Geneticists can help improve cage-free production, welfare

Genetic selection has changed over time to adapt to the needs of the egg industry, customer demands, housing laws and animal welfare improvements.

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Courtesy Big Dutchman
Courtesy Big Dutchman

Genetic selection has changed over time to adapt to the needs of the egg industry, customer demands, housing laws and animal welfare improvements.

An overview of the geneticist’s role in supporting the egg industry’s future goals and requirements was given by David Cavero Pintado, of genetics company H&N International, at 2023 PEAK, a poultry production tradeshow held in in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Egg quality

Through the work of geneticists, the productive life of layers has increased, not only in terms of production persistency, but in terms of eggshell quality towards the end of production, explained Pintado.

Specifically, eggshell strength is of interest to geneticists at the end of the laying period because shell quality tends to decrease after peak production. Eggshell strength is of importance to prevent waste and contamination.

Therefore, many geneticists are currently selecting birds with sufficient feed intake capacity (FIC) according to egg mass production because a low FIC may compromise the performance of hens under hot conditions and result in weaker eggshells.

Animal welfare

Geneticists are selecting for a calmer bird that is less prone to feather pecking to help satisfy animal welfare requirements.

“Selecting for better behavior can help lower mortality and improve calmness and feather coverage,” Pintado added.

To help with this, geneticists are selecting for birds with good bone quality to prevent possible fractures that can occur from collisions in cage-free houses, which is an animal welfare concern. Bone stability has a moderate amount of heritability and has been integrated in layer hen breeding programs, he explained.

Alternative systems

Customer commitments and housing laws have forced egg producers to convert to cage-free systems. In turn, geneticists are selecting for bird strains with a higher livability in these environments, compared to conventional systems, explained Pintado. 

Additionally, in alternative systems, issues can arise if birds are eating and drinking different amounts due to their varying activity levels, said Pintado. Therefore, geneticists are selecting for better feed efficiency to help produce a breed that can adapt to varying caloric intakes or activity levels and still perform well.

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