Egg quality – what to feed to make it last

Egg quality generally deteriorates with hen age and storage time. Novel feeding strategies in laying hens can support extended productivity of high egg quality that persists longer during storage.

Benefits of extended laying cycles

Extending laying cycles to up to 90-100 weeks has financial as well as environmental benefits. This stems from the fact that longer laying cycles reduces the number of breeding birds and feed required for egg production. However, a decline in egg numbers combined with a deterioration in egg quality are the main reasons for replacing flocks at or around 72 weeks of age. The financial and environmental benefits of extended laying cycles call for strategies to increase laying persistence and stability in egg quality. These strategies need to involve the long-term maintenance of the tissues and organs involved in producing eggs.

 Factors affecting egg quality parameters

Typical egg quality parameters are shell strength, albumen height and Haugh units (HU). Generally, it is known that these parameters can be affected by hen age, genetics and nutrition.

Albumen height and HU are important parameters for albumen quality and indicate egg freshness. The Haugh unit is the standard selection measurement for albumen quality. The higher the value of the Haugh unit, the better the quality of eggs. Classification of eggs by HU according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): AA (100 to 72), A (71 to 60), B (59 to 30) and C (below 29).

Studies have shown that Haugh units deteriorate with hen age from an average 89.6 to 68.8 over the laying period. Egg shell strength and albumen height are also known to be lower in older laying hens compared to younger laying hens.

Storage time is an additional factor that can affect several egg quality parameters. It has been shown to have a significant negative effect on albumen height, HU and yolk colour. The effect of storage time on egg quality can be further exacerbated by temperature. Eggs stored refrigerated can maintain quality for a longer period compared to eggs stored at room temperature.

Can we slow down the aging process of ovaries in laying hens?

Ovarian aging is characterized by a gradual decrease in both the quantity and the quality of oocytes and is related to the age of the laying hen. One of the most important factors inducing ovarian aging is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is caused through the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) generated during metabolic activity, which can be exacerbated in periods of high productivity or when the bird is challenged by stressors, such as heat, mycotoxins and flocking density.

The birds antioxidative capacity relies on a complex antioxidant system, which makes use of biological antioxidants and enzymes. However, the antioxidative capacity decreases during the aging process. Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (NrF2) is well established as a critical transcription factor that regulates antioxidant genes and is responsible for the induction of various cellular defense mechanisms, including antioxidative enzymes, against oxidative stress.

Recent research has shown that the Nrf2/KEAP pathway in ovaries gets down-regulated in the aging process of laying hens (Liu et al 2018). Furthermore, the dietary supplementation of certain phytogenic molecules demonstrated the potential to naturally slow down the aging process of ovaries, since it reduced oxidative stress by activating the Nrf2/KEAP pathway in ovaries.

Feeding strategies to make egg quality last longer in production and storage

Recent research studies investigating the effects of feeding the gut agility activator Anco FIT Poultry in laying hens have shown that it improves albumen height and Haugh units during the laying production cycle and extended egg storage life based on these egg quality parameters.

Anco FIT Poultry is specifically designed to boost the adaptive capacity of birds by upregulating efficient adaptive mechanisms at the gut and cellular level.  Research trials have proven that this gut agility activator upregulates cytoprotective factors in the NRF2-KEAP pathway in poultry and increases the antioxidative capacity in tissues and organs vital for productivity of the bird.

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Quantifying the resilience to DON mycotoxin in pigs

Recent studies have shown that resilience indicators based on monitoring voluntary feed intake in pigs also have the potential to demonstrate the resilience to DON mycotoxin in pigs.

Impact of DON on feed intake in pigs

Mycotoxins in pig feed are known to influence pig performance negatively. Studies have shown that the magnitude of the effects varies with the type and concentration of mycotoxin, sex, age of the pig as well as nutritional factors.

When it comes to the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON), meta-analysis studies have highlighted that the greater part of the variation in weight gain was related to the variation in feed intake, more than compared to other mycotoxins (Andretta et al 2011). Some studies reported that DON can induce the release of satiety hormones from endocrine cells found in the gut and others reported that the pro-inflammatory cytokine produced upon exposure to DON can also participate to the observed anorexia.

There are also other responses to DON in pigs, such as oxidative stress and inflammation on the cellular and gut level, which can play an additional role in the impact on pig growth performance as they affect energy maintenance requirements. In contrast to ruminant and poultry, pigs are more sensitive to DON because they have a low ability to detoxify DON to less toxic products.

In a study by Serviento et al (2018) evaluating short- and longterm effects of DON-contaminated diets on the feeding behaviour of finishing pigs (99 to 154 days of age) average daily feed intake was reduced on average by 26% to 32% when compared to the control groups. This was found to be related to a reduction in the rate of feed intake and the meal frequency.  Previous DON exposure did not make the pigs resistant to a second interrupted DON challenge. However, based on the faster retrieval rate in feed intake, this previous experience seemed to improve pig response to a repeated DON challenge. The adaptive mechanism of pigs to DON has not been fully understood.

