A second 1988 for poultry industry wouldn’t be the same

It would not be realistic for the chicken industry to revert back to the type of breeds used in 1988, a leading poultry industry economist says.

Roy Graber Headshot
iqoncept, Bigstock
iqoncept, Bigstock

“You can’t go back again” is a cliché I would suspect we have all heard. And it is one we will continue to hear as the debate over slower-growing broilers continues.

Mike Donohue, vice president of AgriStats, joked at the 2018 International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) that he doesn’t have to go to every argument he is invited to. Yet, he gave rather convincing reasons why he thinks an industry-wide switch to slower-growing broilers would not be a good thing.

Donohue told attendees of the IPPE Poultry Market Intelligence Forum that he started working in the poultry industry in 1980. At that time, there was a goal to raise a broiler chicken to 4 pounds in 52 days. However, that goal had not yet become a reality. Today, the industry can grow a chicken to 4 pounds in 32-33 days.

A move to slower-growing broilers could take the growth rates back to 1980s levels, which Donohue doesn’t necessarily think is necessary.

“There is an idea that the industry is struggling with issues from a bird health standpoint that I can’t pull out of the data, and that somehow if we produce chickens that will grow slower, that we would reduce these perceived problems or suggested problems that are out there in the business,” he said.

“We know how to grow slow-growing chickens. We’ve done it,” he added.

Slower-growing broilers and land use

Times have clearly changed since the 1980s. Demand for chicken has risen and improvements in poultry genetics have helped the industry meet that demand.

But what would happen if the industry was using the same genetics it used in 1988?

Feed conversion ratios with the old broiler breeds were not as efficient as they are in modern times. Donohue said that in 2015, about 46.3 million tons of feed were needed for the U.S. broiler flock. But under the feed conversion ratios of 1988, about 50.2 million tons of feed would be needed.

To meet that feed supply, nearly 580,000 additional acres would need to be planted to corn.

Looking at more historical statistics, in order to meet the present broiler demand under 1988 conditions, an additional 6,753 broiler houses would be needed.

Both situations present a significant land use problem. Where would those acres be planted, and where would those houses be placed? Donohue said many people in the U.S. are opposed to having poultry houses build in their vicinity to meet the industry growth with current broiler breeds, and it seems like that problem would only be exacerbated if there was an industry-wide shift to slower-growing breeds.

Since returning from IPPE, I've been thinking about this. Would more farmers have to withdraw from Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts and put their CRP ground back into tilled acreage to meet the feed needs? Would aging rural homes need to be demolished to make way for more chicken houses? Would empty spaces at industrial parks need to be rezoned to agricultural land to help fill either need?

These are questions that deserve to be pondered.

Many people say 1988 was a good year. However, the reality is there can only be one 1988.

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