Poultry breeding: ‘Feed conversion is king’

14-11-2023 | |
Hubbard’s managing director, Olivier Rochard, says matching the right bird to the right market is key. Photos: Hubbard
Hubbard’s managing director, Olivier Rochard, says matching the right bird to the right market is key. Photos: Hubbard

Breeding organisation Hubbard invests a quarter of its turnover in R&D. “About a third of that goes to improving the slow or slower-growing lines, the ‘premium segment’,” says managing director Olivier Rochard. “Our owners, the family-owned company, EW Group, are committed to investing in our business to improve performance, prevent disease challenges such as bird flu, and ensure security of supply to our customers.”

In an interview, Poultry World spoke to Rochard to find out more about the business, the market, slower-growing breeds, vaccination, and to hear where he thinks we’ll be in 5 years from now.

How do you see the market for breeders and broilers?

The broiler meat market is still growing worldwide and continues to do so. However, growth is slowing especially in developed countries, where production shrinkage is even a likely scenario in the coming years. In developing countries, growth will continue strongly and compensate for the decrease in the West.

What do you foresee for northwest Europe?

The trend in northwest Europe is to eat less meat and the population is no longer growing. As a consequence, production volumes will decrease. The slower-growing broiler market, the premium concepts, will really break through there. This will lead to fewer flock cycles with lower stocking density, so fewer animals delivered and fewer kilos per chicken house per year. These concepts have not yet gained significant traction in the US.

You see a shrinking sales market in northwest Europe. Will Africa become the growth market?

We hope so, but it will take a long time to develop a large market there. Much longer than 5 years; really that’s for the longer term. There is widespread optimism and investment focus on Africa in the business. It has a young population; people have increasing disposable income and are starting to eat meat. Broiler meat and eggs are the first to benefit from this.

Affordability remains important there; chicken meat and eggs are the cheapest sources of animal protein. In Africa, besides conventional broilers, we also focus on dual-purpose breeds which we currently sell mainly through development projects based on a revenue model for the user, and that is going very well. Our dual-purpose breeds produce 3 times as many eggs as the indigenous breeds and much more meat with less feed. Then the market will develop by itself.

‘We need to constantly improve the genetic potential of our birds, that is our livelihood.’

What does all this mean for your portfolio and the breeds you sell?

Our main market is conventional broilers and will continue to be. At the moment, those broilers make up 70% of our turnover. About 30% is in slow or slower-growing broilers, with a small fraction in dual-purpose breeds. That ratio will remain the same unless demand in the US or Europe changes sharply.

Slower-growing breeds are about 2% of the world market. So why invest heavily in it?

Because we believe that this market will grow in various parts of the world: the Better Chicken Commitment in Europe, the US, and even, to some extent, in Thailand and Brazil; traditional markets in Asia and dual-purpose in Africa. We also believe that if you really know this market and your breeds, you can make genetic progress. Customers want us to improve the genetic potential of these breeds as well. Besides robustness, we focus mainly on feed conversion. Feed conversion determines everything; feed consumption is king. It’s the main driver of costs. It’s definitely the key, even for slow or slower-growing breeds.

Aren’t you afraid that avian influenza will hit the premium concepts, given the often mandatory covered outdoor areas?

Most of the development of premium concepts in Europe and the US is and will be with indoor Better Chicken Commitment concepts, and this will continue to grow. But yes, highly pathogenic avian influenza could affect the development of free-range systems. The vaccination of ducks in France and, in time, the vaccination of laying hens could reduce a lot of the disease pressure. This will create a form of flock immunity and reduce the risk of infection for non-vaccinated animals. Nevertheless, this will not help us with exporting our breeding stock because some countries may not accept imports from countries vaccinating poultry.

Are you considering vaccinating your pure line breeding, grandparent and great-grandparent stock?

No, we will never vaccinate them because it must remain possible to export to all countries. We are investing heavily in biosecurity. We work with microfiltration of the incoming air. Particles larger than 10 microns do not enter the house. We are well aware that the consequence of our choice is that in the future we may have to cull a flock of grandparents. But that is a smaller loss than not being able to export to third countries.

The market is demanding slow and slower-growing chicks. Is the current slow growth slow enough?

It depends on what the market is asking for and able to pay for. Nowadays, it is also a matter of finding the right balance between animal welfare, costs and carbon footprint. We have all kinds of breeds which inherit different daily growth rates. Our slowest breed reaches 20-25 g per day. If the customer wants that, they can get it. The fastest slower-growing breed has a daily gain of 50-55 g, with conventional lines moving towards 65-70 g daily gain. And we invest in all those lines.

Breeding places the emphasis on selection. Are you going to shift those accents?

We need to continue to improve the genetic potential, both for premium concepts and for conventional broilers, not only to keep ahead of the competition, but also because of the changing market demand. The number of traits we are selecting for has increased considerably over the last 20-30 years. That is why we have put more emphasis on welfare outcome features, especially in the premium lines. Call it ‘overall robustness’. We have found ways to measure and select for robustness. The broiler farmer notices, or will notice, that the chicks become ill less often or less easily, and recover more quickly. But feed consumption remains by far the key factor in all markets.

The market questions the uniformity of the flocks. Are you working on that, too?

This is certainly part of the selection programme, but it is also heavily influenced by management. But it definitely has our attention.

Isn’t it easy to determine the slaughter weight of all birds? Then you already have the uniformity!

Unfortunately, most processors don’t want to share this competition-sensitive data. That’s why we called on them during our Premium Forum to do so. Of course, we will treat that information with confidentiality. Breeding is selecting the best birds and crossing lines to get a good final breed. We have to find the right balance between things that are at odds with each other: the genetic variation of the animals, their selection and, at the same time, continuing to improve uniformity. Sharing information is crucial for that.

Slow growth isn’t the only animal welfare item. Cannibalism is another issue. Are you working on that too?

This is not an easy trait to measure. You need to consider that there is the bird doing the pecking and the bird being pecked. And it is easier to see the bird that has been pecked. But the topic is a research topic that has our highest attention.

Where will we be in 5 years?

We will still be eating meat, especially chicken, of course. The main message in 2030 will still be to improve genetic selection. We will continue to convert wheat and maize into meat which must always be done as efficiently as possible. Besides robustness, feed conversion remains by far the most important factor in breeding, in addition to increasing meat yield. Some specific requirements may change here and there, but the main direction in breeding will not change much.

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