In research and reality slower-growing birds costs more

A widespread switch to slower-growing broiler genetics would require the chicken industry to use far more resources, and charge significantly higher prices, to produce the same amount of meat.

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One U.S. specialty chicken producer, Bell & Evans, switched over all of its operations to slower-growing birds in 2018. (Courtesy Bell & Evans)
One U.S. specialty chicken producer, Bell & Evans, switched over all of its operations to slower-growing birds in 2018. (Courtesy Bell & Evans)

A widespread switch to slower-growing broiler genetics would require the chicken industry to use far more resources, and charge significantly higher prices, to produce the same amount of meat.

As part of the 2019 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention in Minneapolis, Anthony Pescatore, associate department chair and extension professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, spoke about the results of research reviewing the impacts of slower-growing broiler genetics on the industry and the environment.

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Dr. Anthony Pescatore, University of Kentucky | Courtesy Steve Patton, University of Kentucky

Comparing conventional and slower-growing performance

The poultry industry is facing some pressure to slow broiler growth rates. Due to incremental progress in breeding, nutrition and husbandry throughout the past decades, chickens now grow much larger, much faster than they did at the dawn of integrated poultry rearing. Pescatore said there is potential association with challenging disorders, like woody breast syndrome, due to this faster growth rate.

Moreover, animal welfare organizations are calling for slower growth rates as well. A popular plan developed by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) – which is already adopted by companies like Perdue Foods and Wayne Farms LLC – calls for slowing growth rates to less than 68 grams per day.

In order to gauge the impact of slowing growth rates, Pescatore said the research team studied and compared the performance of a Cornish Cross, a conventional bird, and a Red Ranger, a slower-growing bird. If those birds were used to produce 1 million pounds of whole carcass without giblets, the slower-growing breed would require 9% more birds and more resources than the conventional bird to produce the same amount of meat.

Pescatore emphasized that previous studies on the environmental impact of slower-growing birds didn’t focus on what U.S. consumers actually buy: breast meat. He said using a slower-growing breed would require 68% more birds than a conventional breed and significantly more resources, as well as a much larger breeding, hatching and processing apparatus to produce the same amount of breast meat. There would also be more legs, wings and offal coming from those birds that would be challenging to use.

The impact on pricing and profitability was also considered. If the same birds were raised to a 5-pound live weight, and all costs to raise it are included, the Cornish Cross would yield 39 cents per bird in net income and the Red Ranger would cost 23 cents per bird in net loss. To make the same amount of money on the wholesale price of whole chicken, producers would need to charge a 29% premium. A 10% premium would be needed just to break even.

Real-world examples

In addition to the results of the study, Pescatore analyzed the impacts of slower-growing birds already raised in the U.S. and in Europe.

In practice, the slower-growing breeds are demanding higher prices just as he described. This is because they are not as efficient as conventional birds, and the slower-growing breeds cannot be simply swapped out with conventional breeds, they require different housing and husbandry practices.

For example, in the Netherlands, conventional boneless, skinless breast meat costs $1.63 per pound. The so-called chicken of tomorrow and better life varieties of chicken – specialty products that use slower-growing breeds – cost $2.65 per pound and $3.69 per pound, respectively.

Slower-growing breeds are starting to advance in Europe. According to Pescatore's observations, slower-growing breeds make up: 35% of the French breeder population, as of 2015; 25% of Dutch broiler production, as of 2016, with a commitment to go 100% slow growing by 2020; and about 7% of the broiler market in the United Kingdom, as of 2016.

One major producer of specialty chicken, Bell & Evans, is already producing slower-growing birds. In a November 2017 press release, the company said switching to a slower-growing breed costs the company an additional $14 million in feed alone. Pescatore estimated the company needed to add 125 to 190 more houses and purchase 46,000 more tons of feed to make this switch. That translates to 1,200 more feed truck deliveries using 20,000 more gallons of fuel and a total additional greenhouse gas output of 4.5 million pounds.

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A 10% premium on the wholesale price of whole chicken from slow-growing broilers is needed for producers to break even. A 29% premium is necessary to make an equal net income.

Other factors to consider

When weighing a switch in broiler genetics, it’s essential to remember all of the other ripples created by needing more birds. Pescatore said that translates to more land and water needed to grow feed, more trucks on the road to deliver feed and more manure.

Beyond that, the slower-growing birds are not the same as the conventional birds, and they will have significantly different needs for nutrition and housing and may deliver a notably different product.

Slower-growing birds cannot be fed the same way as conventional birds and may require lower nutrient density in their diets or even alternative feed ingredients. Meat quality may be impacted, and existing plant facilities may be challenged to process the birds themselves due to a lack of uniformity. The birds will behave differently than conventional breeds, so there will be challenges in housing and husbandry, too.

“Changing … will directly impact the resources needed by the poultry industry and will ultimately have a negative impact on the environment and sustainability of the poultry industry,” Pescatore said. “The broiler industry needs to continue to address skeletal and myopathy issues without decreasing the efficiency and sustainability of production.”

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