Feed intake as a resilience indicator in pigs

Improving resilience is starting to gain interest for breeding programs. But before we can improve something, we also need to know how to measure it. Several research studies have been underway in different parts of the world to determine what can be measured as a good indicator for resilience in pigs.

The response of a pig to a challenge or perturbation can be characterized by the resistance and resilience potential of the pig. Although the origin of perturbations may not be known, their effect on animal performance can be observed, through changes in voluntary feed intake. The resistance trait describes the immediate reduction in daily feed intake to minimize the impact at the start of the disruption while the resilience trait describes the capacity of the pig to adapt to the perturbation through compensatory feed intake to quickly return to the target trajectory of feed intake.

Feed intake can be very informative about the health and welfare status of the animal and modern monitoring technologies are facilitating the recording of individual feed intake in group-housed pigs.

Nguyen-Ba et al (2020a) developed a modelling and data analysis methodology to quantify the feed intake in response to perturbations in terms of resistance and resilience using voluntary feed intake as a response criterion. The methodology has been employed successfully to identify the target trajectory of feed intake (amount of feed that a pig desires to eat when it is not facing any perturbations) in growing pigs and to quantify the pig’s response to a perturbation in terms of traits related to resistance and resilience.

Measuring resilience to DON mycotoxin in pigs

In a second study Nguyen-Ba et al (2020b) applied the methodology mentioned above to quantify the feed intake response in pigs exposed to DON in the diet. The results showed that the methodology based on measuring feed intake in pigs was able to indicate relatively accurately when the pigs were exposed to DON in the feed by detecting deviations from the target cumulative feed intake resulting from the exposure to a DON-contaminated diet.

Furthermore, results demonstrated that the response of pigs to DON-contaminated diet is influenced by age or body weight as well as previous exposure to the DON-contaminated diet. The researchers thought that this indicates that the adaptation of pigs relies more on resilience than on resistance mechanism.

Older pigs recovered faster than the younger pigs from the DON challenge. Researchers concluded that the greater compensatory feed intake for the heavier pigs is related to the fact that they have a greater gut capacity, as gut capacity increases with body weight.

Relevant articles

Resilience in pigs – new benchmark to reach genetic potential 

How to prepare a plan for mycotoxin risk management 

Mycotoxin kinetics – did you know how quickly mycotoxins disappear? 

Nguyen-Ba et al (2020a). A procedure to quantify the feed intake response of growing pigs to perturbations. Animal, 14(2)

Nguyen-Ba et al (2020b). Modelling the feed intake response of growing pigs to diets contaminated with mycotoxins. Animal, 14(5)


Optimizing cow longevity by managing for resilience

Cow longevity is the second most economically important trait in dairy cows. Cows with a high longevity, i.e. long productive life span typically exhibit good reproductive performance, few health problems and consistent milk production. However, production efficiency, herd profitability and welfare are less dependent on the longest life than on the optimum length of productive life.

The drive to increase the sustainability of the dairy industry is further intensifying the need for dairy farmers to improve their ability to optimize cow longevity. More recent research highlights possibilities to identify metrics earlier in the life of the cow to enable better decision making in culling cows and manage for resilience to increase the chance of reaching the optimum productive life span. Pilot studies are also revealing the potential to support resilience in dairy cows by nutritional means.

Impact of cow longevity on sustainability

Short longevity poses a threat to the three pillars of sustainable agriculture: economic profit, environmental impact, and social concerns. It is associated with financial losses on farms, increased environmental footprint of milk production, and welfare issues for the animals. Short longevity indicates that animals are not expressing their maximum potential for productivity and profitability due to the high costs associated with rearing cows until they reach the productive stage.

Improved longevity means higher profit per cow, as the income from the productive stage of life pays off the investment made in raising replacement heifers. Mature cows have a higher milk yield than younger cows. As a result, greater longevity increases the proportion of high-yield cows in the herd and fewer cows are needed to sustain a given level of production.

Reducing the number of cows required to produce a given quantity of milk required to produce a given quantity of milk improves environmental sustainability of a dairy enterprise by reducing the carbon footprint per kilogram of milk produced. Therefore, improving dairy cow longevity contributes to a more sustainable dairy industry.

Cow longevity is determined by farmer decisions

The moment and reason a cow is culled, is determined by decisions made by dairy farmers, unless the cow was removed from the herd because of death. Therefore, cow longevity is the outcome of decisions by the dairy farmer throughout the life of the animal.  Culling decisions are the result of cow factors such as health, milk production, and reproductive status, as well as the availability of replacement heifers, parlour capacity and prices. Cows with higher genetic merit, greater production capacity, or better resilience against premature culling are more valuable to dairy farmers.

