For many turkey growers, a management program that includes regularly tilling litter is a thing of the past. For others, it’s a necessary tool to maintain quality litter. Why the difference? In a recent article surveying turkey flocks across Canada, only 18.5% of farms employed tilling, with the primary litter maintenance strategies being top dressing with new litter (82.7%) and additional heat to prevent caking (32.1%)1.
Litter is a valuable resource. Consequently, there is nothing worse than kicking the top, wet layer to reveal soft, dry material underneath. These findings prompt growers to till, mixing the wet surface litter with the dry litter below to increase the absorptive capacity of the bedding. Tilling can certainly benefit the flock, but it must be scheduled and executed correctly to prevent challenging the flock during the process. Additionally, it takes time which is a limited commodity on a turkey farm.
Challenges of Tilling
The most significant flock challenge caused by tilling litter is the release of high levels of ammonia when the wet, ammonia saturated litter is exposed to the air. It is not unusual for ammonia levels to be well over 600 ppm in broiler houses that have been tilled2.
Animal welfare guidelines set the limit for ammonia at 25 ppm, but levels as low as 10 ppm also cause damage to the cilia lining the windpipe plus cause generalized immunosuppression—all of which impair the turkey’s ability to fight respiratory disease. Damaged cilia fail to filter out airborne dust, bacteria, feed, and feather particles allowing them to reach the airsacs and cause infection. Consequently, tilling should be planned for a time when weather conditions permit venting of the house during and immediately after. Consideration should also be given to the use of litter amendments to control litter ammonia.
Tilling equipment can be as simple as a rake used in a brooder barn to a garden rototiller to a tractor with specialized attachments. Only clean and disinfected equipment should enter the barn to prevent introducing pathogens (histomonads which cause blackhead, salmonella and other bacteria or a variety of viruses) from another barn or from equipment storage areas that are not wild bird or rodent proof. Time needed to clean and disinfect tilling equipment distracts from other important tasks, but presents a biosecurity risk if not done effectively. Keep in mind that tilling also takes more time if the flock has a lameness issue.
For growers who no longer till, maintaining good litter quality requires that the variety of factors contributing to wet litter be addressed.
1 OPTIMIZE THE VENTILATION SYSTEM TO ENSURE HUMIDITY IS BELOW 60% AND THAT AIR MOVEMENT IS CORRECT.
Ensure there is adequate insulation to prevent condensation on walls and that curtains are in good repair. Use additional heat during cold weather to achieve the ventilation rates needed to remove additional moisture and promote flock activity.
2 CHECK WATER QUALITY INCLUDING BOTH THE BACTERIAL LEVEL AND CHEMICAL CONTENT.
Wet droppings can be caused by high levels of minerals (sodium, chloride, magnesium, sulfates) or inconsistent water sanitation.
3 MAINTAIN STRATEGIC USE OF WATER ADDITIVES (OTHER THAN SANITIZERS).
This will minimize disruption to water sanitation or large changes in water pH as they can first decrease water intake and then cause overconsumption.
4 ELIMINATE LEAKS IN THE WATER SYSTEM AND MANAGE DRINKERS TO PREVENT WATER SPILLAGE.
5 PROACTIVELY REDUCE THE FREQUENCY OF GUT HEALTH DISTURBANCES
through effective cocci control, Hemorrhagic Enteritis vaccination, feed quality and environmental management to encourage appropriate feeding and drinking behaviors.
6 DISCONTINUE HATCHERY TOE TREATMENT OF HEAVY TOMS.
Turkeys with toenails help to work the litter. Although toe treatment is warranted in turkey hens, it is not in toms.3
When implemented collectively, the above measures result in drier litter thereby eliminating the need to routinely till litter. However, if economics or other constraining factors do not permit these processes and tilling is essential to maintain litter quality, then attention must be paid to when and how it is done to prevent flock challenges through ammonia release or the introduction of disease agents from tilling equipment.
Helen Wojcinski DVM DVSC ACPV, Wojcinski Poultry Health Consulting LLC