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Most production systems need to be run efficiently. And while efficiency cannot be the sole consideration in production, inefficient systems rarely benefit the consumer or, unless they are monopolies, the producer.
With more mouths in the world to feed, greater demands on resources and the expectation of cheap food, broiler production will have to increase its efficiency, maximizing yield and minimizing inputs and costs.
An interesting example of low cost production — although low cost is not automatically efficient — was recounted to me some years back, although I am not sure of its veracity. The story told was of a beef farmer who, to minimize costs, had simply dug enormous holes in the ground to house his herd, and fed the animals on food waste — packaging and all — from nearby food processors.
This is certainly a low cost model, but the farmer’s business was shut down on animal health and welfare grounds. His input costs were kept to an absolute minimum and he produced a cheap product, but this “efficiency” did not result in a lasting business.
This may be an urban myth, but it demonstrates that there are more factors to consider when producing food, or any other good, than simply input costs.
But the need for efficiency cannot be forgotten. In the broiler industry, decade after decade of work has resulted in birds that grow more quickly, deposit muscle more quickly and make better use of feed. All this work, rather than resulting in Frankenstein food, has put more meat on our tables. Not only that, but our knowledge of how to formulate poultry feeds has also come a long way. These developments will have to continue if the never-ending growth in demand for poultry meat is to be met.
But, of course, alongside these improvements, the health and robustness of tomorrow’s bird will also need to be continually optimized — only those strains that are able to do more with fewer inputs and still remain healthy through to harvest will be economically viable.
Alongside these traits, it will become ever more important that birds are able to cope with disease challenge. Some of the diseases of the past are not a problem today, while others can be prevented through veterinary intervention, but birds that are disease resistant are a much more valuable commodity.
Given that disease will never disappear, and that one never knows what may surface, farm biosecurity has an increasingly important role to play in production. Climate change and ever-more-global trade could also contribute to disease and being able to prove that disease has not entered your country, region or farm could make a huge difference to success.
But against all of the above need to be weighed factors not necessarily related to efficient production. Even the most liberal markets are not free from government regulation, and alongside pressure from governments, pressure from consumers continues to grow and can only be expected to grow further still.
The consumer is king — whether informed or not — and if a consumer doesn’t like it, it doesn’t make good sense to do it. Think of food-borne illnesses, for example. Properly handled and cooked poultry meat should present no risk to consumers. When illness does occur, of course, it is much easier to blame the producer, and whether the fault lies with the producer or not, systems may have to change if the consumer is to be kept happy and so retained.
A similar story is likely to play out with poultry welfare. What may be best for the bird in terms of reaching its full potential in the shortest possible time with the minimum of inputs may not sit well with consumer opinion — think of the beef farm! Similarly, what may be best for a bird in terms of proven welfare may not align with what consumers belief, yet producers will have to take into account what consumers think if they want to keep selling to them.
And there is another factor too — as if the above were not enough, there is pressure on the environment from all sectors. The poultry industry, like any other, will increasingly be forced to look at its energy consumption and emissions.
Poultry meat production may already be the most efficient of all meat species, but it will not be able to rest on its laurels.