Genetic opportunity cost is the loss from keeping older, less genetically improved cows in the herd instead of younger, more genetically improved cows. Genetic opportunity cost favours a younger herd, which may trigger greater cow culling to capture genetic improvement and replace cows that are less valuable. However, it needs to be balanced against the benefits of lower culling rates for production costs and environmental effects. A herd with a high proportion of young animals emits more methane and excretes more phosphorus in the environment per unit of milk compared with a herd with a greater proportion of multiparous cows.

This highlights the need to optimize longevity rather than increase longevity in dairy herds. More recent studies and simulation models aim to determine the culling rate that will maximize the profit from genetic gain while minimizing the costs of turnover.  Improvement of culling decision support tools will help to optimize the economically optimal productive lifespan for individual cows based on the conditions they are being reared in. Ultimately, they will help to improve profitability and social acceptability of dairy production.

Relationship between longevity and resilience

Collaborative research across several research institutes in Europe is paving the way to early identification of dairy cows with a high probability of completing several lactations. In the long run there is hope that this will help to significantly improve the optimization of farm-individual management with respect to longevity.

Initial studies revealed the potential for high-frequency milk yield and activity sensor data to rationalize evidence-based culling decisions as early as after the first lactation. The research highlights the relationship between cow resilience and longevity and indicated that a higher resilience score generally corresponded with a higher final lactation number in dairy cows.

Resilience can be described as the capacity of the animal to be minimally affected by a disturbance or to rapidly return to the initial state that pertained before exposure to a disturbance. In the studies mentioned above dairy cows with a high lifetime resilience were defined as animals that avoid early culling by coping well with the farm’s management conditions and having a high adaptability to imposed challenges, whilst reproducing easily and producing consistently, resulting in a long productive life span on commercial farms. The idea is to eventually develop a tool that enables farmers to rank their cows according to resilience scores based on readily available farm data.

Feeding for resilience

A recent pilot study investigating the impact of the gut agility activator Anco FIT on the resilience of dairy cows under practical conditions indicated the potential for this animal feed solution to influence proven resilience indicators in dairy cows, such as reduced fluctuations in milk yield, which warrants further research. The insights of this study were derived from frequent measurements collected via sensors and an automatic milking system in a commercial environment.

by Gwendolyn Jones, published in International Dairy Topics, by Positive Actions Publications

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Scientific abstract – Feed conference 2021

Effect of a gut agility activator on underlying mechanisms for adaptive capacity of organs vital for resilience in chickens

Scientific abstract published in the proceedings of the Feed Conference 2021, 23-24th June 2021

Authors: Jones, G.M. and Mountzouris, K.C.

Adaptive mechanisms on the cellular level in the gut and liver of broilers were investigated in response to a gut agility activator (GAA) comprising a botanical formula.

One-day-old male Cobb broilers (n=500) were allocated to 4 different treatments diets with 0, 750, 1000 and 2000 mg/kg GAA (Anco FIT Poultry) for 42 days. Each treatment was replicated 5 times with 25 birds each. Birds were euthanized at 42 days and tissue samples of liver and mucosa along the intestine were taken from 10 chickens per treatment for analysis of gene expression and 20 birds per treatment for biochemical analysis. Data were analysed by ANOVA and significant effects (P≤0.05) were compared using Tukey HSD test. Polynomial contrasts tested the linear and quadratic effect of GAA inclusion levels.

Total anti-oxidative capacity (TAC) was improved in the liver (P=0.040) and at 1000 g/kg intestinal TAC was higher in the duodenum (P=0.011) and the ceca (P=0.050) compared to the control. Furthermore, critical genes for enzymes belonging to the Nrf2/ antioxidant response element (ARE) pathway (SOD1, GPX2, HMOX1, NQO1, Nrf2 and Keap1) were upregulated in the duodenum and the ceca mainly in a quadratic way (P ≤ 0.05) compared to the control. Increasing GAA downregulated genes for NF-KB1 in a quadratic pattern and TLR4 and HSP70 linearly in the duodenum and ceca.

The data indicates that the GAA is positively impacting underlying adaptive mechanisms at the cellular level in the liver and certain parts of the gut which could play a role in modulating the response of birds to stressors and thus increase resilience. The effects were dependent on GAA inclusion level. Commercial applications using the effective inclusion levels of this experiment showed a positive effect on performance in the face of stressors such as heat and mycotoxins in broilers and increased laying persistence in layers at the later stages of the laying cycle. Establishing standards to evaluate resilience in poultry along with further research using the GAA under stress-challenge environments are warranted.

Relevant links

Feed conference 2021

Experience with Anco FIT Poultry is growing globally

Managing oxidative stress in sows for better returns

Increased oxidative stress can quietly eat away at returns in sow production, as it is a factor that impairs milk production, reproductive performance and longevity of the sow. Indirectly it will also negatively impact the health and growth of nursing piglets. The problem gets exacerbated in hyper-prolific sows and by challenges such as heat, mycotoxins and obesity. The ability to measure oxidative stress efficiently and knowing how to develop effective strategies to help prevent excessive oxidative stress in sows will go a long way towards supporting high returns on sow farms.

