Making business sense of research in the Indian poultry sector

“None of us is as powerful as all of us” with this philosophy in mind, Dr. Shivaji Dey, a renowned poultry nutritionist from Kolkata, conceptualized to create a consortium of consultants that would address the unmet need of technical know-how of a medium or small-scale poultry enterprise. Agrivet Consultancy, with its panel of veterinarians, nutritionists, and breeding experts leading the way, came into existence in August 2012.

In 2015, Dr. Sudipto Haldar, an eminent scientific mind in applied poultry nutrition with a robust experience in academic and commercial research joined the firm, making it the first choice of multinational and Indian organizations seeking to generate accurate, relevant, and detailed local data to authenticate their products. Ever since it has only grown and later metamorphosed into a world-class scientific research facility for animal agriculture; establishing Agrivet Research & Advisory Pvt Ltd.

Journey so far
The research facility includes a microbiology lab, wet chemistry lab, molecular biology lab, pilot scale pellet feed mill, open (concrete and mud floor) and EC sheds for layer and broiler trials, which essentially recreate all the necessary facilities of a standard farm on a miniature form. The company is the only private research entity in Asia with its feed mill for research purposes which is uniquely crafted to replicate a real-life situation. With a production capacity of 100 Kg/hour, this small-scale feed mill is an engineering marvel as it was difficult to design, build, and operate. Agrivet has already collaborated with more than 100 Indian and International feed additive companies, integrators, and other poultry producers and carried out over 250 research projects so far.

Since its inception, Agrivet Research and Advisory has been working towards addressing the requirements of domestic as well as international clientele. With far more stringent regulatory protocol on the horizon, India looks to be nearing towards global standards of the product licensing process. In August 2022, the 10th anniversary celebration of “Coffee with Agrivet”, attended by over 250 industry stakeholders the company encouraged customers to prioritize research as a buying criterion and expand their internal research to bring it credibility.

A professionally managed research facility, such as this one, allows the producer to make an informed decision when presented with multiple products at varying price points, where it provides a better understanding of their cost vs benefit.

In the last ten years, the industry has advanced from simplistic parameters such as feed conversion ratio (FCR) and body weight to more complex parameters like gene expression. The research firm analyses the requested parameters and recommends further studies that could differentiate their clients’ products. Additionally, the company performs its research with samples taken from current studies – often a more expensive option – enhancing its research capacities.

Sustainability – a way forward
Sustainability is defined as the ability to produce an animal protein with the essential nutrients ensuring optimum health and viability of birds with minimum environmental footprint. In terms of nutrition, Agrivet is focusing on Insect meal which is a newer technology in the context of the Indian poultry industry, and before collaborating with industry partners, the company is conducting its own research to develop a standardized protocol.

The company also surveyed to understand the challenges in the industry and to its surprise, the biggest challenge was a huge shortage of skilled manpower and its retention. While a decade ago, the major challenge for the industry was with aspects of diseases, which are still prevalent, however, the industry is equipped to manage them by founding ways to minimize its effect. Now the main challenge is human capital management from across various levels of the industry. Developing and maintaining a diversified workforce, maximizing the efficiency and productivity of workers, and motivating and retaining top talent, implementing a system of employee training and development to ensure a high level of preparedness and knowledge.

All kinds of workforce management have thus become a huge challenge to the industry. That is where the idea of Agrivet School comes into relevance, with a focus on unique industry orientation programs designed to bridge the gaps in the industry’s shortage of skilled manpower.

The programs are customized into the up-skilling program for early career professionals and the re-skilling program for experienced professionals. Their programs aim at offering knowledge and skills in Broiler Farm Management, Layer Farm Management, Diseases and Health needs of poultry, operations in broiler integration and feed mills, perspectives of poultry nutrition, and poultry business.

Programs on poultry business are ideal for entrepreneurs and other veteran customer-facing professionals, to further enhance their knowledge. Similarly, the program on ‘feed milling’ is tailored to the needs of nutritionists, feed mill managers, and marketing personnel from additive companies. The Poultry Enterprise Management program is designed for members of an entrepreneur’s family who are looking to take their business to the next level. It also provides learners with a comprehensive overview of modern scientific practices for sustainable poultry production.

What Dr Sudipto Haldar says?
The company has come a long way since its inception in 2012, please share your experience in this journey.
It is a long journey indeed. I started partnering with Agrivet from the very beginning when Dr Dey conceptualized a veterinarian’s consortium and became a full-timer in 2015. At that time we didn’t have enough of space, the correct infrastructure, or good manpower resources. The only thing we could offer to our customers was just performance data and some of the gross carcass traits. I must thank all our clients who kept their trust in our capabilities.

We took some calculated risks and started investing money in the projects like a prototype pellet mill which has pushed us a lot. Today, we can deliver “field simulated” data which
actually makes Agrivet stand out amongst the crowd. In the next step, we focused on developing labs, starting from basic wet chemistry to gene sequencing or even microbiome analysis. Today, this kind of private research facility is unique in its kind not only in India but in Asia.

