Bugs may be a key to keeping chickens healthy without antibiotics. New research suggests that feeding young chickens a strain of prebiotic yeast boosts their defenses against gut infections.

The research was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition and noted on www.allaboutfeed.net.

British scientists from Nottingham Trent University fed 240 broiler chickens different doses of a yeast-based prebiotic for 42 days. After careful monitoring, they found that the supplemented chickens had greater natural defenses to harmful bacteria entering their guts. The younger the chicken, the greater the effect of the supplement.

Lead researcher Harriet Lea, a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council funded Industrial CASE student based in the university's School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, explained to allaboutfeed: "Gut related disease in broiler chickens affects 184 million birds in the UK annually, resulting in poor animal welfare and reduced growth. There are several non-antibiotic feed supplements on the market, but there is a real need to understand how exactly they support gut health in chickens so that farmers have a better chance of increasing their efficiency and improving flock welfare. This will have the knock on benefit of reducing the need for treatment with costly antibiotics and help tackle the serious issue of antibiotic resistance in poultry."

The study may be a step toward more affordable antiobiotic-free chicken as well as more evidence of the power of prebiotics. Recent research on human “chicks” suggests prebiotics in infant formula may help stave off eczema.