One hundred years after its founding, Cobb-Vantress Inc. is still tackling current issues facing the broiler industry.

In an interview, Dr. Mitchell Abrahamsen, senior vice president of research and development at the Arkansas-based broiler primary breeder company, explained how Cobb applies cutting-edge genomic technologies to better understand what specific aspects of an individual bird’s genetic make-up contribute to desirable traits.

Abrahamsen said the genomics work represents a continuation of Cobb’s past century of progress in broiler genetics. Cobb has brought significant improvements in animal health, mortality, feed conversion, growth rate and overall yield which, he said, has provided the basis for the development of today’s global broiler industry. With more information on which specific gene sequences contribute to desirable traits, the company is positioned to keep moving the industry forward in the coming decades.

Scientific advancement is an integral part of Cobb’s ability to develop products that perform better in antibiotic-free production environments, and it’s helping it breed birds that will be able to thrive under more stressful conditions farmers might face in the coming decades.

What is genomic selection?

Completion of the chicken genome project opened the door for genetics companies and academia to partner to use genomic selection to speed up the delivery of commercially important improvements in genetic stock. Abrahamsen said Cobb’s partnership with Dutch genetics company Hendrix Genetics and its academic collaborators was critical to helping Cobb understand the potential value of genomics in its breeding programs and allowed it to take full advantage of the science.

The application of genomic selection to poultry breeding allows geneticists to be able to examine which specific DNA sequences contribute to useful production traits and then select birds who possess those genes for the next generation of breeders within the pedigree program.  

“Genomics is a critical component of our program to improve animal health and welfare traits, as well as the key broiler traits that are driving profit for the industry,” Abrahamsen said.

By monitoring which single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – specific variations in the DNA sequence – exist in genes, breeders are able to understand and recognize parts of chromosomes that are linked to desirable traits as they are inherited from generation to generation. This allows breeders to carefully identify and exploit the genetic components that are driving the changes in the birds. Abrahamsen said that, before genomic selection, geneticists were only able to understand genetic contributions based on parentage/family relationships to breed for desirable traits. Now they can understand what specific genes were passed on and put that knowledge to use.

The benefits of genomic selection

Genomic selection is already increasing the rate of genetic progress for many key economic traits. Abrahamsen said genomic selection has demonstrated the ability to improve the rate of genetic progress for today’s pedigree selection program.

“The bigger win is going to be the ability to use genomic selection to select for traits that are difficult to express in a pedigree program. This will be a key technology for linking data/knowledge from off-farm selection programs with the pedigree breeding program.” Abrahamsen said.

Data collection has always been a vital component of Cobb’s selection programs. With genomic technology, breeders are able to gather even more data to help select birds that will perform in harsher environments around the world and in antibiotic-free operations. It’s through this technology that we are able to better understand which genetic variations cause one bird to do better than another under stressful conditions and select for those birds for our breeding program.

On the horizon

Using genomic selection in breeding programs will continue to prove its worth as producers embark on antibiotic-free programs and broilers' disease tolerance becomes more important. Abrahamsen said this trend is going to allow breeding companies to develop products that will drive the poultry industry to be efficient and profitable in a time when consumers are demanding more focus on bird health without using antibiotics, and more knowledge about where their food comes from.

In the long term, the poultry industry will be challenged as livestock competes with humanity for the grains the earth can produce. In the coming decades, Abrahamsen said Cobb and the genetics industry will be required to develop birds that can succeed on alternative feed stocks and live in environments where temperatures are higher, water is scarcer, and energy to heat and cool chicken houses is less affordable.

“We’ll need to develop genetic lines and products that can deal with this ever changing world in the future where the key economic drivers today are probably not going to be the key economic drivers 20 and 50 years from now,” Abrahamsen said.