A lot has happened since our last article with Sportsman Game Feeds, so I thought I would summarise what we are finding out in the fields and how our aims at reducing antibiotics were going.

Since mid-July, the weather has taken a turn for the worst, as it often does in the UK. I have to say I have not seen as much rain in the last two months as I have since the summer of 2012, when a boat was a better form of transport around the game farms than my 4x4! It has not been an ideal summer to aim for our 25% reduction in both feed and water antibiotics. However, early information both from vets and feed mills suggest that we may be on target, which is encouraging to hear.

Visiting approximately 20-25 game farms and shoots a week, I get to see the good, the bad and the ugly. It is clear that there are many shoots that, despite the poor climatic conditions, have not noticed any negative effects on their birds without antibiotics in feed. However, several changes and supplements have been used to cope with the removal. I have had daily chats with, quite rightly so, worried gamekeepers convinced that their birds will die uncontrollably through release. And, fortunately, in the majority of cases that has been proved wrong.

Either the birds were supported well via gut health products in feed or in water, or in water medication was used early. Of course, with the removal of any medication it has also highlighted the cracks in both the rear and release pens on some sites, and the mortality has been far higher than we would aim for.

Noticeably, the game farms with the highest number of different age groups have struggled to contain diseases such as Hexamita the most. Game farms with up to 4/5 batches have coped much better. Discussing this with the game farms, it seems often that the shoots are demanding certain dates to fit in with events such as game fairs, harvests or festivals on their land and dare I say, often the release pens have not been put up yet!

As discussions have progressed it seems many game farms are deciding to have more birds in an age group and less age groups on the farm. I think this is a wise decision from a disease perspective and a husbandry approach. Fewer age groups mean less disease, less challenges for the birds, less antibiotics used and stronger healthier birds for release. I wonder if it is better to have a stronger healthier bird earlier (or later) or a slightly weaker and smaller bird on time. Maybe a little more understanding from both sides of the fence could help solve this one?

As with all products and services, traceability is more or less a common demand and understanding when exchanging money. People wish to know where their item has come from, been produced and using what components, especially true for food producing animals.

It is therefore unsurprising, especially given the increased demand on antibiotic reduction, that for the first time I have had shoots requesting a full clinical history with their birds from game farms. If you spent £40,000 on a car would you not want a full service history, repair history and MOT? Would you not pay more if some level of guarantee came with the car?

I work closely with a very good game farm in the Oxfordshire area. The main manager and part owner with her partner have incredible attention to detail. She takes personal offence if I mention that a feeder or drinker is not quite how it should be, and points it out next time I am on site (the remark has often long been forgotten by my busy brain).

We have a specific rearing protocol for all birds on site. When the birds are then delivered to their customers they are provided, if asked, with verbal or written guidance on what the birds have had and what they should be continued on in the release pen for the first few weeks to reduce the stress of transfer.

Over half the batches of birds have had no cocci or antimicrobial medications and have reared well on a combination of Ultimate Acid, Coccilin, probiotics and high quality feed with minimal feed changes. This programme has been recommended to their clients, which have removed in feed antibiotics and these have not suffered with diseases, other than "the gapes".

If ever their clients get an issue, they send me out on site to visit the client. I make a fair judgement whether it is the game farm’s or the shoot’s issue and then I advise and treat appropriately, the service is quick and effective. This transparency and attention has meant we have not seen a case of Hexamita on site for 3 years, even in a year such as this. The system has been invested in well, with nipple bars and a mixture of barns and traditional wooden buildings, and it has taught me that game rearing with reduced antibiotics can be achieved with the correct guidance, dedication and as always investment.

There is without a doubt light at the end of what seems at the moment a very long tunnel, and I look forward to the period of change upon us and how we can all work better together to keep this industry expanding as it is!