Launched at this year’s VIV Europe, SmartStart™ is our post-hatch feeding solution developed in collaboration with Pas Reform, Philips and DSM Twilmij.
Together we have achieved our goal to give chicks the best possible nutritional start to life. By working with Pas Reform’s hatchery technologies, Philips’ lighting solutions and Twilmij’s feed expertise, we have delivered an early feeding system that can provide nutrition and hydration to chicks as soon as they hatch.
As described in more detail in our “the poultry industry” page, hatcheries occupy a pivotal position in the poultry sector. Here, eggs are received from breeding farms, stored, incubated, hatched and the resulting chicks are dispatched to production farms. In each batch, tens of thousands of eggs are incubated and after 21 days they are removed from their hatcher incubator and dispatched to locations far and wide.
Efforts from breeders to shorten the “hatch window” have meant most chicks hatch within a few hours of each other, but the reality is that many hatch earlier. This can be up to two days prior to being removed from the incubator. As conventionally these chicks will not be fed until reaching their farm, a scenario whereby chicks hatch early and are dispatched internationally would mean they could go without food or water for up to five days.
During development chick embryos utilise the yolk of their egg as a nutritional resource. This is not exhausted prior to hatching which enables the remaining yolk, now the “yolk sac” to be continued to be used by the newly hatched chick. Although this nutritional reserve enables chicks to survive days without food and water, providing these as early as possible kick starts their digestive tract, immune system, and crucially, allows for happier and healthier chicks.
So if feeding chicks early is such a no-brainer, why is it not the industry norm? The reality is that chicken rearing has been transformed from a backyard scale to a scale whereby normal flock sizes number in the millions in a matter of decades. Growing populations and more income to spend on higher quality, protein-rich food has greatly increased consumer demand for poultry meat and eggs. To meet such demand, hatcheries have become centralised hubs in the poultry supply chain, with the associated economies of scale, process uniformity and know-how.
As hatcheries have grown, the small percentage of chicks that hatch early have been amplified due to scale increases. The distances these hatcheries dispatch has grown. Together, this creates a scenario not envisaged when hatchery systems were first designed. This places a number of technical constraints on potential solutions. Although deemed by many to be insurmountable, creating innovative solutions to hard-to-fix problems is what we do best, especially when it involves huge increases in animal welfare.
Hygiene and moisture
The first major barrier to an early feeding system is that of hygiene. The central position of hatcheries in the poultry supply chain means that any disease causing issue present in the hatchery has the potential to spread to thousands of farms. For this reason, hygiene is of utmost importance to hatcheries. Although the ideal temperature for incubating chicks, incubators are also perfect for supporting microbial growth if not cleaned correctly. Therefore introducing feed and water into a hatcher for chicks could have potentially disastrous consequences.
Placing water in hatcher incubators for a number of days prior to hatch poses a huge risk of microbial contamination. Introducing running water into such a system may not always be technically feasible. Our solution? We have developed a proprietary feed mix that has all the nutritional requirements for healthy chicks, and also can amazing retain 40% moisture content, providing the hydration the chicks require too. This mix does not support the growth of harmful microbes and through partnership with Twilmij, can now be produced at industrial scale.
Our next challenge was that of lighting. We found out chicks love SmartStart™ feed, but unless they can see it, they won’t eat it. This poses a technical problem because hatcher incubators are conventionally dark. Okay, no problem we can just sell hatcheries a new incubator with lighting. But these systems are huge investments. And what if last year the hatchery just invested in a new system? This provided our next design constraint: retrofitability. Integration of our system into existing infrastructure was crucial, as it would allow as many hatcheries as possible to feed chicks early!
In collaboration with Philips NatureDynamics, a lighting system was designed to provide the correct wavelength of light to chicks for optimum development. In these conditions, they eat SmartStart™ soon after hatching and have the best possible start to life. The lighting system can be fitted into existing Pas Reform incubators in combination with special trays with integrated feed troughs.
This project represents a huge milestone for In Ovo. For the first time, we can point to our hard work leading to tangible improvements in animal welfare in the poultry sector. Showcasing our ambition to provide innovative solutions that not only increase animal welfare, but also impact positively on output.