Faculty Focus: Ferket Works with Companies to Improve Poultry Health and Growth

Cupped hands hold poultry feed

Chickens are big bucks for North Carolina producers — between broilers, chickens raised for meat, eggs and turkeys — the poultry industry contributes $37.3 billion to the North Carolina economy.

And Peter Ferket, a William Neal Reynolds Professor of Nutrition and Biotechnology in the Prestage Department of Poultry Science, has spent more than three decades working with companies in the poultry, feed and allied industries to improve poultry health, nutrition and production efficiency.

In that time, he and his students have tested new feed additives or non-antibiotic growth promoters for numerous companies under Testing and Service Agreements, or TSAs, and have done research with varied companies under Memoranda of Agreement. He has also been involved with Memoranda of Understanding, which are broader agreements for building stronger relationships with partners such as the one with DSM; and Master Research Agreements, which pre-define the terms of sponsored research to expedite new research agreements between University and the partner institution, such as Ilender.

Your research program is focused on poultry nutrition and gut health, is that correct?

I do research and education related to the formulation and manufacture of quality feeds, and enhancing growth, performance and welfare of poultry. I would categorize my research into three general areas. One is in nutrient management — determining requirements to formulate nutrient-balanced feed, developing methods to enhance nutrient bioavailability, or recycling food-chain by-products into value-added feed ingredients. My students and I have done a lot of work to improve nutrient utilization and minimize mineral emissions using supplemental enzymes, amino acids, organic trace minerals in precision-formulated feeds. The second category is nutrition and health of poultry, mostly related to gut health, but also immune function, skeletal health and the quality of meat and eggs. The last category is focused on the nutritional factors that affect the early growth and development of poultry, including the innovation of in ovo feeding — or feeding chicks before they hatch.

How do you work with different companies and commodity groups to improve poultry health and nutrition?

Two men shaking hands and holding a trophy against a black backdrop.
Peter Ferket with the president of the National Feed Industry Association when he received the 2019 Poultry Nutrition Research Award.

My industry clientele fall into three categories. One is commodity groups, like the North Carolina Poultry Federation, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and the Carolina Feed Industry Association. These commodity groups provide very important information about priorities that really affect the sustainability of the poultry and animal feed industries as a whole. Another category is the vertically integrated poultry producers such as Prestage Farms, Butterball Turkey, Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Sanderson Farms, Mountaire Farms and many more. And the third category are the allied industry suppliers who supply feed ingredients and technology services to the poultry producers, such as DSM Nutritional Products, Bioresource International, Alltech, Zoetis, Elanco, Premex and many more.

All three of these groups are interested in animal welfare and production efficiency, which is closely tied to feed conversion into meat and egg products. In fact, feed is the largest component of the cost of poultry production, and it’s the main way to deliver a lot of the solutions that we have for enhancing animal health and growth performance of the animals. So that’s how I support these groups, which are really the economic engine of North Carolina agriculture.

How has your research impacted an average North Carolina producer?

What I have primarily done is find solutions to problems that are most important to consumers and the producers that supply those poultry products, such as affordable, nutritious and safe food; environmental sustainability; and animal welfare. A lot of my work is related in finding alternatives to antibiotic growth promoters that might be put in feed to maintain the gut health and welfare of the animals. I would say a fairly high percentage of poultry in North Carolina are now raised without feed-additive antibiotics. I, and many others, have contributed to finding these sustainable alternatives.

Why is it important for you to not only have good working relationships with one or two companies, but to have good working relationships with numerous companies across the poultry and feed industries?

Food animal agriculture is a big socio-economic ecosystem that depends on the synergistic diversity of companies and small businesses. The robustness and sustainability of North Carolina food animal agriculture is dependent on all of these, not just on a few big companies. That’s why it is important for me to not only have good working relationships with a few companies, but with numerous companies across the poultry and feed industries.

Ferket standing with a young woman against a black backdrop.
Peter Ferket with his graduate student, Olivia Wedegaertner, who received the certificate of Excellence in Research at the 2019 International Production and Processing Expo.

Industry, whether it’s the ag industry or not, is the economic engine of our society. These companies of people transform natural resources from various sources into products that benefit all of us. The University on the other hand, our product is people. We help people acquire the foundation of skills that gives them the competence to do the work that employers need. Also, through a chemistry of skills and purpose, there’s a spark of creativity we provide.

The poultry production companies that operate in North Carolina support our program through prioritization of the needs that they have. They also supply chicks and turkey poults for our research and help market our research animals when we’re finished, which helps us reduce our costs. The allied industry companies such as DSM Nutritional Products, Adisseo, JEFO and many others, provide funds in the form of TSAs, sponsored research contracts and grants, or unrestricted gifts that support our laboratory and our graduate education program. Our graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and laboratory and animal care technicians are really the ones who do much of the research work. They’re the ones who add the practical and creative elements to accomplish the research and education that our industry partners really need.

You are also the Director of the Animal Food and Nutrition Consortium. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

The Animal Food and Nutrition Consortium was set up to promote innovation and advance the nutrition, metabolism and gastrointestinal health of production and companion animals. It is a member-sponsored consortium with an entrepreneurial mindset. We are in the process of broadening the consortium’s research and outreach scope to include more animal health and precision animal technologies with a potential name change to the Animal Nutrition and Health Consortium.

The consortium leverages the diverse faculty that we have available at NC State and their expertise in nutrition, veterinary medicine, genetics, production management, immunology, microbiology, physiology and more. It is led out of the Prestage Department of Poultry Science but includes faculty in CALS, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Science and the College of Engineering. And we connect with our diverse stakeholders such as production companies, feed manufacturing companies, the allied industries, research institutions and even some government groups.

The main purpose of our Consortium is to fund animal nutrition and animal health research that will benefit all the members in a pre-competitive model. We have competitors who come to sit around a collaborative table, but it’s structured to preserve each member’s intellectual property yet foster the exchange of creative ideas with our research faculty and graduate students. A lot of the research work the consortium has funded is related to the development of tools that assess intestinal health and biomarkers of performance, and then analyzing the data using machine learning.

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