The question posed to an international group of broiler producers, nutritionists and veterinarians was: “What needs to be done to get broiler feed conversion rates down to 1.0?” This question was sparked by a prediction from a Cobb-Vantress geneticist that, by 2050, it would be possible to raise a broiler to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) in 19 days with a feed conversion approaching 1.0. Attendees in the international poultry discussion group at the Alltech Symposium were asked to participate in what was characterized as a “Yale-style debate” and offer their opinions on the subject.

I was actually a little surprised by how lively the discussion was and found some of the suggestions intriguing. Surprised, because I took the geneticist at face value and my answer to the question would have been to sit back and let the inexorable progress of selective breeding do its work for several dozen more generations, and eventually, the broilers delivered as chicks to our farms will make a 1.0 feed conversion a commonplace thing. However, some others in the group saw themselves taking a more active role.

First, everyone had to come to a common understanding of what the real definition of feed conversion is: It is pounds of feed divided by pounds of good live bird delivered to the plant. Because a formulated poultry ration is about 10 percent water by weight and a bird is around 70 percent water, a feed conversion of 1.0 is really around 2.5 on a dry matter basis. Once everyone understood this concept, the real interesting part began.

Should we chase feed conversion?

Some in the audience questioned the value of striving for improved feed conversion as an end to itself. They stated that what the industry really needs to do is produce meat in forms that the market wants in a profitable manner. This could be done with slower-growing strains as with the Label Rouge birds in France, or with the fastest-growing strains, but the key is to supply the market with what it wants.

There was some concern raised about what the public perception might be of processing birds that were less than three weeks of age, at least less than three weeks post hatch. The retort to this was that the industry already raises “Cornish hens,” to meet a niche market need, and these birds are processed at around 28 days of age now. Others raised concern about the skeleton of a 19-day-old, 4.4 pound bird holding up during processing. My thought on this is that the breeders will be monitoring skeletal strength and will select birds that not only put down meat faster than today but also develop their bones faster as well. At the same time, I was thinking that there won’t be many 4.4 pound live weight broilers raised in 2050 anyway. As broilers have achieved more rapid growth rates, the most efficient size for birds from a live production and processing standpoint combined keeps getting bigger, and this isn’t going to change. The 9.0 pound deboning bird of today might become 15 pounds, and that retail cut-up bird that used to be a 5.5 pounder has crept up close to 7.0 pounds now will keep getting bigger as well.

How to improve feed conversion

One of the first suggestions for improving feed conversion, whether for today’s broiler or the bird of the future, was to improve the quality of the feed ingredients incorporated in the birds’ diets. Just as quickly as this was suggested, it was also noted that the use of alternative ingredients like bakery meal, distillers' grains, and meat and bone meal is a trade-off. You likely lose points of feed conversion by utilizing these alternative ingredients, but you might wind up with a lower total cost of meat.

Vaccinations of any kind were cited as cause of lost feed conversion, because the immune response takes energy. It was suggested that the biologics companies could aid broiler producers in the quest to reduce feed conversion by providing more recombinant vaccines, which cause less of a vaccine reaction, to be substituted for current live vaccines. Achieving better coccidiosis control was named as another source for feed conversion improvement.

One member of the audience from Brazil said one-third of the energy a bird eats now goes to turnover of cells in the intestinal tract.

He said that getting the right gut microflora in broilers is essential if you want to have optimal feed conversion.

Inline analysis of feed ingredients in the mixer at the feed mill before the feed goes to the pellet mill is being done by one Brazilian broiler producer. This allows them to know the real nutritional profile of their diets, so they aren’t just relying on the book value of ingredients. The producer said they will analyze all this data and come up with a strategy for using it.

Another feed mill technology mentioned for improving digestibility was the use of expanders. They have been around for decades, but with the increased cost of feed calories, they might require another look. A Brazilian producer said the expander gives them 75 more kilocalories per kilogram of feed, and that it paid for itself the first year.

Feed conversion begins at the hatchery

One producer flatly stated that single-stage incubation will improve broiler feed conversion. Mention of the hatchery shifted the discussion to the potential impact of in ovo feeding. Dr. Peter Ferket, who has researched the area of in ovo feeding, said that in ovo feeding may have some real value when the technology is inexpensive enough. He said that industry might even vary what is fed in ovo to turn on or off different genes. He suggested that a chick destined for a deboning plant would want genes turned on for muscle growth, a breeder would have other genes, and a cut-up bird might have something else.

I definitely learned a lot from the discussion. I didn’t think that a question which I believed had a very simple answer would stir up so many ideas.