Oxidative stress explained

Oxidative stress describes an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the pig and the ability of the pig’s antioxidant defense mechanisms to neutralize them. Accumulation of ROS results in oxidative damage to lipids, proteins and DNA in cells and consequently tissue damage. It can also induce damage in the intestinal tissue, compromise gut integrity in pigs and leads to an increase in inflammatory responses. Therefore, oxidative stress has been associated with impaired health status and reduced energy available for productive purposes. For instance, under oxidative stress and inflammation 30% of the performance drop is explained by the catabolism and feed conversion needed to manage inflammation.

When are sows most vulnerable to oxidative stress?

The findings of previous studies showed that oxidative stress levels increased during late gestation and lactation. This was associated with sows being under severe catabolic status during late ges­tation and lactation. Catabolic conditions increase the production of reactive oxygen species. Lymphocyte DNA damage was significantly increased during late gestation compared to day 30 of pregnancy. Changes in concentrations of lipid and protein peroxidation products indicate, that during the periparturient period, especially around farrowing and the first week of lactation, the oxidative/antioxidative balance is disturbed, which leads to oxidative stress. Extended catabolic condition during lactation can be a cause of further oxidative stress negatively affecting productivity and longevity of sows.

Factors increasing oxidative stress

External factors such as environmental stressors and social stress can lead to increased oxidative stress in sows. Studies have reported that sows showed increased oxidative stress by increased lipid peroxidation, protein oxidation and oxidative DNA damage in a hot environment under heat stress, compared with sows in a thermal neutral environment. Oxidative stress indicators in the hot environment were negatively correlated with number of piglets at birth and weaning, as well as litter weight gain. Reduced litter size of sows under heat stress could be due to increased oxidative stress during the period of embryonic implantation causing increased embryonic death. Feed quality is another important factor affecting levels of oxidative stress. For example, mycotoxins can play a role even at low to moderate levels of contamination. A factor that is less well known is sow body condition. Recent studies have shown that higher backfat thickness in sows is associated with enhanced oxidative stress, increased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and inhibited a healthy placenta development relative to sows with moderate backfat thickness. Levels of ROS and malondialdehyde (MDA), a lipid peroxidation marker, were increased in the placenta of sows with increased backfat thickness . This may also affect fetal development, as lipid oxidation can influence placental development, lipid metabolism and transport. The above stresses the importance of closely controlling body condition in sows.

Advances in measuring oxidative stress

The intensity of oxidative stress can be monitored with several biomarkers including antioxidative enzymes and non-enzymatic antioxidants, as well as end products or intermediates of peroxidative processes of lipids and proteins. Up until very recently biomarkers for oxidative stress have been measured in serum/plasma samples of pigs. Anybody that has taken blood samples from pigs knows that it can be very stressful to the pig and it is unknown how this may impact on levels of the different oxidant biomarkers. More recent studies evaluated the possibility of measuring oxidative stress biomarkers in saliva of pigs. Saliva as material to evaluate stress conditions has several advantages over blood in pigs, since collecting saliva is easy, non-invasive and leads to minimal discomfort in the animal. It therefore represents an ideal sample in pigs and makes salivary markers very attractive. The findings of the study confirmed that salivary biomarkers for oxidative stress are valid and reliable. On top of that the salivary biomarkers showed significant changes in a situation of oxidative stress such as lactation in sows. This means that future trials designed to measure oxidative stress in pigs would be a lot easier to conduct if salivary biomarkers are used.

Feed for antioxidative capacity

A better understanding of the factors causing oxidative stress in sows and improved capabilities of measuring oxidative stress in sows is paving the way to take control of oxidative stress more actively to minimize the impact on the sow. Feed additives that have proven capabilities for antioxidant capacity can help to support the antioxidative capacity of sows. Formulating diets accordingly, particularly for production phases where the sow is more vulnerable to oxidative stress can thus prevent excessive oxidative stress in sows.

Many herbs and spices contain high levels of components with strong antioxidative power, such as alkaloids and polyphenolic compounds including different types of phenolic terpenes, phenolic acids and flavonoids. New research methodologies are increasing the understanding of how bioactive substances from herbs and spices work alone and in concert at the cellular level in animals. This is helping companies working in this field to design products and efficacy trials to maximise the potential benefits from these substances in animal nutrition.

