with our animals in a certain way,” and we’ll know how we can correct that.


Kara:              Okay. Thank you so much for joining me today, John. This is John Cooper, Alltech poultry technical manager for the United Kingdom.


I would like to learn more about gut health for my poultry farm.