Although there is still some uncertainty around the risk of avian influenza (bird flu) this winter, there is “cautious optimism” cases will be much reduced compared to the previous two years, a leading UK scientist has said.

In NI to address a poultry industry conference on Tuesday, Professor Ian Brown from the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency (AHPA) confirmed that monitoring of wild birds across the UK during the past summer has detected the virus, especially in the sea bird population.

However, he said the level of virus found during 2023 is lower than compared to recent years.

“Hopefully we will have much reduced numbers of cases. The defence against the disease is still to have really good biosecurity practices. We cannot be complacent with this disease. It could come later in the winter,” Brown told the Irish Farmers Journal.

Currently the use of a vaccine to control bird flu is not permitted in the UK, although at the start of October authorities in France decided to go ahead with a vaccination programme in ducks. That immediately triggered a ban on French poultry exports to the US.

According to Professor Brown, there has been a shift in international thinking around the use of vaccines.

However, he is clear it is “not a simple fix”, especially given it requires a robust system of monitoring to be in place to ensure vaccinated flocks (which might appear healthy) are actually not infected with the virus.

“That is very costly. Those sums are probably prohibitive,” he said.

He maintained that some of the assumptions made around the risk of virus spread from vaccinated flocks might not be particularly strong, but it will take time to work with international partners on these issues. “We know it is important for NI to be able to freely move poultry and commodities from birds. The reality is there is a jeopardy to trade if you vaccinate,” he said.

Poultry meat well placed on carbon footprint

Genetic advances that have driven improved feed conversion efficiency mean the global poultry meat sector is in “a good place” when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Tim Burnside from poultry breeding company Aviagen told Tuesday’s conference.

“We have a 50% lower carbon footprint since 1970 and it will be 15% lower by 2030 than it is today,” he said.

However, he pointed out that consumers are also concerned about how their food is produced and are influenced by well-funded campaigns pushing an anti-meat agenda. In the UK, a number of retailers now offer slower-growing birds, even though the resultant meat will inevitably carry higher GHG emissions per kg.

“Slow-growing birds have a greater environmental impact, but better welfare traits,” said Burnside.

Increase in sales of dark meat

The pressure on household incomes has contributed to higher sales of dark chicken meat from the legs of the bird, maintained Jason Winstanley from Moy Park.

He said that lower food price inflation in recent months would normally lead to an improved outlook, but with interest rates at 15-year highs it is “weighing heavily” on consumer confidence. With dark poultry meat offering the best value of any meat protein, he expects sales to continue to see growth.

During his presentation on Tuesday, Winstanley also highlighted results of a survey of 500 consumers by Moy Park.

It showed that consumers see chicken as offering the best value for money, versatility and appeal, while it was ranked along with fish as being best for health. When it comes to sustainability, chicken and fish both came out on top, but all meats were generally rated lower.

“There is a consumer difficulty around sustainability and animal protein,” said Winstanley.

Meeting the needs of modern layers

Genetic advances in layers means birds are now more persistent in lay and have the ability to produce an extra four eggs each year, or 20 more eggs than birds on farms five years ago, confirmed Marcus Kenny, a nutritionist with Hy-Line International.

Due to the quick pace of change, feeding programmes on many farms need to be refined, and previous advice where nutrient density was reduced as the laying period progressed, may no longer be relevant.

“If you have a flock that are persisting, don’t change them down to a lower nutrient density diet,” advised Kenny.

Read more

News in-brief from Northern Ireland

Biosecurity lessons learned from UK bird flu outbreak