“To supply breeding stock for worldwide broiler meat production, it’s all about knowing what our customers’ wishes are,” says Magnus Swalander, R&D director at Aviagen. At the company’s original HQ in Edinburgh Scotland, they are celebrating 6 decades of meeting these demands and tuning them to the future. “We want to be in as many markets as possible, as close as we can get to our customers.”
When the conglomerate of what we nowadays know as the Aviagen Group started as Chunky Chicks in 1956, large scale breeding was still in its infancy. In the last 60 years, the company grew, encountered growing pains and re-invented itself to become an industry leader. From its Scottish roots, Aviagen is now shaping the worldwide broiler breeder market. Magnus Swalander: “In the early days we were improving our breeding stock by selecting the birds mainly for growth rate and some for conformation and skeletal soundness. Perception by some is that it’s still the same today when in fact modern broiler breeding is much more balanced and includes selection based on 40 different traits for broilers and breeders in 30 different pedigree lines.” Breeding has increasingly become a science backed up by a large volume of data. “It is almost impossible to imagine how much data, how much knowledge is involved in modern day breeding programmes. On top of that, new traits are added continuously because of our customers’ demands and changing markets.”
[Photo: Ton Kastermans fotografie]
To date Aviagen is part of the EW group, a family-run holding company that employs approximately 7,000 people in the fields of animal breeding, health and nutrition. When Chunky Chicks was established in 1956, the operation was mainly based in Scotland. In later years, the company expanded. Then in 1978, it was renamed Ross Breeders. As the industry developed, the company continued to grow and became well known all over the world. From 1998 to 2004, different private equity companies where at the helm of Aviagen, leading to different strategies being implemented in a short time span, usually with short-term goals. In 2005, the EW group bought Aviagen and ended an era in which the company was in the hands of so-called private equity. Patrick Claeys, president of Aviagen Europe: “The Wesjohann family made a significant change in strategy, focusing on long-term goals. They rolled out a plan to buy distributors in certain regions and move closer to the market. In doing so, our company acquired an even better understanding of what the market demanded from us and so could fine tune our operation to meet customer demands.” In some markets Aviagen moved from selling GPs via distributors to selling PS directly to end users. “A fantastic strategic move in selected markets,” according to Claeys.
Magnus Swalander, R&D director at Aviagen: "It is almost impossible to imagine how much data, how much knowledge is involved in modern day breeding programmes. On top of that, new traits are added continuously because of our customers' demands and changing markets."
The right broiler breeder for the right market - worldwide
Aviagen covers the whole world with it broiler breeder stock. Today, the Aviagen portfolio includes different products for different market segments. Arbor Acres, Indian River and Ross for conventional markets, the Rowan Range for slower-growing, free range and organic markets and the Specialty Males portfolio for flexibility in breeding stock choice. All birds are selected using the same selection methods, but are developed according to our clients’ needs”
Claeys continues: “We aim to deliver from everywhere to anywhere. In cases of disease or emergency, we have contingency plans, with pedigree birds on different continents, to keep our business running.” Aviagen is leading the way in the security of supply. In the United Kingdom, Aviagen was the first poultry breeder in the world to achieve compartment status for all its facilities, paving the way for the compartmentalisation concept to become a global reality. The biosecurity level at facilities such as farms and hatcheries are independently assessed. Those facilities that have the most stringent processes in place that meet the criteria are certified as disease-free compartments and are allowed to continue exporting live birds, even if a disease is detected elsewhere in the country. Claeys: “This helped us in the most recent outbreak of Avian Influenza, during which Japan and South Africa didn’t close their borders to our breeding stock. Unfortunately, other countries did close their borders, but we hope that in time they will come to realise the benefits of importing stock from a company which has invested in and achieved compartment status so they can buy with confidence.”
Patrick Claeys, president of Aviagen Europe: "We aim to deliver from everywhere to anywhere. In cases of disease or emergency, we have contingency plans, with pedigree birds on different continents, to keep our business running."
Evolving with demand
The challenge for a breeding company is to constantly improve. Swalander: “The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations forecasts a rise in meat demand by 38 million tons per year until 2021; 46% of that volume will be poultry meat. The cereal equivalent of all this meat is about 193 million tons.” The challenge according to Swalander is to produce this volume of meat with the smallest impact on the environment possible. “We as an industry have a good story to tell about the evolution of breeding and will get increasingly involved as a company in communication about agricultural production.” The director of R&D is proud of the Aviagen broiler breeding programme. “ It is really sustainable with only 2.3 tons of CO2 production per ton of meat. The prime driver in broiler production for reduction of CO2 is feed efficiency and we are improving FCR by 2-3 points per year at present and this improvement is expected to continue.”
Top 5 broiler traits for improvement
The evolution of breeding started with selecting the biggest birds and became increasingly elaborate, with many traits working together. “We want to improve on all 40 currently described traits, but we have a top 5 for which we want to make 1.5-2% of improvement year on year at a minimum. This concerns:
- leg health,
- hatchability and
- gut health.
Gut health, especially, gets a lot of attention in our selection programme,” says Swalander. In broiler production, the use of antibiotics has to be reduced as market requirements change. “A healthy, developed gut forms the basis for a good immune system and reduces the need for antibiotics. A strong GI tract and good digestion helps the bird in many ways, such as by keeping litter dry and footpads healthy.” One of the measurements Aviagen makes is on water intake. “We discovered that water intake has a hereditary component and that birds that consume lots of water have poorer gut quality. By eliminating excessive drinkers from our breeding programme, we are able to improve gut quality.”
Swalander continues: “This is only one example of course. We want to deliver the best to our customers at all times. It’s in our genes. Our Ross 308 bird has been on the market since 1983 and is continuously improved. With the introduction of genomics in routine selection, we are able to progress even faster because it gives us more insights, especially in the male gene pool. People sometimes ask me if we have reached the limit. I have to say that I haven’t seen the limit on any trait we select on. For example, we have seen an FCR of 1.2 in individual birds at present and I believe there is still potential in FCR and other major traits.”