Chicken has become a staple foodstuff, affordable within the developed world, largely as a result of efficiencies driven across its supply chain, from primary genetics to processing facilities.
For this reason, Claire Bragg, who herself grows some 850,000 broilers a year in partnership with husband, Nick, decided to examine its suitability to feed an expected global population of 9.5bn by 2050.
With the backing of a Nuffield scholarship, Mrs Bragg spent 18 months touring countries that are “industry leaders” when it comes to poultry. The list comprised the UK, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and America, and she visited some of the top poultry companies within them.
“Having travelled far and wide, I’m pleased to report that there’s confidence that the broiler industry will continue to provide quality protein for such a dramatic increase in the population,” says Mrs Bragg.
She adds there are many reasons to be positive about the broiler industry, but acknowledges there are ways production can be improved to better meet future demand.
The majority of chickens are reared in a controlled environment, making it relatively easy to tweak production in such a way that can have a big impact on output – and producers will increasingly have to improve efficiency.
One particular point made in the study is that stress levels increase mortality.
Claire Bragg and her husband Nick farm 500 acres of potatoes, maize and grass leys as fodder for local dairy farmers. They also grow 850,000 broilers each year across three sheds at Frogmary Green Farm in Somerset. They were Farmers Weekly Poultry Farmer of the Year finalists in 2014.
“We should all be looking at ways to advance the welfare conditions within houses to allow the chickens to have a virtually stress-free existence, enabling market weight to be achieved in a relatively short time while maintaining a low feed conversion rate.”
On a visit to a French Label Rouge farm, it was noted that cumulative mortality was 3.48% at 73 days, but no birds had died in the previous five-and-a-half weeks. The low-stress conditions led to less mortality. However, Mrs Bragg later learned such a system produced around one-fifth of the chicken meat when compared with conventional production.
“Although free-range and organic systems are perfectly positioned within a consumer-driven market, they do not provide the most efficient usage of land for broiler production. I’d like to see the design of sheds reviewed and double-tier houses to be considered.”
However, making these important decisions concerning infrastructure and production practices should be based on science, says Mrs Bragg. “We have amazing individuals and research organisations which are constantly developing innovative ideas to help us improve genetics, feed, ventilation and rearing practices, to name a few areas. But the industry needs to be more proactive and make good use of them; someone needs to be the first to champion these new ideas.”
The importance of water became apparent in countries where it is sparse, but a consistent feature of the top producers visited was their focus on its quality.
“I’d like to see breeder companies look at the genetics of the birds with particular attention on water consumption, as well as feed conversion. We really need to utilise the precious resource of water without being to the detriment of feed efficiency,” says Mrs Bragg.
As the process of rearing chicken becomes more efficient, extra resources will be needed to keep shed conditions optimal. Therefore, consideration must be made to the power being used and the role renewables play in meeting these requirements.
“I believe the use of biomass boilers, anaerobic digesters, photovoltaic panels and wind turbines will become the norm rather than the exception,” says Mrs Bragg. “It’ll take more work to produce this power, but ultimately we will be less reliant on fossil fuels and it will give us control of our own resources.”
Antibiotics in farming will come under increased scrutiny, she adds. “The industry needs to take leadership in reducing routine usage before regulatory enforcement comes into play and potentially leads to welfare issues. High level biosecurity will help prevent the transfer of disease and will aid antibiotic reduction.”
Mrs Bragg believes poultry farming will increasingly be a technical pursuit, with attention to detail becoming ever more important. “Chickens have been bred to grow fast and efficiently, so growers need to adapt and progress with these changes.
“That includes paying attention to the environment. The broiler industry is generally seen to represent intensive farming, and as such we need to be mindful of the impact we’re having on the immediate environment.
“If we want to look to improve production efficiencies, we must also ensure we only produce what our markets will take – wastage will not be an option.
“It is also crucial that all parties within the chain, the breeder company, breeding farms, hatcheries, broiler growers, processors and retailers are allowed to retain an equal share of the profit. If one element fails through lack of profit the whole chain is brought down.”
While across the countries examined, the outlook for poultry farmers was bullish, Mrs Bragg is mindful that to advance and grow the industry the public perception of broiler welfare must be considered.
The developed nations she visited all shared the same concerns about consumers’ image of broiler farming as an “intensive” way to farm. Mrs Bragg concludes that, in countries where people cannot remember being hungry, bird welfare is paramount.
“Communication and education cannot be undervalued. The industry must be prepared to put their head above the parapet and speak up about what they are doing and why. Having an understanding public is paramount to moving forwards.”
Indeed, public perception is a cornerstone of the Bragg’s own farming operation. Keen advocates of Open Farm Sunday, they have a window gallery in their newest shed allowing visitors to view poultry growing.
“We often find that there are common misconceptions that indoor chickens are reared in dark cages. However, I’m pleased to report that in the first six months of 2014 we’ve dispelled this belief to approximately 2,000 people that have visited our viewing gallery.
“We feel it is our duty to explain to the general public how and where their food is produced; to show that the UK has exemplary standards of food production and that the public should have confidence in purchasing British produce.”
*This Nuffield study “Does the broiler industry need to change to feed an increasing population?” was sponsored by the Nuffield Poultry Meat Award Syndicate – Aviagen, Cobb and Hubbard. It was presented at the Nuffield annual conference in November.
Broiler farming around the world: favourite facts
- Heating is not a problem for broiler farmers, but keeping sheds cool usually results in huge tunnel fans and corrugated cooling pads, which trickle water to chill air as it enters the shed
- The dry climate makes litter easier to maintain. Mrs Bragg noted the dry, friable nature of bedding on farms she visited, and the lack of pododermatitis
- Lighting levels were noticeably lower than in the UK on one farm – but “knowing the quality of the birds and their environment, there was absolutely no reason to criticise it”.
- The faster bird growth levels become, the more heat is generated. This could have a huge impact on cooling requirement in hot countries
- Work is beginning to genetically change embryos from male to female for layers, and female to male for broilers in the egg
- A quota system was introduced in the 1970s to tackle volatility. Mrs Bragg’s impression was that most felt it was a good system in which to produce chicken
- Units of production must be bought, with one equating to around 20kg, and the average farm having between 20,000-30,000 units
- Day-old chick’s are frequently delivered with an extra 2%, to account for mortality on a drive to farm that might take six hours and be in temperatures of -40C
- Canada, with its abundant land and water resource, was highlighted as a country with great potential for poultry production if water shortages become more acute in future
- Label Rouge, the top-tier of French chicken meat, accounts for 51% of the whole bird market at retail
- But they account for just 10% of portions sold. It was suggested this could be because the product looks less like the animal reared
- They are grown to a minimum of 81 days – a standard that has remained unchanged for over 30 years
- At the Hubbard R&D site, it was revealed 45.5 million chickens can be produced from one pedigree bird
- It takes five years for a genetic change in a pedigree flock to filter down to farm level
- Home to the company considered to have the most efficient broiler farming system in the world, Tegel Foods
- Its farmers reportedly grow crops with an average feed conversion ratio of 1:1.5
- New Zealand, because of strict border controls, is disease free. However antibiotic growth promoters are permitted, as are some animal proteins in rations
- The whole world is pushing towards using the entire carcass, not just the breast of chickens
- Breeding business Cobb will not focus much attention on what it sees as “niche” European requirements for slower-growing birds