High cost of cheap meat
Chicken rearers say antibiotics are indispensable
THE POULTRY sector in India has undergone a major change in structure and operation over the past two decades. From being a mere backyard activity, the sector of rearing broilers (those grown for meat) and layers (the ones grown for laying eggs), has expanded at 8-10 per cent a year in the past decade, according to a 2014 report by icra Ltd, an investment information and credit rating agency in the country.In 2013,its market size was ` 58,000 crore.The market of broiler meat alone has grown at 10 per cent and now accounts for half of the market size of all meat, according to the Animal Husbandry Statistics,2013.
Andhra Pradesh is the biggest producer of poultry meat in the country. But the poultry industry of Haryana has grown at the fastest rate of 12 per cent in the past five years and has become a major supplier of meat to Delhi and ncr.
Analysts say the sector received the impetus from large integrated players, who own right from the parent-breeder stock and hatcheries to farms for growing chickens, mills for manufacturing feed and facilities for processing and packaging meat. These players are expanding their business by giving contracts for growing broilers, which provide lucrative earning options to many communities, like those on the outskirts of Jaipur.
In a village in Bagru municipality near Jaipur, onethird of the households have taken up poultry farming since Simran Farms Ltd, an Indore-based poultry company, approached them three years ago for growing broilers on contract basis. “The company said it would provide everything, right from the day-old chicks to feed and medicines, and pick up the ready-to-slaughter birds on the 35th day. All we had to do was to take good care of the birds, for which Simran Farms offered us ` 11-13 per bird. Only a fool would have rejected this opportunity, ”says Bhanu Jangid (name changed), a resident. Each family in the village rears between 3,500 and 5,000 birds and earns between ` 25,000 and ` 40,000 a month.“We had never seen this kind of money, ”says Ajay Ranawat (name changed) ,an office boy-turned-poultry farmer, who has a farm of 5,000 broilers. The number of poultry farms is growing in this municipality, which already boasts 120 farms.
These poultry keepers blindly follow instructions of Simran Farms to keep the birds healthy and fat. After all, every kilogram of meat counts in poultry business. “As soon as the day-old chicks arrive, we give them 1 ml of Enrocin mixed with a litre of water for three days,”
says Jangid. “The medicine is repeated after every 15 days for three days, ”he says with an almost clinical precision. Enrocin is the brand name of Pfizer’s antibiotic enrofloxacin. Should not antibiotics be given only to sick birds? “The company has asked us to administer antibiotics before hand. There is no point wearing helmet after one meets with an accident, is there?” Jangid asks with a chuckle.
Antibiotics are also used as preventive measure at Central Poultry Performance Testing Centre (cpptc) in Gurgaon, which is believed to maintain high standards of hygiene and maintenance. “The biosecurity measures are very important to keep the farms free of infection, but do not provide complete safeguard from infections, ”says an official with cpptc.
To cater to the growing demand, even poultry feed manufacturers add antibiotics liberally to the feed. These feeds contain a variety of antibiotics and are available mixed with vitamins and other feed supplements. Many small-scale poultry farmers, like the ones in Bagru, are not sure whether the feed supplied by Simran Farms contains antibiotics. Repeated calls to representatives of the company yielded no response.
Then there are other poultry farmers who feed antibiotics to the flock assuming that it is a feed supplement. While visiting Haryana’s premier Lala Lajpat Rai University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (luvas) in Hisar, dte met a poultry farmer who had travelled 45 km from Bagla village with his dead chicken. He wanted veterinarian Gulshan Narang to ascertain the disease so that he can administer medicine to his flock. “I do not give medicines to my chickens without consulting a veterinarian,” he said, adding in the same breath that he gives only gentamicin to the dayold chicks as soon as they arrive in his farm. He spoke the second sentence in a matter-of-fact manner without realising that gentamicin is a powerful antibiotic. “When I started my farm of 6,000 chickens eight years ago, other poultry farmers in my village told me that gentamicin is a must. So I use it,” said the farmer who did not wish to be named.
What’s more, antibiotics are easily available over the counter. A dte reporter, posing as a poultry farmer, visited two wholesale feed supplements and veteri-
nary medicine shops in Karnal district of Haryana and asked for a kilogram of ciprofloxacin.The shopkeeper presented the antibiotic loosely wrapped in a polythene. It obviously had no mention about the date of manufacturing, expiry or cost. He charged 2,000 for the drug that looked like wheat flour. When dte enquired about the manufacturer, the shopkeeper said,“It is Chinese,” adding that he would not provide a bill.
