Vitamin Supplements: And when to use them

Published on Fri, 08/01/2014 - 9:28am

Deciding when it’s appropriate to supplement a flocks’ diet with additional vitamins will require basic knowledge of vitamins and their interactions. The decision should also take into account all of the environmental factors of the flock, such as heat, cold, type of housing, and stresses within the flock. 

The purpose of the flock will also play a role in the decision to use supplements. Are the birds kept as pets or are they production animals kept for meat, egg production, or breeding? Different flocks will all have unique nutritional needs that may or may not require the use of vitamin supplements. Other factors to consider are stresses associated with handling, moving, vaccination, breeding, and disease. 

Variables that may affect the feed quality should be considered as well, such as weather. For instance, high moisture due to excessive rain during growing and harvest can lead to higher-than-normal levels of mold on the corn and other ingredients. The age of the feed is also critical to its nutritional viability. Vitamins are sensitive to changes in pH, light, and heat and can lose potency when exposed over time to the trace minerals and additives that are sometimes used in feed.

Vitamin types
Vitamins are broken down into two separate categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are not affected by fats in the bird’s diet and include B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), H (biotin), and C (ascorbate). 

Water soluble vitamins are metabolized rapidly, with the excess excreted through droppings or urine, making it important to be sure the reed you use is the best available. Adequate supplies of the water-soluble vitamin group must be available on a daily basis to prevent a deficiency. 

While not considered a vitamin deficiency since it can be synthesized by birds, a lack of vitamin C would manifest itself in slowed growth and weak eggshells.

Some abnormalities caused by a water-soluble vitamin deficiency include:

B1 – Appetite loss and neurological disorders
B2 – Curly toe paralysis and slow growth 
B3 – Overall weakness, slow growth, and digestive disorders 
B5 – Lowered egg production and hatch-ability issues 
B6 – Skin dermatitis and convulsions 
H – Depression and skin lesions 
B9 – Perosis (causing deformed leg bones), poor feathering, and poor growth 
B12 – Perosis, poor feathering, anemia, and fatty livers

The second group of vitamins is fat-soluble vitamins, so called because of their association with the absorption of fats in the diet. The vitamins in this group include vitamins A, D, E, and K. This group is a bit more forgiving because the bird can store what it doesn’t use in various parts of the body, like the brain, liver, and other tissues. In spite of this storage capability, deficiencies still occur. Care must be taken to not over-supplement—vitamin toxicity can occur given enough time.

Both water- and fat-soluble vitamins are excreted from the body through the feces, urine, or bile.

Some abnormalities caused by deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins:
A – Eye lesions and severe lack of muscle coordination
D – Rickets and weak bones
E – Lack of appetite and encephalomalacia (or cranial tissue softening)
K – Reduced blood-clotting ability and hemorrhaging

Disease treatment
The use of vitamins to help treat disease has been around for many years, but why use vitamins to treat diseases when drugs are available? Because many of the drugs used in the past are no longer on the market, disease resistance may have developed, and the cost of certain drugs has skyrocketed.
Let’s look first at vitamin E when used to stimulate birds’ immune systems. Research shows that birds deficient in vitamin E had depressed antibody production and an impaired immune response. This means that the birds’ ability to fight off disease is greatly reduced. 
While vitamin E deficiency doesn’t always present textbook signs, your birds may still be affected. You might notice things like a poor immune response which would show itself by inadequately responding to drug therapy or vaccinations. Another way to find the deficiency is through an antibody titer test, a blood test that shows the amount of antibodies circulating in the bloodstream. 

Vitamin E benefits
It is generally accepted that vitamin E plays a role in protecting leukocytes and macrophages during phagocytosis—a process where cells surround and “eat” an invading microorganism—by helping these white blood cells survive the toxic products that are produced when they kill ingested bacteria. Vitamin E also stabilizes and regulates cell membranes to help maintain optimal function. 

Studies of diets supplemented with vitamin E have been encouraging. Chicks given high doses of vitamin E were protected against E. coli through increased phagocytosis and antibody production. Birds receiving a diet fortified with vitamin E had a less than five-percent mortality rate from E.coli compared to 40-percent for those receiving no supplement. 
In another study, chicks were fed a diet enriched with Vitamin E, then exposed to coccidiosis. They experienced weight gain and reduced mortality rates even in the face of a severe coccidiosis challenge. 

Additional studies have shown that diets supplemented with vitamin E have increased antibody production and that birds receiving vitamin E supplements followed with a vaccine produced antibodies earlier than birds that did not. Baby chicks fed a diet supplemented with 225 IU (or international units) to 450 IU of vitamin E on a daily basis were less susceptible to infection from bacterial diseases and had lower mortality rates than did the non-supplemented controls. 

Vitamin E plays an important role in the breakdown of vitamin C and in the metabolism of sulfur-containing amino acids—the building blocks of life. Vitamin E also helps metabolize vitamin B12, an important component of hemoglobin.

How much is needed?
Studies have indicated that the range of safety for vitamin E is quite wide. A range of between 450 IU to 900 IU per pound of feed has been shown to be well-tolerated by chickens. Vitamin E is stored in all body tissues with the highest concentrations found in the liver. Vitamin E toxicity is possible but not common. Symptoms include depressed growth rate and an increase in the time it takes blood to clot. This can be corrected with vitamin K.

Vitamin E supplementation using wheat germ oil should be based on the quality of the oil. In an effort to reduce costs, blends of wheat germ and soybean oils are being sold for use as a supplement. High-quality, non-blended wheat germ oil contains approximately 100 IU of vitamin E per ounce. 

How to use it
When evaluating water-soluble vitamin packs, remember that all calculations on the package are based on a one-pound sample. If the package states that it contains 8000 IU of a particular vitamin and the bag weighs four ounces, divide the 8000 units by four in order to establish how much of that vitamin is contained in that four-ounce package. In this example, there are 2000 IU per four ounce package. 

When encountering vitamin E content expressed in milligrams, use this simple formula to convert it into IU: number of milligrams × 1.49 = IU. So, if a package contains 50 milligrams per pound, multiply 50 by 1.49 to get 74.50 IU per pound. 

Since most poultry feeds contain low amounts of vitamin E, consider supplementing your birds’ diet after determining the vitamin E content of the feed. Use good judgment and you shouldn’t have any trouble supplementing your birds’ diet with vitamin E or any other vitamin that may be needed.