Published in International Pig Topics by Gwendolyn Jones, May 2021

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Adaptive capacity of farm animals to summer heat

The adaptive capacity of farm animals determines the impact summer heat has on animal productivity. Scientists are beginning to discover ways to influence the adaptive capacity of farm animals to reduce heat stress and its negative consequences for animal welfare and farm profitability in response to rising temperatures. Free Ebook to download at the end of this article

Temperatures are on the rise with climate change

As June approaches temperatures are rising and so is the risk for heat stress in farm animals. Temperatures are rising, not just because we are at the end of May, but also in general. Our climate is changing, and we can expect to see increases in temperature over the coming century. According to recent predictions, global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.4–3.0°C by the end of this century.

Increasing concerns on production losses because of high ambient temperatures are not only relevant for the tropical areas of the world, but also for countries occupying the temperature zone in which heat stress is more of a seasonal problem during the 2 to 3 summer months. The U.S. livestock production industry incurs an estimated total annual economic loss of $1.69 to $2.36 billion due to heat stress.

Genetic selection programs carried out in optimally controlled conditions improved productivity traits in livestock, however it has also enhanced the susceptibility of animals to high ambient temperature, due to the strong relationship between production level and metabolic heat production.  Global warming will further accentuate heat-stress related problems in livestock.

Adaptive capacity of farm animals

The vulnerability of livestock to heat stress varies according to species, genetic potential, life stage, management or production system and nutritional status. Among livestock species goats are thought of as the most adaptive species to climate change. They can tolerate severe heat loads, as well as extended periods without water and feed.

Animals have adaptive mechanisms to cope with rising temperatures, which involve morphological, behavioural and genetic capacity for change.

Coat colour is an important morphological trait, whereby light/white-coloured coats in animals are recognized as being advantageous in terms of adaptive ability to high temperatures. Behavioural changes seen in heat stressed animals include using shade whenever they have access to it and a reduction in feed intake.

The adaptive process can be expanded to include morphological, physiological, behavioural, metabolic, neuro-endocrine and cellular responses.

Some of the physiological parameters for adaptation to heat stress are respiration rate, rectal temperature, pulse rate, skin temperature and sweating rate.

The adaptive mechanisms help the animals to adjust to rising temperatures. However, they can compromise the productive potential in most species, in favour of maintaining regular energy supply for vital physiological functions.

Importance of identifying animals with high heat tolerance

Research into the physiological changes accompanying high temperature, in tropically adapted species, is increasing the understanding of the mechanisms that the animal uses to accomplish the necessary functions efficiently and to find ways to support a more efficient response to minimize the impact of heat stress on performance.

Identifying relevant biomarkers in animals capable of maintaining high levels of productivity during heat stress will also help to breed for climate resilient animals.

Impact of heat stress on farm animal productivity

In general animal responses vary according to the duration and the intensity of the thermal challenge

Physiological and metabolic adjustments resulting from the thermoregulatory responses to a thermal stress have negative consequences on animal productivity and health.

The reduced animal performance can to some extent be explained to be the result of both direct and indirect effects of heat stress on reducing feed intake. Another portion of the reduced performance is due to effects on reproductive physiology, health, energy metabolism and on deposition of fat and protein.

Many of the negative consequences that heat stress has on animal health and productivity are mediated by reduced intestinal barrier integrity.  Heat stress also results in the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which if uncontrolled can lead to oxidative stress and inflammatory responses further down the line.

Apart from affecting animal productivity, rising temperatures may also put an increased strain on the physiological ability of farm animals to cope with already existing stressful stages of production, such as early lactation.

Free Ebook – Guide to adapting to summer heat for livestock

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A guide to adapting to summer heat for farm animals


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Frequent monitoring reveals poultry resilience indicator

Frequent measurements of body weight revealed a poultry resilience indicator. Body weight measurements have long played an important role in laying hen production. Research shows that if measured frequently, the resulting data can provide new insights into how breeding and feeding management can be further optimized in laying hens. This may also stimulate new methods for evaluating feed additives in commercial diets.

Several disciplines in animal production, including genetics, veterinary sciences and nutrition are currently striving to find ways of positively influencing resilience in farm animals. There are two reasons for that: On the one hand developments such as reduction in the use of antibiotics, climate change and a shortage in farm labour are increasing the need for resilient animals. On the other hand, continuous breeding for improved animal performance has been shown to reduce the resilience of farm animals.

Resilience affects the animal’s response to changes in its production status (e.g. start of lay or peak lay) as well as challenges in its environment and diet. However, our ability to influence and improve resilience in farm animals depends on knowing how to measure it in the field. Advances in sensor technologies and automated weighing systems are enabling more frequent monitoring of birds increasing the quantity of parameters measured and data collected in poultry production systems. This is helping to gain new insights into the wellbeing of birds and make better decisions in real time on farms.

Body weight management

Body weight is one of the most important parameters to track in layer flocks. Breeding companies say this is true not just during the rearing period but also once the bird starts laying and throughout its life. Reaching the target body weight during rearing is key to production performance in the laying period. Whereas regularly monitoring body weight throughout the laying period provides insights into how well the environment is supporting the optimal productivity of the bird.

