Broiler welfare: Focus on sustainability and robustness

17-12-2013 | | |
Broiler welfare: Focus on sustainability and robustness

With the knowledge that the world has to produce 70% more food by the year 2050 to be able to feed the world’s growing population, the focus in broiler production should be on sustainability and robustness.

By Dr Kate Barger, Cobb-Vantress, Inc.

Animal welfare discussions often focus on the biological outcome of the animal in its environment, the ability to express natural behaviour, and the care and methods used to provide for the animals’ needs. This may then lead to local or regional decisions regarding specific practices or agriculture systems that can be developed to benefit the overall well-being of the animal.

However, when debating animal welfare on a global level it is also appropriate to consider sustainability and robustness. Specifically for poultry, robustness refers to the capability of the species to perform under a wide range of conditions while sustainability involves the diversity and productivity of the species and the social and environmental consequences of the production systems.

70% more food

In 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) issued a riveting report stating that it would be necessary to produce 70% more food by the year 2050 to account for the growing global population, expected to reach nine billion people. In addition to supplying safe food for this immense global population, the increased production capability would have to overcome the challenges of poverty and hunger, and adapt to climate change while also using scarce natural resources (water, arable land, etc.).

Naturally, planning ahead and seeking to achieve advances in productivity and sustainability are critically important to the success of a business. For a primary breeder business providing breeders and ultimately broilers to the global poultry industry, the development and sustainable supply of a robust chicken is a primary emphasis of the research and development efforts as well as an integral focus of the technical support provided to farmers worldwide.

For the broiler industry, improving efficiency with the resources available and reducing costs are the primary emphasis. However, with the FAO’s forecast for increased food production and improvements in agriculture efficiencies, it is clear that the following characteristics must be met or exceeded by the entire poultry industry to achieve these demands:

  • Enhancing efficiency in use of available resources and environment.
  • Maximising market yield and utilisation of the final product.
  • Advancing sustainable intensification of agriculture.
  • Minimising negative consequences associated with live animal food production.
  • Optimising ability of animals to achieve a high production level in a wide range of climatic conditions.
  • Achieving a high level of animal welfare while minimising disease risks.
  • Producing a safe and affordable protein supply to meet increasing global population growth and rising incomes.

From a practical viewpoint, what does this mean for the chicken of today and for the chicken of the future? To understand this, it is important to view the progress achieved thus far and to appreciate the variety within the global poultry industry.

Producing today’s modern chicken

The Cobb 500 broiler, for example, is a chicken breed that has been selected for reproductive and broiler performance plus welfare traits for decades. Broiler performance traits include feed conversion, growth rate, meat yield, and livability while welfare traits include cardiovascular fitness, skeletal structure and leg strength, feather coverage and gait.

Cobb-Vantress has carefully selected for the balance among health, welfare and performance traits in the genetic lines encompassing the Cobb 500, but the actual result on the farm also depends on the husbandry and environment that the farmer provides to optimise the well-being and biological outcome of the chicken.

Using an example from the national broiler production within the United States over the past decade, one can easily see that while the average broiler weight at slaughter has been increasing, both the livability and efficiency of the broiler have improved (Figure 1 and 2). These results highlight that the breeds and the farmers involved in the poultry industry can increase their food production capacity in a sustainable manner to help meet the predicted global food demands.

Varying production settings

Logically, the housing structure and the husbandry practices used by farmers to achieve success in broiler production vary depending on the climate, geography and available resources. Housing requirements or production practices may also be contingent on national regulations, customer requirements, or strategies for market differentiation to produce broilers with a specific certification.

However, in almost all global examples, modern broilers are raised in enclosed housing with access to quality nutrition and clean water, and with the appropriate temperature for each stage of development. Enclosed housing is not only good to safeguard broiler health and well-being from disease, predators and external climatic conditions, but also promotes the productivity of the chicken and an efficient use of natural resources. These examples of assorted housing styles and broiler husbandry methods illustrate the diversity of modern systems that can achieve high levels of animal welfare, maximise performance and yield, and do so with less impact on the environment and natural resources than non-intensive agriculture systems.

In each of these examples from around the world, while the housing and broiler management program utilised may vary based on location, resources available, and infrastructure at the farm, the outcomes for broiler growth, health, well-being and performance efficiency are exceptionally good. Thus, when the global poultry industry is ‘challenged’ on improving sustainability, using robust chicken breeds, reducing environmental impact, and improving animal welfare, it is important to realise that while the ‘look’ of the agriculture system may vary tremendously, modern broiler breeds continue to perform extremely well in terms of welfare, environmental and economic outcome. Furthermore, what housing and husbandry methods ‘look’ like today is distinct from what they looked like ten years ago, and will likely be very different from those that we will utilise in the next ten years.

Producing the chicken of the future

The estimated timeline from pedigree level to broiler level is three to five years. Primary breeding companies therefore have to predict the characteristics of the broiler that will be required in the future as well as the quantity of chickens that customers will need to feed the growing global population. Consequently, the husbandry methods and the technology utilised for the care and production of poultry in the future will be critically important so that the global industry can take full advantage of the genetic potential of the breeders and broilers.

Automated technology continues to be developed to provide for the birds’ needs so that the ideal environmental conditions can be achieved regardless of the hour of the day or night and regardless of the external climatic conditions. Other technology is being developed to predict disease and broiler well-being outcomes so that interventions and changes can be proactively made to help enhance flock health and performance.

Husbandry methods for all production systems will continue to be refined to help farmers optimise chicken physiology, biology and behaviour so that they can respond appropriately to the needs of the birds. Therefore, when considering the future and discussing animal welfare, thinking ‘outside of the box’ is a key component to help determine what housing, husbandry methods and technology are best for the bird, which are most sustainable, and which are most efficient so that the poultry industry can meet the needs of the global population by 2050.

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