A Karnal-based dealer of feed supplement and medicines, informs dte that small pharma companies manufacture such antibiotics and sell those to bulk drug markets such as Bhagirath Palace in Delhi. Antibiotics are also coming from China as the imports are not regulated.No one knows if it has expired or the amount of impurities in it. Drums of ciprofloxacin can be seen at poultry farms across Haryana, he adds.
Poultry farmers also ignore the mandatory withdrawal period, time gap between the use of antibiotics and when it is slaughtered that helps ensure that high levels of antibiotic residues do not pass on to humans. In 2013,the Directorate General of Health Services issued a circular asking manufacturers to mention withdrawal period on the label of drugs. In case the withdrawal period is not mentioned, it should be considered at least 28 days in case of chicken, reads the circular. Gurgaon-based poultry consultant A Dua says withdrawal periods are never followed in other than therapeutic cases (treating the sick birds). In certain cases, dte observed, poultry farmers try to bypass the provision at the cost of public health. If disease strikes a flock three to four days before its scheduled date of sale, farmers sell off diseased chickens. They say giving antibiotics and then keeping the birds for the withdrawal period means they will have to be fed for a longer time, which is an expensive affair.
CONVENIENT OR RISKY?
Those involved in the business of growing broilers say antibiotics are a convenient way of producing cheaper meat. “As antibiotics kill microbes in the intestine, they help absorb feed nutrients better, resulting in weight gain, ”says an official at cpptc.
On the pretext of preventing diseases, poultry farmers use antibiotics in feed to fatten the birds. However, there is no way to differentiate between prevention of diseases and growth promotion.
Though the economy of a poultry farm gets affected by diseases, mortality and time taken to attain the desired weight (2 kg in 35 days), it is the feed conversion ratio (fcr) that can make or break a poultry farm. fcr is calculated by comparing the weight of all broilers with the amount of feed they consume during their life cycle. Poultry farmers, small or big, strive to attain low- er fcr, which means less feed to attain the maximum weight. This indicates profitability. The easiest way to achieve low fcr is by feeding the poultry antibiotics.
Satish Pal, president of Poultry Federation of India, explains cost of production and its relation to fcr.The cost of rearing a chick into ready-to-slaughter broiler is usually 140.While the day-old chick costs about 25 and expenses involved in labour, electricity and medicines come to around 15, rest of the expenses go into feeding the broiler. Antibiotics are used by farmers to attain low fcr, he adds.
Well-managed farms try to achieve an fcr of 1.5.A back-of-the-envelop calculation shows that at an fcr of 1.5,attained through antibiotic use, a chicken would eat 1.5 kg of feed to gain 1 kg of meat. By the time it attains the ideal 2 kg slaughter size, it would have consumed 3 kg of feed, which would cost about 75.In case of an fcr of 2, it would consume 4 kg of feed, worth 100. By keeping the fcr low, the farmers would save 25 per bird. For a big farm of 100,000 birds, with an average seven rearing cycles a year, low fcr translates into a saving of 1.75 crore a year. Given that the cost of
antibiotics in feed is 100 per tonne, the company will have to spend only 2.10 lakh. This is a huge incentive for poultry farmers to use antibiotics.
“It is not possible to rear birds without using antibiotics or its alternatives such as probiotics or phytobiotics (plant extracts) that help maintain good gut health of the bird,” says Bijendra Sharma, nutritionist at Bhagwati Feeds Pvt Ltd,Sonepat.
While many poultry farmers are aware of other options or antibiotic-free growth promoter feed supplements, their high cost is prohibitive for smaller players. Bigger farmers are less keen because there is no incentive to make antibiotic-free chickens. “The market does not offer premium rate for antibiotic-free chicken, ”says Jagbir Dhull, director, Skylark Hatcheries. The company claims to have raised broilers without non-therapeutic antibiotic use for about five years before shifting to antibiotics. “Our cost of production has reduced by up to 20 per cent since we discontinued the herbal feed supplement, hymu, ”says Dhull.
Pal, producer of hymu, which protects broilers by boosting immunity, says Skylark is earning the dividends because it used antibiotics after five years. Its cost of production will increase as the bacteria would become resistant with every cycle, he says, adding, antibiotic-free supplements are cost-effective in the long run.
On the pretext of preventing diseases, poultry farmers use antibiotics in feed to fatten the birds. There is no way to differentiate between disease prevention and growth promotion
For a big farm with 100,000 chickens, feeding antibiotics could translate into a saving of 1.75 crore a year