Skip to main content

What moves poultry farmers in Austria, Switzerland and Germany?

From May 17 to 19, poultry consultants from the German-speaking countries met in Graz, Austria, to discuss current topics in the poultry industry. In presentations, networking rounds and during a full-day field trip, participants exchanged views on burning issues surrounding the operational challenges of phasing out chick-killing and experiences with currently viable alternatives. The representatives of the host country Austria presented the industry solution for the phase-out of chick killing and thus provided their German and Swiss colleagues from the consulting sector with much material for discussion. Furthermore, the massive increase in the price of energy, grain and other raw materials with the current and still expected effects on agriculture were discussed as well as the possibilities for the dual use of poultry runs for energy generation by means of photovoltaics ("Agri-PV") and chick hatching in the barn against the background of avian influenza restrictions.

In the run-up to the poultry consultants' meeting, the DLG Poultry Committee met for its spring meeting. The DLG leaflets on handling sick and injured poultry and on rearing and fattening young cocks were discussed. But also new topics such as the extended useful life of laying hens and the use of coccidiostats against the background of the antibiotic reduction strategy were on the agenda as well as a first concept for the presentation of the committee topics at this year's EuroTier in Hanover.

At noon on 17 May, the symposium started with about 70 participants from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Right at the beginning, it was apparent that the political processes in Germany and Austria are comparable. The legal framework is constantly being tightened, with the focus on animal welfare and animal protection requirements and nitrogen emissions. Especially the expected tightening by the Odor immission guideline (GIRL) will ensure that the future of actually sustainable farms will be questioned. Currently, the high prices of raw materials mean that some barns remain empty or are not re-housed.

Male Layer Hybrids: The Austrian Way

The dominant topic of the meeting was the phase-out of chick killing. In contrast to Germany, it does not yet apply by law in Austria and Switzerland. However, an industry solution has been agreed upon in Austria, which makes a decision by law obsolete at the moment. The so-called "3-pillar model" provides three options for the use of male laying hybrids:

  • the use as feed chicks in the quantity actually needed in Austria
  • the broiler fattening
  • early sexing in the hatching egg, with killing of the male chicks by the 13th day of hatching at the latest, whereby anesthetization must take place before killing from the 8th day onwards

It is remarkable that theoretically all male chicks could be used as feed chicks. This is because the approx. 16 million feed chicks required by zoos, animal parks and falconries are offset by only approx. 9 million male laying hybrid chicks produced. In Germany, however, the production of feed chicks is no longer discussed. Despite this alternative, there is a flourishing Bruderhahn market in Austria. Under the "Steirerhahn Henry" brand, for example, organic young cock meat is produced and successfully marketed in 85,000 brother cock places in Styria. Overall, the organic share of chicken meat in Austria is around 33 percent.

There are currently three practical solutions for sex determination in the hatching egg. SELEGGT (hormone analysis) and PLANTegg (PCR gene analysis), which can be used from the 8th/9th day of hatching, have so far been used as invasive methods mainly in the Netherlands. The non-invasive, optical hyperspectral method of AAT only works from the 13th day of brooding and is only applicable for brown layers. Therefore, the interest is mainly in countries with predominantly brown-legged birds, which does not include Germany and Switzerland due to the somewhat easier to handle white-legged birds. It is currently unclear who will have to bear the financial responsibility for in-ovo sexing in the future, since an error rate of 3-5% has to be taken into account in the procedures and a purchase guarantee for the sexed chicks is currently not regulated in an industry agreement.

In Germany, in-ovo methods currently in operation will no longer be permitted from 2024, as early detection before the 7th day of hatching is required by law. This is justified by the fact that the embryo then begins to feel pain. Prof. Dr. Rudolf Preisinger, EW Group, gave an outlook on methods under development that could enable sex determination before the 7th day. These are light-based methods, on the one hand infrared Rahman spectroscopy and on the other - more gentle for the hatching egg - the time-resolved laser-induced fluorescence method, which is currently being developed at the Ost-Westfalen-Lippe University of Applied Sciences together with the company AAT. However, neither method will be ready for practical application by 2024.

Another topic that is increasingly discussed in regions affected by avian influenza is the hatching of chicks in the barn. There are now a sufficient number of technology providers for this (e.g. HatchCare, HatchTec, NestBorn, etc.). Basically, this means that the fattener has to heat the barn three days longer and the fattening period is longer also by three days.. However, the process is mainly worthwhile for fattening animals that want to get their feed and water quickly. However, the hope that the use of antibiotics could be reduced by hatching in the barn has not yet been confirmed. It was rather difficult to keep feed and water clean. Ultimately, there was no real breakthrough for hatching in the barn, even if approaches are available and the process may well be interesting for some.

Diverse Austrian poultry farming

The highlight of the event was the excursion on the 2nd day of the event. The first stop was the Schweighöfer farm, where 3,000 organic layer parents enjoy a modernized stable with a green outdoor run. Roosters and hens are kept here in a ratio of 1:8. The outdoor run is mandated for organic parent stock by EU organic regulations. However, the farm manager pointed out the not inconsiderable risk of germs being introduced by wild birds and animals via the run, which can quickly be the undoing of such a flock.

At the Groß farm, it was possible to visit an organic pullet rearing facility with 13,000 places in a newly built barn with a winter garden, as well as an organic brother cock fattening facility with 4,800 places in an old building with a winter garden and an outdoor run. The “Steirerhahn” boiled and fried sauges produced from young cock meat among other things could be tasted afterwards to the joy of the conference participants.

Finally, the trip led to the family-run Posch Hendl farm, which slaughters and directly markets its broiler chickens weighing between 1,000 and 1,200 g produced in 12,000 conventional fattening places. Every week, the farm slaughters 2,000 animals, processes them, and sells the numerous products either in its own farm store or through other direct marketers. The company Mobile Schlachtung mbH also gave a live demonstration of its poultry slaughter mobile on the Posch farm. About 400 chickens can be gently slaughtered in one day without long transport. The mobile slaughtering is in particular for smaller enterprises with direct marketing a good alternative to the slaughterhouse, and in the meantime also in Germany regionally ever more frequently used and also desired. From the point of view of the Alpine region, however, such a mobile slaughter trailer has the disadvantage that in mountainous regions it is sometimes not possible to drive the slaughter mobile to the farms in the winter months due to the high weight of more than 3 tons.

Some impressions of the excursion: