Avian coccidiosis plagues poultry producers large and small costing an estimated $1.2 billion in losses every year. The pesky disease is caused by infection with the avian parasite Eimeria maxima. And since this parasite rapidly evolves to stay at least a half a step ahead of vaccines, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have embarked on a quest to fight the disease through boosting chicken immune systems. This is a refreshing development in our “throw the next drug at it” culture where we expect to substitute chemistry for the much harder work of promoting animal health more holistically.
According to a recent ARS report, scientists discovered that chickens reared in confinement shed many fewer oocytes (eggs) of Eimeria maxima when they were fed ground green tea for two weeks before they were challenged with the parasite in question. Similar results were discovered when Pediococcus-based probiotics and yeast-based probiotics were in the feed. What’s significant about these findings is that they suggest that probiotics can significantly reduce the spread of coccidiosis through the flock. Incidentally, these tea and other probiotic eating chickens gained more weight and had increased levels of immune-boosting cytokines in their systems than the control group too. Hops, plum powder, safflower and a few other phytonutrients have also been shown to boost chicken immune systems and are linked to reduced levels of Salmonella infection and even reduced incidence of some kinds of chicken tumor growth. It feels like we’re reinventing the wheel by looking beyond the “magic bullet” approach to animal health and now admitting that dietary diversity is important after all. Who would have thought that trying to create an artificial chicken ration to feed chickens in crowded conditions might not be the best way to prevent disease?
Perhaps all those free-range chicken folks are on to something, but even if you can’t raise your birds on grass, you can at the very least bring a variety of plant material to them … and you can add a little green tea or plum powder to their ration to boot.