The sooner body weight deviations are detected the quicker adjustment can be made, which means the more frequent the measurements are made the better to prevent any long-term damage. Breeding companies recommend a minimum of weekly measurements of body weights in laying hens from day old to 26 weeks of wage, every two weeks from 26 to 35 weeks of age and every 4 weeks beyond 35 weeks of age.

Technological advancements in collecting data

New technologies and digitalization are paving the way for more frequent and precise monitoring of key parameters in birds for productivity and wellbeing.  Increasing the frequency of weighing and sample size will lead to more precise prediction of live weight in flocks. New sensor-scales can feed live, accurate weight recordings into analytics platforms, which helps to recognize any variation in growth rates to act on.

Computer vision technology is another area that is promising to facilitate frequent monitoring of birds in the field and has been applied to automation of house management, behaviour, disease detection and weight measurement. Computer vision uses computational models to gain high-level understanding from digital images or videos. It has been proposed that camera-based weighing systems may have the potential of weighing a wider variety of birds, in a flock that would avoid a platform weigher.

These new technologies can provide information on what is happening in real time compared to what should happen. So, if there are deviations from where things should be, it is a simple way of showing the farmer that he needs to act.

Poultry resilience indicator in laying hens – how to measure

Some of the economic value in improving resilience in farm animals is based on reduced labour and health costs on farms. Once we know how to measure resilience effectively in birds in the field, we can start managing for it. Researchers from the University of Wageningen are proposing natural logarithm-transformed variance (ln(variance)) of deviations in body weights measured over time as a reliable resilience indicator in laying hens.

More resilient animals are expected to show fewer and smaller deviations compared to less resilient animals, because they are less influenced by disturbances. Figure 1 illustrates the difference in ln(variance) in body weights of laying hens; a more horizontal standardized body weight line over time indicates a lower ln(variance) and thus a greater resilience.  The key to gaining these insights on bird resilience are regular body weight measurements as frequently as possible throughout the life of laying hens.

Best results for improved resilience in birds are likely to be achieved via a combination of breeding, nutrition and other management strategies. While we may only be at the beginning of being able to manage for poultry resilience, progress will certainly be accelerated as and when new monitoring technologies coming to the market are adopted on farms more widely.  However, in research trials these technologies and new parameters may already be used to evaluate not only genetic progress but also responses to new nutritional strategies in birds.

Illustrating the poultry resilience indicator

Figure 1 Example to illustrate differences in ln(variance) of body weight in laying hens. A more horizontal standardized body weight line over time indicates a lower ln(variance) and thus a greater (hypothesized) resilience. (adapted from Berghof et al 2019)

Published in International Poultry Production by Gwendolyn Jones, April 2021

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Tail biting – How to spot early warning signs in pigs

Tail biting is an unpredictable and costly problem in pig herds. Understanding the early warning signs can help to reduce the associated losses. New precision livestock farming tools can make it easier to continuously monitor for the early warning signs on pig farms.

Causes for tail biting in pigs

The causes behind tail biting are highly complex and multi factorial. The lack of a single clear cause makes the problem hard to control.

It can be the result of aggressive attacks from other pigs caused by frustration. This can be due to management errors, e.g. overcrowding, ammonia levels, competition for feed or not enough enrichment materials.

Secondary tail biting involves tissue that has already been damaged e.g. through necrosis and inflammation. The smell of the injured tissue and appearance of blood attracts pigs to start nibbling and biting the affected area. This is how Swine Inflammation and Necrosis Syndrome (SINS) can be associated with it. More recent work suggests that oxidative stress causing inflammation and related death of cells could also play a role in the development of secondary tail biting. If there are too many dead cells, typically occurring at the ear tips and tails of the pigs, again the smell becomes different, thus attracting other pigs.

Cost of tail biting in pigs

Tail biting affects the welfare of pigs, but also causes significant economic losses for pig producers. Tail wounds can be a source of infection resulting in morbidity and mortality, with negative impacts on pig growth estimated at €0.59 per pig. On top of that there are labour and veterinary costs to consider, as well as losses due to carcass condemnation at slaughter. It has been proposed that on-farm prevalence is higher than what abattoir data suggests. Tail bite wounds are often treated with antibiotics, so being more in control of tail biting outbreaks can also help to reduce the use of antibiotics on pig farms.

Early warning signs for tail biting in pigs

To effectively reduce the negative effects of tail biting, it must be diagnosed at an early stage. Tail biting behaviour is usually not detected until tail lesions are present, which increases the difficulties in stopping outbreaks. The identification of early warning signals helps to reduce the unpredictability of an outbreak.

