Dermatitis in humans can make skin itch and burn. When it hits chickens, it drastically reduces farmers’ profits and cuts the supply of an Asian delicacy — chicken feet. It also leads to an estimated loss of about $100 million for the Georgia poultry industry each year.
Chicken feet, or paws, are the third most demanded part of the chicken, coming in behind the breast and wings, said Eric Shepherd, a poultry science graduate student in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Georgia produces roughly 20 percent of the paws exported from the U.S. each year.
Footpad dermatitis, a burn-like condition on chicken feet, is caused by excess moisture in chicken litter, Shepherd said.
Litter, which is the wood shavings chickens walk on, contains bacteria naturally and from chicken waste. When there is too much moisture in the litter, however, it allows for greater bacterial growth and increases the bacteria count.
Bacteria breaks down fecal matter and releases ammonia as a byproduct, Shepherd said. And the chemical reaction of the ammonia causes the burns.
To test litter moisture, poultry farmers scoop up a fistful of chicken litter and squeeze it. Shepherd is testing more accurate methods of moisture monitoring and researching moisture prevention methods. He hopes his research will improve the quality of the birds’ lives, make poultry farmers’ jobs easier and cleaner, and help them produce better poultry.
"In the last decade or so, chicken paws have become really important to poultry companies in the U.S. because there is such a high demand in Asia," he said. "If the paws have dermatitis, you can’t sell them."
Georgia is the nation’s leader in poultry production. The Georgia poultry and egg industry generated $18.4 billion for the state’s economy in 2006 alone.
Although poultry producers in Georgia already sell an average of about 130 million pounds of paws each year, Shepherd and Mike Lacy, head of the CAES poultry science department, estimate producers could be selling about 320 million pounds of paws.
With more precise testing techniques, moisture levels can be better monitored. This will help prevent dermatitis from occurring and increase paw exports.
Shepherd is also looking at ways to keep excess moisture out of litter. Moisture tests and preventative methods will help eliminate dermatitis before it begins.
Along with studies on litter, Shepherd observes and samples chickens with dermatitis and studies the burns.
"I hope to help poultry producers better use the information learned through our research and convince them to spend a little bit of money up front to make their lives easier and make better products," he said. The poultry industry employs more than 100,000 people in Georgia.
Thanks to Allie Byrd, UGA CAES staff writer.
Billy Skaggs is a Hall County extension agent. He can be reached at 770-531-6988. His column appears biweekly and at gainesvilletimes.com.