lab testing© Cobb-Vantress

Genomics is at the very heart of poultry breeding research. Richard Halleron reports from the recent Poultry Industry Education Trust conference at Loughry College, Co Tyrone.

The application of genomics will be fundamental in allowing the poultrymeat and egg sectors to meet their future growth targets, two breeding specialists told the recent Poultry Industry Education Trust conference.

Cobb Vantress’ European genetics director Randy Borg said that the broiler sector has an unmatched track record in delivering “more from less”, where the production of white meat protein is concerned.

See also: Cobb and Hendrix extend genomics partnership

“All relevant performance parameters confirm this,” he said. “And these include the impact which the poultrymeat sector is having on the environment. The attainment of improved efficiency levels within the sector goes hand-in-hand with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“But we can’t rest on our laurels. Improving animal welfare standards on broiler farms and increasing innate immunity levels within flocks remain key challenges for the future. And it is within this context that genomics will come into its own as an essential research tool.”

Dr Borg pointed out that genomics represents a non-invasive way of driving performance within the poultrymeat sector.

“The technology has already been used to improve leg health within broiler populations. Essentially, genomics allows us to identify and eliminate unwanted mutations. It’s all about using the new science to help improve the accuracy of the data generated in genetic trials. But we can also use genomics to create new traits.”

Looking ahead, Dr Borg indicated that genomics would become even more relevant as the broiler sector faced up to the challenge of improving inherent flock health levels.

“We cannot predispose our purebred breeding stock with diseases and other health related challenges. This goes against every biosecurity rule in the book,” he said.

“But there is nothing to stop us taking this approach with commercial flocks, assessing the outcomes from a genomics perspective and, if required, implanting beneficial gene snippets into the genetic make-up of purebred birds.”

Laying sector

Stephen Turner, technical director with Joice and Hill Poultry, part of Hendrix Genetics, said that, from a laying perspective, it takes between three and four years for improvements obtained at primary breeding level to impact on commercial farms.

“Most progress in traditional laying trials has been achieved since the end of the Second World War.” he said. “The modern hybrid bird only became a reality, for example, in the 1950s.

“But the rate of progress achieved by the egg sector has been remarkable. Back in the 1960s an average hen could lay 230 eggs, with 5,000 eggs produced per tonne of feed made available. By 2005, the average bird was laying 370 eggs with 9,000 eggs produced per tonne of feed. And we are about to see birds break through the 500 egg production barrier.

“Looking ahead, the world will need to double food output within the next 50 years. And, this will be achieved. But, where laying hens are concerned, the industry must also factor in the challenges of consumer choice and improved welfare conditions on-farm.” 

Mr Turner confirmed that genomics will allow the egg industry to exponentially improve the rate of genetic improvement obtained within bird populations.

“For one thing, the technology allows us to genetically assess both female and male lines. Up to this point, we were only able to assess the potential of hens, on the back of their egg-laying performance,” he said.

“Our task is to produce a healthier product using fewer resources. Eggs must also be cheaper, safe to eat and environmentally friendly from a sustainability point of view.

“Selection traits now taking prominence include liveability, behaviour, adaptability and feather cover.”

Mr Turner told delegates that using genomics to address production and egg quality parameters should prove to be a relatively straightforward challenge.

“But tackling behavioural traits may not be that simple. We know, for example, that beak trimming may well be banned in the not too distant future. The egg industry is being challenged to come up with a breeding solution: but it may not be a cheap one.”     

Poultry sector must maintain efficiency drive

Efficiency remains the top priority for the entire poultry sector as it seeks to produce low-cost protein.

“And we are doing just that,” James Ryan, managing director of Hyline Ireland, told the conference.”

“Consumers can now buy a 1.2kg chicken for as little as €3 per bird. The world’s population is set to grow by 50% over the next three decades. The role of high-quality protein in a balanced diet is universally recognised. And this is the context in which the core objectives for the poultry industry must be assessed.”

Devenish chief executive Patrick McLaughlin agreed that the poultry industry must focus on becoming more efficient.

“Each sector has its own challenges. But the common themes of becoming more sustainable, improving animal welfare standards and enhancing innate bird health characteristics stand out.

“And I am more than confident that the industry will rise to meet all of these challenges. Both the broiler and egg sectors will remain extremely proactive in the way they plan for the future.”