Poultry science department builds faculty teams to face complex industry demands

The University of Georgia’s Department of Poultry Science is advancing scientific innovation in research by strategically hiring faculty who are tackling the foremost problems in Georgia’s valuable poultry industry. These new faculty in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are raising the profile of UGA poultry science through research specializations.

In August 2020, Rami Dalloul joined the university as the first R. Harold Harrison Distinguished Professor in Poultry Science. Dalloul came to UGA from Virginia Tech, where he was renowned for combining the expertise of poultry research specialists across the globe to shape interdisciplinary teams.

At UGA, Dalloul focuses on a project that combines the research powers of the Department of Poultry Science, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center (PDRC).

Collaborative research for the antibiotic-free industry

The project addresses complex and interrelated poultry intestinal diseases that require collaboration across disciplines. Primary among these diseases is poultry coccidiosis, an issue that has existed within poultry for many years but has been largely controlled by approved drugs, one of which was an early vaccine produced at UGA. However, the poultry sector’s movement away from the use of antibiotics has presented the need for new treatment options.

“Poultry coccidiosis is not one of those flashy diseases like avian influenza where you have to condemn thousands and thousands of birds, but it occurs mostly at subclinical levels. It’s caused by a very ubiquitous parasite found in almost every broiler house in the U.S.,” Dalloul said. “What it does is infect the guts where the parasites invade the cells within the intestinal lining and eventually kill them. As a result, those cells are no longer there for digesting feed and absorbing nutrients to help support the growth of the bird. Instead, resources are redirected to replenish those cells to get the bird back to full function.”

Professor Rami Dalloul joined the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in August 2020 and is leading research into poultry coccidiosis.

Because the parasite disrupts the birds’ intestinal systems, poultry coccidiosis can affect weight gain and therefore reduces profitability for poultry producers and, in some severe cases, causes birds to die. The impact of the poultry coccidiosis issue is exacerbated by a condition known as necrotic enteritis, a separate disease caused by bacteria that grow almost everywhere, like inside a chicken’s gut.

Dalloul explained that while many birds already have these usually harmless bugs in their intestinal systems, certain compromising conditions, like coccidiosis, can cause the bacteria to begin producing toxins and cause necrosis. Necrotic enteritis is not a new disease, but it was under control for many years until the discontinuation of certain antibiotics in the industry produced conditions conducive for the bacteria to flourish. The partnership between UGA poultry science, CVM/PDRC and USDA-ARS focuses on identifying alternatives for controlling these diseases without antibiotics.

“We have to evolve with the needs of the industry, and we are at the point where we need the alternatives,” Dalloul said. “Our department and other scientists have been investigating several alternatives to antibiotics mostly through in-feed application. However, hesitation by the industry to incorporate potential feed additives as antibiotic alternatives are due in part to inconsistent outcomes in the field, lack of documented physiological and microbiological effects, and limited understanding of their specific modes of action in the birds.”

Through the strategic partnership, interdisciplinary team members are using their specialized areas of research expertise to examine the effectiveness of in-feed antibiotic alternatives in various sectors of bird health. Dalloul explains that this approach allows the team to collectively tackle complex questions from biological and practical application angles to provide effective solutions.

“Many scientists work separately on the same problem. We each have our own little niche investigating very specific aspects. That’s why there is hesitancy in the industry in this case to implement experimental findings,” said Dalloul. “What we’re trying to do here is bring all of our collaborative efforts into one large project so we can tackle every aspect as we go along with these studies.”

By bringing in USDA-ARS experts and faculty members from across UGA, each researcher can collect their own samples during a study using a particular in-feed additive. Then, the researcher can run tests related to their area of expertise. These separate trials within the same study provide a more holistic view of the larger implications of implementing an innovation.

Animal feed for chicken closeup on white background.“When producers see something like this they say, ‘The University of Georgia has studied all these aspects we are interested in for this particular additive. Now we can adopt this additive commercially,’” Dalloul said.

Though the project is making advancements toward antibiotic-free innovation for Georgia’s poultry producers, there have been challenges, some in part due to COVID-19. The social distancing protocols in place as UGA’s campus opened back up in fall 2020 presented difficulties for Dalloul and his graduate student researchers in forming relationships with other faculty and students and understanding their research interests.

