Poultry farmers support diagnostic initiative

A pathologist trims the formalin fixed tissues from a postmortem examination in the diagnostic services unit at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Specific areas of the tissue are selected so that they can be processed and made into glass slides for review under the microscope. | University of Calgary/Jager and Kokemor photo

Alberta’s four poultry producer boards have formed a partnership with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine to support a poultry diagnostic system for the province.

The school is “incredibly excited about the opportunity this has for shaping the future of the poultry industry,” said Jennifer Davies, director of the faculty’s Diagnostic Services Unit (DSU).

The initiative involves Alberta Chicken Producers, Alberta Turkey Producers, Alberta Hatching Egg Producers, and Egg Farmers of Alberta.

They collectively total more than 400 producers, contributing more than $700 million to the gross domestic product each year, said Gary van Klei, who is the boards’ representative on the faculty’s Diagnostic Advisory Committee.

Diseases affecting poultry can range from E. coli to avian flu, he said. “It’s important to have the diagnostics in the province so that we can deal with those issues in a very timely manner.”

Such services also play a vital role in protecting food safety and public health, said Davies.

“An important feature of understanding why animals get sick, or perhaps why animals die, is to identify certain pathogens or microbes that could be transmissible to people as well, or could affect the food chain.”

The partnership marks a switch from diagnostics provided by Poultry Health Services, a veterinary consulting practice headquartered in Airdrie, Alta., that mostly works with commercial poultry producers.

“No, it’s not to address any problems,” said van Klei about the change. “We’re very happy with the service that Poultry Health Services has provided to our producers.”

However, the new partnership with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine expands opportunities for research, along with training the next generation of veterinarians and diagnosticians who will be poultry practitioners in Alberta, he said.

“We felt it was very important for the long term of our poultry industry.”

The initiative will begin by focusing on core diagnostics such as postmortem bacteriology and histology, which is the study of tissues under the microscope, said Davies.

Glass slides of tissue for microscopic examination are prepared as part of a routine postmortem. The top is a section through an eye and the bottom is a section of brain. | University of Calgary/Jager and Kokemor photo

The DSU will provide such diagnostics on contract with the four boards, with other capabilities added as the service builds capacity, said a faculty statement.

Besides training students, Davies said the faculty looks forward “to having our case materials also translate into research as well with the creation of new knowledge, and our ability to translate and share that knowledge with the industry again and improve poultry health in the province.”

But she declined to comment April 1 if the initiative meant the faculty will be expanding its facilities, stating the partnership is still in its early stages. She said it is separate from a new lab on the faculty’s Spy Hill campus in Calgary that was launched last year.

The provincial government provided $3.4 million as part of a pilot project to subsidize for pathology and bacteriology of qualifying livestock species such as cattle, swine, goats, bison, elk, deer and poultry. It aims to bridge a decades-long gap in Alberta’s ability to test livestock for diseases.

However, the new partnership with the four poultry boards is more industry-focused and showcases the faculty’s “dedication to community engagement and the creation of strong partnerships within our agricultural community,” said Davies.

“I think this partnership represents an important opportunity for us to serve the needs of the poultry industry through the provision of diagnostic services and expertise, and we’ll have more information hopefully in the next coming weeks about what that service will entail.”

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