The journey was tough, and it ought to be. With a strong dedicated team, now Agrivet has become a brand serving quality research to its clients.

The industry has advanced from a basic understanding of poultry farming to an in-depth understanding of its complexities as an enterprise. What role does a research firm like yours play in supporting the industry’s growth?

There is no other shortcut for industry growth but to go with the research. It has come a long far from 2000, chicken breeds with a 2 kg body weight gain in more than 40 days with an FCR of 1.7 or more to today, chicken breeds with a 2 kg body weight gain in 32 days with an FCR of just 1.3 or so. It is only research that made a dream come to fruition.

Developing a good product is not an easy task, but it is more important to get the product validated under different conditions so that its value resonates with customers’ requirements. One needs to go for a number of tweaks to make a product successful and but for research, such tweaks are not possible. I am not only referring to the feed additives, vaccines, or therapeutic agents but extending this statement to all the stakeholders who produce animal feed and animal products.

The objective of designing research may differ from case to case but the basics remain the same – to find out and develop the best solution in an affordable manner, and to develop a product in a way that the user can vouch for its efficiency and quality.

What are the present challenges in the Indian poultry sector?
Probably the biggest challenge is to get a consistent market of poultry products across the country throughout the year. The variation in consumption patterns is obvious in a country like India and unfortunately, there is probably no way out to solve this in near future. That means the producers are bound to face price fluctuations which in turn has a severe impact on the flock’s performance.

It is like a vicious cycle – the low selling price for a few months in succession causes a cash crunch and obstructs the producer’s ability to put the next flock. Fluctuations in raw material prices add to this plight. Owing to these factors, the full genetic potential of modern chicken breeds remains under-exploited which might also add to subtle losses to the producers.

Looking at the nature of poultry products in the country, chicken eggs and meat qualify to behave like Giffen goods but unlike Giffen goods, their prices do not always experience an upward slope as demand increases. It is intriguing to note that the prices of chicken products do not follow even the fundamental demand rules and sometimes it becomes difficult to get customers even with some rock bottom prices.

The other challenge is ridiculous rumours about chicken and its products. There should be strict actions taken against those who spread such baseless rumours to damage the industry. It is well known that India is still lagging far behind in meeting the daily protein requirement suggested for a healthy individual and egg or chicken meat is still the most affordable animal protein source that can play a substantial role in filling this gap.

I am not a commercial or management guy, I am a Researcher who dwells in the applied sciences related to poultry. Still, if I may share my “one penny” advice here, the poultry industry must gear up its human capital management activities. I have personally noticed a lot of skill-gap while working with small, medium, and even large poultry enterprises in India and South Asia. I think that very little has been done to bring an element of industry orientation to the fresh pool of talents that have joined our industry in technical, commercial, and operational roles.

My work gets me the privilege of meeting quite a good number of techno-commercial people from various poultry additive, pharmaceutical or biological companies. Even with the people who have more than a decade’s experience or who are working in senior managers’ roles, I have experienced that many of them lack the perspectives on the latest complexities and changes happening in the core of the operation of a poultry enterprise. Unless we have the right set of skilled resources how can we harness the full potential of Poultry as an industry?

You recently presented on “gut health” to exploit the full potential of nutrients; would you please share more details with our readers?

One of the major drivers of profitable poultry farming is gut health. There are many issues that influence gut health and some of these factors include overlooking the leakage points in biosecurity, thermal stress, rampant usage of antibiotics, and of course skilled Human Resources. Simple steps, like the use of a foot bath, or using chlorine tablets can do a lot at the farm level. Birds with healthy guts utilize the feed more efficiently and a producer can achieve better productivity.

What is your vision for the company? Where do you see it 10 years down the line?

I believe that research in the poultry sector is not yet a well-understood subject in the country. In the coming years, data and the interpretation of data would gain immense importance. The Government regulations on food safety will force the stakeholders to rely on data generation. With the implementation of animal feed under the Food Safety and Standards Act, the requirement for validation studies will increase by leaps and bounds and we shall be in a position to play a vital role in this transformation.

Beyond regulatory pressures, sheer consumer preferences will drive a few more changes in our industry practices. For example, tomorrow’s upwardly mobile urban consumers will look for complete traceability (from the farm to the plate) of the poultry products they buy. I am quite optimistic that in the coming days, Agrivet will be in a position to work more closely together with the industry stakeholders and also with the policymakers to design and develop strategies for food safety and security.

My experience with Indian feed additive manufacturers is quite intriguing. I have observed that we are capable of developing products with great efficacy and with some small tweaks, these products can become quite competitive across the globe. However, it is just the lack of data that does not allow these manufacturers to exploit their full potential. I do not know how the industry might take this observation but it is a harsh reality.

The Indian feed additive sector should start allocating certain funds for research, development, and multiple validation studies which can finally determine the price of the product in the open market.
We are here to make people understand the importance of scientific data generation and interpretation in making a business profitable. I can foresee this in the coming 10 years.

by Dr Sudipto Haldar, Agrivet Research & Advisory Pvt. Ltd.