Cobb celebrates 100 years

10-02-2016 | | |
Chick delivery US style in the 1940s   Chester Bell, manager of the Cobb hatchery at Jasper, Alabama, pictured with his wife Louise loading chicks into this Model A Ford truck. Photos: Cobb
Chick delivery US style in the 1940s Chester Bell, manager of the Cobb hatchery at Jasper, Alabama, pictured with his wife Louise loading chicks into this Model A Ford truck. Photos: Cobb

The story of Cobb begins with Robert C. Cobb senior who set his sights on farming after graduating in 1916. His real obsession was chickens and his existing activities were only the base for poultry breeding to begin. Jerry Moye, the current president of Cobb-Vantress, took the time to speak to World Poultry.

Cobb started with Robert C. Cobb senior who graduated from Harvard Business School in the summer of 1916 and set his sights on going into farming. The opportunity came in November with his purchase of Old Pickard Farm in Littleton, Massachusetts – an 167 acre (67 hectare) holding, 25 miles (40 km) from Boston.

It seems he was taking the advice of his physician to adopt ‘gentleman’ farming with orchard and cows to help with his asthma, but the presence of cows and horses only made his trouble worse. His real obsession was chickens and the existing activities were only the base for poultry breeding to begin.

“If history is any indication, the future is bright for Cobb,” said Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods, parent company of Cobb-Vantress. He honoured the vision of two generations of the Cobb family in the New England region of the United States which set the breed on course to become one of the global leaders in poultry breeding. Smith: “This incredible milestone was made possible by the tenacity, hard work and dedication of the Cobb team members over the past century.”

Cobb’s humble start

His first purchase was Barred Rock pullets and the first three kerosene incubators in 1920 had a total capacity of 1400 eggs but with no turning device. “A dozen or more eggs had to be removed from each tray so that the rest of them could be revolved by passing the palm of the hand over them with a rolling motion,” wrote Robert Cobb in his memoirs on the first 50 years.

Nine years of ‘intelligent selection and breeding’ had made Old Pickard Farm the largest breeder of Barred Plymouth Rocks in New England. Then the New Hampshires were commanding attention. “They were for meat and had an enormous impact on the broiler industry which, though still slumbering, was destined to become a giant in 40 years,” he wrote in 1926.

The goal of one mlllion breeders was reached in 1935 and by 1940 the farm had ‘a total of 120,000 broilers on feed’. Lack of feed in the post war years led to selling off breeders, and he bought several strains of White Plymouth Rocks to start breeding with white feathered birds which he felt sure was ‘the coming thing’.

The White Rocks were introduced into the US broiler breeder market in 1955, and an association with another breeder Paul Swanson led to breeding their own Cornish male line for cross-breeding. The growing business became incorporated into the name ‘Cobb’s Pedigreed Chicks’. They first exhibited at the Atlanta Show in 1956 and opened a new hatchery in Arkansas in 1961.

The two generations that started the Cobb business, Robert C Cobb Senior and Junior.

The US poultry industry going through ups and downs

The US poultry industry was experiencing cyclical ups and downs and to spread the risk the policy changed more towards foreign business. One of the first shipments was to the Cobb Breeding Company in the UK where a joint breeding programme began. Demand was growing for higher quality fresh rather than frozen chicken, which led to selection of breeding lines that went on to form the basis of today’s Cobb500.

Cobb going global

With the need for greater investment to develop a global presence, in 1974 the Cobb family sold the business to Upjohn, a long established US pharmaceutical manufacturer. The US industry had moved south to the Mid West closer to the grain belt and Cobb followed in 1986 to new headquarters constructed alongside the original Arkansas hatchery.

The Cobb500 was introduced to the US through Arkansas Breeders, a joint venture between Upjohn and Tyson Foods, even then one of the largest US chicken producers. This united the Cobb with Tyson’s Vantress breeding lines, hence the new company was called Cobb-Vantress, Inc. The move proved so successful that Tyson acquired the full business in 1994.

This provided the foundation for continual expansion over the last 20 years. Acquisition of Avian Farms (2000), Hybro (2007), Kabir and more recently Heritage Breeders has widened the gene pool. Ongoing Investment in new research and production facilities in the US, Europe and now in China enables supply to keep pace with demand, while joint research projects with more than 20 organisations and consortia including Breed-4-Food, with Wageningen University, Hendrix Genetics, CRV, Topigs Norsvin in the Netherlands, the Roslin Institute in Scotland, and EU-funded projects ECO-FCE (led by the University of Belfast) and Feed-a-gene (lead by INRA in France) keep Cobb in the forefront of the rapidly advancing science of genomics.

Cobb celebrates 100 years

Peter Beck (right), one of the co-founders of the Cobb Breeding Company in the UK, sometimes took to the air to deliver chicks in the 1960s.

Jerry Moye, president of Cobb-Vantress, speaks to World Poultry

Jerry Moye, the current president of Cobb-Vantress, can look back at a fantastic ‘pedigree’ of 100 years of poultry breeding. He took time to talk to World Poultry to share his thoughts about the past, present and future role of a global company involved in feeding the world.

 What are the main lessons from past and present you and the company are using for the path towards the future?

