The broiler industry has become a model of efficiency for animal agriculture and a large portion of the credit goes to poultry breeders who have provided producers with birds that grow faster using less feed for each successive generation. Along with the improved feed conversion and growth rates, broiler growers are also raising flocks with reduced mortality rates on the farm, less plant condemnation and better deboning yields. With this kind of steady performance improvement, what could be wrong?

Premium market niche

In free markets, there will always be market segments looking for something different. Markets have developed in the U.S. for broilers that are “raised-without antibiotics” or “veg-fed” or “free range” or organic, or are some combination of these. In Europe, niche markets have developed for heritage breeds and methods of raising birds in France and for crosses of heritage and commercial broilers to produce so-called slow growing broilers in some other countries. In short, there are consumers in developed markets who can afford to buy more expensive broiler meat if they perceive the point of differentiation to be worth it.

Some animal rights activist groups are pushing for broiler producers and chicken buyers to switch to slower growing breeds because they claim that the welfare of these birds is better than it is for modern broiler strains. In an opinion piece, Katya Simkhovich, food business coordinator, Compassion in World Farming, puts forward the notion that slow-growing broilers will be more sustainable than faster growing strains because they have better welfare and thus will have better acceptance in the market place. She also cites breast meat quality issues that appear to be on the increase in fast growing strains as another reason why slower growing breeds might ultimately be more sustainable.

Essentially, Simkhovich sees genetic selection exercised by poultry breeders over the last few decades as the root of the animal welfare and sustainability problem for the broiler industry. Slower-growing birds are seen as the solution for all of the industry’s problems, including maintaining flock health without the use of antibiotics.

Fortunately for poultry producers, Simkhovich has it all wrong. Selective breeding isn’t the problem, it is a big part of the solution to issues that she has raised. Balanced genetic selection, where the parent stock of future generations is chosen based on welfare and meat quality traits along with feed efficiency, growth rate and yield characteristics, combined with improved husbandry will result in future generations of birds that can outperform slow growing and heritage breeds on objective welfare measurements.

Chicken passed beef and will soon pass pork as the most consumed meat in the world. The remarkable worldwide growth in poultry production has been fueled by efficiency gains, much of which can be credited to decades of genetic selection.

Better husbandry and genetics

Activist groups are each defining sustainability in their own way. Animal rights groups make welfare traits a higher priority than environmental groups, which give greater weight to efficient resource utilization. Efficient resource utilization and lower cost are still the primary drivers of sustainability in poultry production. But, poultry producers of all kinds, broiler turkey or layer, will need to place a higher value on welfare traits than they have in the past. This starts with weight that breeders give to welfare traits when selecting breeding candidates, but it doesn’t end there. Everything from square footage allotted per bird, litter management, lighting programs and feed formulations needs to be explored to improve bird health and welfare.

It isn’t going to be good enough to just have birds that perform better than the prior generation on a cost basis. Welfare measurements need to improve as well, and the goal shouldn’t just be to improve, it should be to be better than heritage or slow growing breeds. Achieving this goal will provide real long term sustainability for the broiler industry.

The era of transparency is here. Poultry farms and the flocks raised on them need to be camera ready at all times.