TUCKER, Ga. — Spring is here, and summer is just around the corner. Higher temperatures present challenges when transporting poultry from farms to processing plants. Heat stress can cause heavy loses, especially during the summer. However, there are common management practices that can ensure welfare and help maintain yield and meat quality.
A broiler chicken’s and a turkey’s normal body temperature ranges from 105 degrees Fahrenheit to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. A body temperature of around 115 degrees Fahrenheit can become lethal to these particular birds. Not much room to play with when managing heat stress in poultry.
Preparing a house or barn ahead of time allows for a smooth catch and load. This step also minimizes exposure to outdoor heat. In turn minimizing stress, improving welfare outcomes and increasing yield. High temperatures and humidity cause heat stress because they influence how a bird can dissipate heat. Birds cannot sweat, so they use a combination of removing heat from their bodies by allowing air to move through their feathers and by breathing. Low relative humidity helps removing heat through a process called evaporative cooling. This occurs when the removal of moisture from the body causes a cooling effect, helping to regulate body temperature.
The entire management program for catch and transport welfare revolves around managing temperature and humidity. In many places, high temperature is accompanied by high relative humidity. Therefore, methods to remove humidity and move air are necessary to keep birds comfortable. To prevent losses during summer transportation, start preparing before a catch crew arrives to your farm. The health of the flock is crucial. The strongest birds will handle these conditions best.
Now how do you know birds are fit for transport? Fit birds are alert, curious, eating and drinking. They are uniform in size. Feathers are smooth and clean. Combs and wattles are bright red or pink. In the case of male turkeys, their heads will have a light blue color. House or barn conditions have to be maintained through the proper, functioning equipment.
The last few days of a flock are critical for the preparation of a hot-weather move. Make sure fans and cooling pads are functioning properly. Monitor air movement and relative humidity throughout the house or barn while making the necessary adjustments to keep birds comfortable. Ensure that feed and water are provided.
The outside of the location must be prepared for a catch as well. Prepare lanes around the house or barn so trucks and vans can go around safely and are able to set up quickly — in a way that minimizes bird exposure to the outside environment. The end pads and the bedding at the end doors should be clean and leveled in order for forklifts and additional catching equipment to pass through. Water needs to be provided up until the time of catch in order for birds to regulate body temperature in conjunction with ventilation.
You must follow feed withdrawal times. Feed withdrawal serves various purposes, too. First, birds need to digest feed before loading. Digestion requires a lot of energy, and this increases body temperature. If birds are still digesting feed at the time of load, you are reducing the temperature gap where a bird can become heat stressed, increasing the probability of reaching a critical body temperature.
Second, feed withdrawal has an impact at the processing plant. Proper feed withdrawals help maintain gut integrity, which helps reduce fecal and feed cross contamination of carcasses. If the time is too short, you will encounter increased feed and fecal contamination of equipment and carcasses. If the withdrawal is too long, then intestines will be too fragile, and you also will have increased fecal contamination due to intestine rupture. Many people have made the mistake of not following proper feed withdrawal times.
Keeping feeders down too long does not help increase pounds of live bird weight and increases dead on arrivals (DOAs), which works against the grower. It wreaks havoc at the processing plant by increasing rework and condemns. Withdrawing too early will affect bird weights and will also increase sanitary issues in processing plants.
Maintain ventilation and take measures to control ventilation while trucks are being loaded. The overall goal is to load the truck as quickly as possible to get it back on the road. Plan to have additional catchers to accelerate the loading process. Even with those additional catchers, prepare to have supplemental ventilation to keep birds comfortable while the truck prepares to leave the farms.
Ideally, trucks should park in an area where there is wind and shade. This is not always the case, so supplemental ventilation and, if possible, fogging is needed. This can be achieved with the use of fire fans and with trailers equipped with fans and foggers. Once the truck is ready, the next step is to get the truck on the road quickly. Air movement while the truck is moving is still the best management method available in hot weather. Trips should be through the shortest route with minimal stopping.
Trucks should not have extended stops unless it is an emergency. Once the truck reaches the processing plant, trailers should sit in a holding shed equipped with fans and foggers until it is time to unload birds into the processing line. Set thermostats to turn on at set temperatures and verify that all the equipment is functioning and turned on at those set points.
Finally, evaluate your process for continuous improvements. Monitor for signs of stress such as heavy panting and open mouth breathing. DOAs, injuries (e.g., bruises and broken bones) and quality issues such as water loss in meat are indicators of heat stress. Follow practices that prepare birds for catch and transport. Prepare for extreme temperatures even if the equipment is not needed for that day. In hot weather, everyone involved in catch and transport needs to react quickly in case the unexpected happens.
Rafael Rivera is manager, Food Safety & Production Programs, with the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association based in Tucker, Ga.