Several studies have shown that tail posture can predict tail damage. Pigs observed with their tails between legs were more likely to show bite marks or a tail wound 2-3 days later compared to pigs observed with a curled tail. This was true for weanling pigs and fattening pigs. Others reported that a hanging tail posture at feeding was significantly correlated to wounds on pig tails. Pigs with tail wounds were four times more likely to have hanging tails compared to pigs with undamaged tails.  Findings from additional studies also provided insights of predicting how close a herd is to an outbreak. In this study 15% of pigs in the herd had a hanging tail posture 7 days before an outbreak, which changed to 20-25% one day prior to the outbreak.

These findings suggest that tail posture can be used as an early warning indicator. Checking tail postures on a regular basis, increases early recognition of tail biting and can prevent further escalation of the problem.

Precision livestock farming tools to detect early warning signs

With a shortage in farm staff and an increasing number of pigs kept per farm, individual monitoring of animals becomes more difficult in the field. When stock people on large farms can on average only spend 5 seconds per day per finisher pig inspection, being able to automate the detection of tail posture for continuous monitoring would make a big difference on farm.

Researchers from SRUC Edinburgh investigated the effectiveness of a 3D machine vision system to automate tail posture detection. 3D cameras and machine vision algorithms were used to automatically measure tail posture in groups of pigs before, during and after tail biting outbreaks.  The findings of the study confirmed that the technology was accurate enough to provide early warning of tail biting on farm. Furthermore, the proportion of low tails increased over time pre-outbreak, was greater in outbreak groups than control groups and was associated with increased tail injury.

At Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, behavioural researchers are currently looking into applying similar technologies and using tail posture as an indicator for resilience in pigs.

Models assessing the risk for a tail biting outbreak

A different approach to prevent a tail biting outbreak on pig farms was proposed using a model based on Classification and Regression Tree (CRT) methodologies.  CRT analysis showed five main variables (stocking density, ammonia levels, number of pigs per stockman, type of floor and timeliness in feed supply) as critical predictors. It was suggested to help farmers and veterinarians to manage the predisposing variables for acute tail biting lesions on farm.

Preventing tail biting related to oxidative stress

Oxidative stress and related inflammation in the pig is often the result of the pig’s response to stress factors such as weaning, increasing stocking density, high ambient temperatures, but also dietary stressors such as mycotoxins. Generally, the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) increases within body cells and if the pig’s own defense system is overwhelmed it will lead to oxidative stress, which again can lead to an increase in inflammatory responses. Therefore, supporting the pig’s antioxidative capacity by nutritional means, may help to reduce the risk of tail biting which is related to oxidative stress. It would be even more effective, if inflammatory responses could be blocked or inhibited at the same time. Plant extracts with proven capabilities to improve the antioxidative capacity in pigs can form part of a nutritional solution.

Relevant links

A cross-sectional study for predicting tail biting risk in pig farms using classification and regression tree analysis (2017) 

Automatic early warning of tail biting in pigs: 3D cameras can detect lowered tail posture before an outbreak (2018) 

Tail Posture as an Indicator of Tail Biting in Undocked Finishing Pigs (2019) 

Stress reactions to mycotoxins in animals

Resilience in pigs – new benchmark to reach genetic potential

Biomimicry – can it help in the design of sustainable feed solutions?

Biomimicry has already generated many new technologies inspired by nature. Is there something that we can take away from it for the design of animal feed solutions for sustainable animal nutrition?

What is biomimicry?

Biomimicry, or biomimetics, is the study of nature and leveraging solutions that have evolved in nature to innovate and solve problems for the benefit of humans.  So essentially it is about piggy backing on nature or emulating what has already been proven by nature to work and to be sustainable throughout time.

Biomimicry is thought of as a field with potential to bring answers to many different disciplines, including medicine, architecture, agriculture, industry. It can pretty much apply to all sectors. Examples for innovations stemming from the application of biomimicry are architectural designs with improved thermoregulation inspired by termite mounds, robotics inspired by motor mechanisms of insects or velcro, which is derived from the observation of hooks implemented by certain plants that stick to animal coats. Aircraft engineers are inspired by birds and sharks to design lighter and more fuel-efficient aircrafts.

Repurposing nature’s best ideas to solve human challenges


Advantages of applying biomimicry to innovation and design

The field of biomimicry has experienced significant growth in recent years and has been popularized by Janine Benyus. It is now a tool to accelerate innovation for small and large companies.

Biomimicry is explained to be different from other bio-inspired design, because of its focus on learning from nature how to be sustainable. Designs following biomimicry are thought to be more efficient, resilient and sustainable, if they emulated biological lessons on form, process and ecosystem. The outcome is superior to that developed through any artificial means.

Biomimicry applied to the design of sustainable animal feed solutions

Farm animals possess limited physiologic responses to challenges such as for example high ambient temperatures, reproduction, oxidation or infections. However, amongst the millions of other species on earth facing the same challenges, we can find many other strategies or adaptations, which could be superior. This means that, within nature there are not just a handful of solutions, but a huge variety of strategies we could potentially adapt to solve physiological needs and equip animals to cope better with stressors.