“I think any company that survives for 100 years must learn how to persevere. Everyone goes through tough periods. You must learn how to withstand them and survive them. I also think that it is becoming more critical all the time to listen to the market. The rise in demand for breast meat in the US, and the need to improve breast meat yield as a key economic trait, is a great example. I also feel strongly that developing relationships with your customers and providing excellent technical support will continue to be critical components of our success.”

Many things have changed during the years and genetic progress has been huge, what are the main focus points when it comes to genetics?

“I think the greatest accomplishment in broiler genetics has been the improvement in feed conversion. Over time, the geneticists have made the broiler the most efficient source of animal protein. I think the future for continued improvement is very good. We are entering a new period now as we learn how to apply genomic selection technologies to our breeding programme. I believe this technology will provide us with the 
opportunity to significantly improve disease resistance of our products. To date, most of our progress on mycoplasma, salmonella, and other diseases has come through rigorous biosecurity programs. What the future will hold, no one knows, but I believe we have great opportunity in front of us.”

Are there threats to tackle, for instance wooden breast, white striping etc.?

“I don’t know that I call them threats, but meat quality issues do need to be addressed. I am confident that we will learn how to select against the breast meat quality issues. I believe one of the real opportunities is learning to ‘shift’ meat yield between dark and white meat parts. The reality around the world is that most consumers prefer dark meat portions. How we will do this is a challenge, yet a great opportunity.”

Cobb celebrates 100 years

Taking the Cobb breed to high places in the 1960s – here presented to famous Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev at an international trade exhibition in Moscow.

How does Cobb see the future regarding the use of antibiotics, will there be a trend towards less –to no usage on a worldwide scale as there is in Europe?

“Cobb believes that the move to antibiotic reduction is here to stay. However, to think that we will reach a point that 100% of animal protein will be produced without antibiotics is a bit unrealistic. The welfare of the animals demands that we take care of them when necessary. I do believe that the industry can reach a level of about 75-80% of our volume without antibiotics.”

Is the reduction of antibiotics a more consumer demand driven issue or is it in the ‘genes’ of the breeding company itself?

“Today, the ABF movement is market driven. I hope, as do our customers, that our chickens will perform efficiently in ABF environments. This is an area where I believe the genomic selection technologies will allow us to move faster in this direction.”

About future trends: Do you see on a worldwide scale a tendency to slaughter birds at a younger age and lighter weights or the opposite? And what is according to Cobb the optimal performance window of the bird?

“No, I do not think the trend will move to lighter weights. In fact, our data would indicate the opposite. I also believe that as cultural tastes change with improved incomes in countries around the world, processed chicken (instead of live bird sales) and chicken parts will be a more acceptable purchase choice. Once consumers are willing to buy parts, integrators will move bird weights higher because of the significant impact that the added weight volume has on their fixed costs.”

Is efficient growth the way towards food security or will alternative slower growing and less efficient birds grow as a segment? Your thoughts on that please.

“I must admit that I am biased in believing that efficient protein production is necessary for ensuring food security. Efficiency is not defined solely by growth rate. Focus on improving feed 
conversion and disease resistance are very important factors relative to food security. That being said, I do believe that there will be markets where a slower growing/welfare broiler will continue to grow. However, there is an economic impact associated with growing these broilers, compared to the standard broiler, so consumer income plays a significant role in where this growth opportunity will be.”

Cobb celebrates 100 years

Jerry Moye, the current president of Cobb-Vantress.

First I want to congratulate Cobb on the opening of the production complex in Suizhou China. Is China the growth market for Cobb and what are the opportunities there?

“We are very excited about China. We now have had two placements on our facilities. Of course, China has many issues in the market today due to oversupply and the impact of AI supply complications. I believe the year of 2016 will be an important year in terms of how China may revise their supply system. Certainly, Cobb has an opportunity to grow our share in China, but I think the Asia region as a whole offers great opportunity for growth.”

How will other markets develop?

“Cobb is also very excited about our Europe R&D operation. We completed the farm expansion early in 2015. The Cobb500 lines have been in place for several generations and we are finally sourcing all product in Europe from this pedigree system. We definitely see the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region as a growth opportunity. I believe that the US market will stay quite stable in terms of breeder numbers. South America is interesting. I think there are opportunities for growth, but I worry a bit about the reliance on broiler meat exports for the Brazil market.”

What are the prospects of the Cobb Sasso brand?

“Cobb continues to work with Sasso to develop a competitive product option for the welfare market segment. We absolutely see the need to have an offering for our customers and we will continue to try to provide an option that our customers will be pleased with.”

What drives you as the president of Cobb? Is it the legacy of Robert Cobb or more the future needs of the world as outlined for instance by Louise Fresco during the Distributors Conference in Boston some time ago?

“Personally, I have two drivers. The first, is being a part of a great group of people at Cobb. I am so proud of what they have done to make Cobb successful and a great place to work. Secondly, I am very excited to be a part of a global company that is involved in feeding the world. I am a firm believer in the need to communicate the challenges that our agriculture industry will face in the coming years to feed the growing world population. Successful food security will require continued dialogue with all stakeholders. Cobb has given me a chance to play a part in that discussion and I am very thankful for it.”

Fabian Brockotter Editor in Chief, Poultry World