Dr. Marty Matlock and Dr. Greg Thoma of the University of Arkansas are working with the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and the National Chicken Council to develop a continuous improvement framework for the poultry industry’s environmental impact that has also been adopted by other livestock sectors. Their lifecycle assessment, which evaluated live poultry at the farm gate, documents changes in environmental key performance indicators in the chicken industry from 1965 to 2010.

One key conclusion is that improvements in broiler chicken performance from 1965 to 2010 resulted in decreased global warming potential, fossil energy use, land occupation and water depletion.

Another is that improvements in crop production, along with changing ration compositions, have contributed to reductions across these key performance indicators.

What inputs were driving the changes in the broiler industry from 1965 to 2010? At the 2016 International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE), Dr. Thoma cited the following:

  • Crops have experienced large gains in yield over the past 45 years, which overshadow the increases in irrigation water use.
  • Broiler performance gains accounted for 9 percent to 22 percent improvement over 1965.
  • Broiler performance was the largest source of improvements for global warming potential. Rations accounted for most of the gains in fossil energy use, water depletion and land occupation.

Putting this progress in growing chickens, between 1965 and 2010, in an operational perspective:

  • The length of time required to grow broilers to market weight dropped from 66 to 47 days.
  • Market weights for the grow-out period increased from 1.6 kg to 2.59 kg.
  • Feed conversion ratios (kg of feed/kg of live weight) improved from 2.4 to 1.94.
  • Mortality dropped from 6 percent to 4 percent.

While environmental impacts per pound of chicken have decreased 36 percent to 75 percent since 1965, Thoma noted that the footprint for the entire poultry meat industry has increased. After all, the total amount of chicken produced annually since 1965 has increased more than six times. The number of pounds of chicken produced rose in 1965 to 2010 from 7.8 billion to 50.1 billion.

The U.S. poultry industry is not resting on a record of phenomenal progress in producing nutritious and economical meat protein to feed people. The industry is working harder than ever to monitor the environmental impact and develop programs to protect our natural environment.