How did nature solve this?

Plants evolved with sophisticated strategies to cope with stressors, since they can not move away from them and are bound to their locations. We can also learn from other organisms and species in nature that survive under extreme conditions, which strategies give them an advantage. What can we leverage from that in animal nutrition to support adaptive and coping mechanisms in animals?

New benchmarks in animal production and better ways of measuring improvements call for new approaches in the design and evaluation of feed solutions. Biomimicry offers a framework for innovation with sustainable outcomes. There is certainly no harm in asking how nature solved something as a source of inspiration.

Relevant articles

Animal resilience – harnessing the power of plant resilience

Resilient dairy cows – why is their value increasing?

Resilient dairy cows are worth more. Researchers studying resilience are discovering the benefits of resilience for cow wellbeing, production life span and profitability in milk production.

What resilience can NOT do in dairy cows

Resilience cannot replace good management practices, stresses Professor Müller, Director of the Ruminant and Swine Clinic of the Freie Universität Berlin in a webinar presentation organized by Anco Animal Nutrition Competence.

Ultimately it is about preparing the cow for stressors and challenges that cannot be controlled by management.  One of these challenges for example is the change from the dry period stage into  the lactation stage, i.e., the transition period. This is a natural and unstoppable process initiated by calving. However, the period around calving and the start of lactation is very stressful for the cow, especially for high producing dairy cows. A resilient cow can better adapt to this change from one stage into another and to the shock to her metabolism.

Also, the ability to adapt to issues arising from climate change play an important role to reduce the impact of heat stress on performance and animal welfare in dairy cow husbandry.

Definition of resilience in animal production

Colditz and Hine (2016) defined resilience as.  “The capacity of the animal to return rapidly to its pre-challenge state following short-term exposure to a challenging situation.”  In other words, resilience in animals is the product of a better adaptability or lower sensitivity to a challenge.

In the following short video Professor Kerstin-Elisabeth Mueller explains the concept with a few very good visual representations.

Definition Resilienz in der Tierhaltung

Benefits of resilient dairy cows for competitive milk production

  •  Resilient dairy cows have a greater chance for increased longevity

The production life span of a dairy cow is an important factor for the profitability of a dairy herd. However, many cows leave the herd early and 40% leave within the first 100 days of lactation.

The reason for short-lived production life spans are often production related diseases. It has been confirmed that the cause of it has more to do with a sub-optimal adaption during the transition period than with high milk yields.

Resilient dairy cows have a higher adaptive capacity, which reduces the risk for them to develop production diseases during the transition period.  Researchers in the Netherlands have been able to detect dairy cows with a higher risk of developing production diseases in the transition period through specific metabolic indicators and sensor technology in advance.

  • Resilient dairy cows can cope better with climate change

It has been shown that there is a need in animal production to be able to adapt to climate change, to ensure stable incomes on farms. Especially high producing dairy cows are more sensitive to high ambient temperatures and are more prone to suffer from heat stress, due to their increased body heat production.

Cows experiencing heat stress produce less milk, lower milk quality and are more susceptible to disease. For those reasons, animal geneticists are trying to find ways to breed dairy cows that are more resilient to high ambient temperatures.

  • Resilient dairy cows require less labour time

A shortage in labour in dairy production increases the need for dairy cows that are easier to care for. Researchers from the Netherlands report that resilient dairy cows require less labour time, because the cows show less problems.  The performance of these cows is more consistent, and they are more likely to maintain their health, which means that cow sensors submit fewer warning signals for animal care workers to attend to the animals. A reduction in time spent on an animal with an alert from sensors will also reduce costs associated with labour

What are the factors influencing resilience in dairy cows?

Resilience in dairy cows is to some extent influenced by her genetic make-up, i.e. breeding. However, external factors such as management practices and nutrition have a far bigger influence on resilience of the cow, explains Professor Mueller in an Anco webinar

Watch this short video to see what Professor Mueller had to say.

resiliente Kühe - Resilienz


The value of resilient dairy cows is increasing, because they provide an opportunity to satisfy trends in consumer demands for animal welfare and at the same time can influence profitability in milk production in a sustainable way.

Automatic milking and feeding systems in combination with new sensor technologies enable the measurement of resilience in the dairy cow and the progress made.

Collaboration between geneticists, veterinarians, animal behaviour researchers, animal nutritionists, ag tech businesses and farmers has the best chance of success for a significant long-term improvement in resilience of dairy cows.

At Anco Animal Nutrition Competence we are contributing to finding solutions to support resilience in dairy cows via nutrition. Ask for Anco FIT products to take the first step for more resilience in dairy cows.

Relevant articles

Resilience – economic value in animal production

Dairy farming resilience – 3 reasons to keep your cows agile

Feeding cows for adaptive capacity in the transition period