However, the construction of a new poultry science building scheduled to break ground in 2022 will enhance both the relationship-building and interdisciplinary capabilities of teams like Dalloul’s.

“This new building will exponentially enhance our capabilities to interact together and to help each other out both physically and intellectually,” Dalloul said. “There are a lot of times when we are siloed within our own interests. Collaborating with other labs in the new building will not only help students learn other techniques and aspects of scientific questioning, but it actually becomes more productive because we can relay more information with the same resources to the poultry industry and to the scientific community.”

Precision agriculture in poultry

While Dalloul is known for his collaborative efforts with other poultry scientists, another recent hire in the poultry science department partners with engineers to implement precision agriculture solutions to address animal welfare in the ever-evolving poultry industry.

Assistant Professor Regmi joined th poultry science department in January 2021 and is using sensors to evaluate birds’ physiological responses.

With the help of an ongoing presidential hiring initiative in precision agriculture, the department welcomed Assistant Professor Prafulla Regmi in January 2021. Regmi’s research focus on applying precision agriculture to bird well-being will aid CAES in becoming a leader in precision farming.

“The opportunities to collaborate with faculty of different research backgrounds including environmental engineering was the primary factor that attracted me to the UGA poultry science department. Since welfare issues in poultry have multiple risk and causative factors, these interdisciplinary collaborations will be valuable in resolving the problems and improving the welfare of birds in commercial production,” Regmi said.

Regmi received his doctoral degree in 2015 at Michigan State University and completed his postdoctoral research through Purdue University and USDA-ARS in Athens, Georgia. Regmi’s doctoral and postdoctoral research concentrated on skeletal and food safety issues associated with cage and cage-free poultry housing. Cage-free egg production is just one of the adaptations occurring in the quickly changing poultry industry.

“The poultry production environment is becoming more complex with more space and bigger colonies of birds. In the newer systems, instead of the farmer managing the birds, the birds are managing the farmers,” Regmi said. “A number of health, welfare and production challenges can emerge if a farmer fails to notice and respond to the changes in the behavior of the birds in the flock.”

In collaboration with engineering faculty, Regmi’s research team is working on projects to use sensing tools that objectively measure animal health and welfare. For example, Regmi is researching the use of wearable and implantable sensors to learn about bird behavior and physiological responses. Information from sensors can help create models that identify and predict any abnormal changes in poultry behavior and health. Applying such technology to livestock is the basis of precision livestock farming (PLF).

“PLF is a powerful tool that will allow us to make the most of our resources by optimizing production, health and welfare of agricultural animals,” Regmi said. “PLF is a very important tool for monitoring, modeling and managing animal and crop production.”

Regmi’s direct interest in addressing poultry welfare issues benefits producers as well as members of the public who are concerned with the animal welfare discussions surrounding the commercial poultry industry.

Two white chicken isolated on white background.Along with researchers at Purdue University, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, Regmi communicates research-based information on poultry welfare through the Poultry Extension Collaborative website. While some communication is aimed toward the general public, the website also provides education and training tools for producers. This work is in addition to Regmi’s passion for teaching students who will be instrumental in solving welfare challenges in the field as part of the next generation of the poultry workforce.

“The challenges of making the modern poultry production systems sustainable in welfare and production excite me most,” Regmi said. “I’m also excited at the prospect of using a growing body of technologies to provide poultry producers with tools to objectively assess welfare and health and achieve our common goal of sustainable poultry production.”

With demand for poultry growing domestically and globally, Regmi explained that sustainable production to meet the demand is crucial. Flock sizes are increasing, and the technological innovations will be instrumental in managing flocks. These advancements made through research in UGA poultry science will help producers promote welfare and health in the face of labor shortages and increased public scrutiny, and Regmi is up for the challenge.

For more information on the Department of Poultry Science, visit poultry.uga.edu. To support the new UGA Poultry Science Building, contact Mary Ann Parsons at parsonsm@uga.edu or by calling 706-542-3390.