New age chicks for better gut health?

Researchers at The University of Queensland are investigating the benefits of essential oils for animal welfare, productivity and sustainability in the Australian chicken meat industry.

“The most critical period in a broiler chick’s life is the first hours after hatching,” nutritional chemosensing scientist and former veterinarian, Eugeni Roura, from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) said.

“This is when the young bird is more susceptible to environmental pathogens, yet its defences and its natural gut microflora are not well established,” Roura said.

With funding from AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the project’s leaders, Marta Navarro and Shahram Niknafs, are investigating if chicken embryos and hatchlings are better-equipped to fight disease-resistance by supplementation with essential oils sourced from Australian native plants.

Researchers are trialling tea tree oil, lemon myrtle, eucalypt, nerolina, niaouli, lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, eucalyptus, and Tasmanian native pepper.

“These have reported strong antioxidant or antimicrobial activities and have been extensively study here at UQ,” Navarro said. “We aim to develop a nutritional program to minimise disease in chicks to enhance productivity and sustainability.”

“This may open new possibilities to target non-desirable populations of bacteria in the chick’s gut while it is still in the egg,” she said.

The researchers introduced essential oils into the diet of breeders in the chicken meat industry, to see if important essential oil compounds were transferred through to the egg – and, if so, does it provide any significant benefit for the embryos’ health and robustness?

In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, another strategy involved direct injection of essential oils and nutrients into fertile eggs, using efficient and economical in-ovo injection technology.

Meat quality was not part of the scope of the project.

The researchers measured multiple parameters and indicators of gut health during trials including microbiome composition, growth, and overall embryo development and oxidation status during embryogenesis, the stage of development following fertilisation.

“Once hatched, we measure the chick’s growth and performance during the first 10-15 days of its life,” Navarro said. “At the end of the project, we will perform a trial with all the knowledge acquired during the project in commercial conditions.”

Navarro hopes the project will produce new information about the “amazing” properties of Australian oils.

“We think the project will deliver a dual benefit because the essential oils needed for poultry supplementation will be produced locally in Australia,” she said.

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