A non-antibiotic approach to controlling necrotic enteritis in layers is allowing a Welsh free range poultry farm to lift egg production 4 per cent above target and reduce numbers of seconds.

A severe outbreak of the gastrointestinal disease in James Ford’s 12,000-bird Hyline flock at 25 weeks saw egg output plummet by 10 per cent.

Mr Ford, a beef and sheep farmer who diversified into poultry production at Tynycaia Farm, near Cowbridge, 10 years ago, said the hens looked unhealthy and their cones lost colour.

The farm vet diagnosed necrotic enteritis and prescribed a course of antibiotics to add to the water supply.

Although bird health improved in the first week the flock was hit by a further outbreak.

Mr Ford and his vet didn’t want to use more antibiotics so instead non-infective bacteria was added to the hens’ environment.

To increase competition for infective bacteria housing and drinkers were sprayed with liquid containing these every day for a week, to build up a population of ‘good’ bacteria; a stabiliser was added to the water supply.

Flock health gradually improved over the following month.

“Egg production crept up again and by week four it had lifted to our target level,’’ says Mr Ford.

“Since then the hens have been performing 4 per cent above target at all stages in their laying cycle, they are producing on average 30 eggs more in the cycle that previous flocks.’’

The shed is now sprayed once a week and the drinkers twice weekly, a job that takes about 40 minutes.

“It is well worth the effort, it saved the flock because the problem was in the shed but we have found a way of rectifying it,’’ says Mr Ford.

A water stabiliser is added every day and this prevents biofilm accumulating.

Mr Ford spends around £150 a month on the treatment but says this investment is small compared to the increase in output and, importantly, he has had no further cases of necrotic enteritis.

The organism that causes necrotic enteritis is transmitted by soil, dust, litter and faeces and can be induced by raw material in feed and coccidiosis.

Mr Ford doesn’t know how his flock became infected.

“It was when we had the ‘Beast from the East’, the temperature plummeted and there was a lot of stress on the birds.

“But the infection could have been introduced by wild birds or there could have been an underlying infection in the hens when they arrived here.’’

The extreme wet conditions last winter challenged all free range systems but Mr Ford says health was maintained in his flock throughout this period.

“If ever there was going to be a disease flare-up it would have been then because the range was wet and muddy and the hens were carrying the mud into the shed but we didn’t have any problems, we just kept spraying every week.

“Since we started using the treatment we haven’t needed to use any antibiotics.’’

Mr Ford has switched breed to Burford Browns, to supply a higher value market, and has just taken delivery of this third flock after the necrotic enteritis outbreak.

His focus is on keeping disease out and maintaining a stable environment for the hens.

After destocking, the shed has a three-week break during which it is washed down. Once clean, the entire shed is sprayed with non-infective bacteria.

“Even though the shed is getting older, which in itself can result in more disease being present, the birds aren’t facing the challenges they were so we don’t get any disease flare-ups,’’ says Mr Ford.

And, because the hens aren’t fighting disease, egg quality is good.

Mr Ford believes if there are alternatives to antibiotics available for controlling disease, poultry producers should use them.

Although antibiotics are the only treatment that will destroy the bacteria completely, there are alternatives that can suppress infection.

“We have never over-used antibiotics, we have only ever used them for treatment and in some flock cycles we have never used them at all,’’ says Mr Ford.