We have been trained to assume modern broilers will consume the most feed possible when given a diet of adequate nutritional specifications. Indeed, this might be the case under ideal conditions, such as those employed by geneticists to develop modern broilers. And when the feed is ideally balanced, something experienced nutritionists can achieve easily, then feed conversion rate will be optimal — hopefully leading to maximal profitability.
In practice, however, this is not the case as management and facilities are far removed from ideal standards, and nutritionists cannot or will not create an ideally balanced diet. The reasons are many, and most are justified, leaving ignorance to be addressed by education. What remains is to face reality with a toolbox that contains solutions that will maximize feed intake in broilers raised under most commercial conditions. As it happens, each measure will increase cost of production. This, of course, must be counterbalanced by the improved growth rate and/or improved feed conversion rate. A profit and loss balance sheet at the end of each production cycle will provide the best testimony to the efficacy of any measure taken to increase feed intake.
Anyone who buys complete feeds assumes the diets are well-balanced according to widely accepted norms. This can be far from true.
Before we begin exploring this toolbox of feed intake enhancement methods, a couple disclaimers are in order. First, we assume that the energy level of the feed will remain unchanged. We know that by reducing energy concentration the birds will try to compensate by eating more. This is an artificial way of increasing feed intake, only to be employed when energy ingredients are priced according to a greater plan that accepts worse feed conversion rates in exchange for enhanced profitability. The second point of notice has to do with temperature and stocking density. Again, we assume these two very important variables remain unchanged. Otherwise we can observe increased feed intake with reduced temperature or stocking density, and vice versa. Whether we want to adjust such parameters remains outside the scope of nutrition and feed management.
1. Pellets and crumbles
It is widely known that birds will consume a greater amount of nutrients when offered pelleted feeds. This is because pellets present a more compact form of diet that requires greater consumption to provide the same gut fill before satiety signals inform the bird that enough has been consumed. In addition, pelleted feed is considered slightly more digestible than feed in meal form. There are many more benefits, some of which may not justify the expense of pelleting, but when feed intake must be maximized, pellets are a must. Crumbles are best reserved for starting chicks as the fines in them partially offset some of the benefits described above for older birds.
Although strictly a management decision, it has been observed (not always, however, with the same success) that birds will consume a greater quantity of feed, and digest it better, when raised on a rotating on-off lighting program. A common program is two hours of light, which initiates a feed consumption cycle, followed by two hours of darkness, where birds rest. Variations exist, but if combined with pelleted feeds, then birds will consume the most feed possible. As a side note, it must be remembered that more feeding positions might be required compared to other management programs to allow all birds to start eating at the same time.
3. Water availability
It is without saying that without water there is no feed intake. Anything that causes a reduction in water intake will reduce feed intake. So, extra care should be taken to ensure all birds have adequate access to enough water of suitable quality. This story about water has become a stereotype, but this is because most facilities pay little to no attention to water intake. In my opinion, a monthly check up of every aspect of water provision should be assigned to a properly trained member of the staff. Otherwise, we will keep looking for solutions to problems that should not be there.
Most, even nutritionists, believe birds have little if any sense of taste. This is far from truth. If we compare the number of taste buds between a bird and a mammal, the latter usually wins. But, if we consider the number of taste buds per volume in the oral cavity, the two suddenly become not much different. Today, nutritionists are investigating the use of specific flavors to enhance feed intake in broilers. In addition, nutritionists are already aware of specific ingredients and additives that depress feed intake. As such, there is scope in spending some time considering the issue of palatability in birds when formulating a new diet.
5. Anti-nutritional factors
Certain anti-nutritional factors, apart from imparting an undesirable taste (bitter, for example), cause a negative reaction at the gut level (inflammation, for example). When this happens, birds will instinctively reduce feed intake to the point they will stop eating if the offending ingredient is above tolerable levels. Thus, when we need to maximize feed intake, we can reduce the number of ingredients that contains known anti-nutritional factors. We will replace them with others more innocuous, but also more expensive, and here again, we must balance expense versus profit.
6. Balanced diets
Anyone who buys complete feeds assumes the diets are well-balanced according to widely accepted norms. This can be far from true. A well balanced diet requires first the services of a qualified nutritionist — you cannot simply copy such a formula from the internet or from the pages of a book. There is a huge gap between example formulas shown for educational purposes and those that should be manufactured for commercial use. Lamentably, good nutritionists are expensive to hire, and many feed mills tend to improvise (at best) or copy using feed labels and “intuition” (at worst). In any case, a cheap feed can be produced this way, but the birds will either not consume it readily or if they do, they will waste one nutrient or the other or lack a nutrient or two. Again, it takes a Ph.D. nutritionist 10 years of education and another 10 years of experience to be able to produce a successful commercial formula. It is not brain surgery, but it is not like sticking a bandage to a papercut, either!
In brief, when broilers must grow faster or their feed intake lags behind due to any cause, there are some measures that can be employed with more or less success to entice them to eat more. Whether this succeeds or not is best assessed by a professional manager with the help of a qualified nutritionist. In the end, as this is about a commercial enterprise, the profit-loss balance is what will determine the application of one or the other measure.