Gene selection holds key to poultry progress

Jerry Moye is a great believer in the genetic potential of poultry.

He’s seen a tremendous consolidation during his 30-plus years in the US poultry industry, first spending 16 years in integrators before joining Cobb and working his way up to president.

During his time at Cobb the firm has acquired company after company to build its bank of genetic stock, and now sells its broiler breeders to more than 90 countries. It’s a US firm with 60% of revenues generated outside the United States, and a large part of its European operations reside within the UK.

Cobb has developed research and development from basic selective breeding to digging down into the genetic data of pure lines to find the individual genes that support or suppress individual traits.

One example of testing for specific selection is the practice of attaching unique ID chips to pedigree chicks in a pen, with feeders that detect which birds are eating from them. This means that the feed conversion ratio (FCR) of individual birds can be identified, even though they are kept in a group setting.

All of the stock is analysed on a range of welfare pressures, and if a bird fails one of them, it is pulled from the genetic pool. “There are very strong selection pressures,” says Mr Moye. “Less than 0.3% of males are kept in the breeding programme, and around 10% of females.”


As a result of this selection pressure, livability has improved and mortality has dropped over the last two decades. This is alongside better growth rates and feed conversion – and there’s no evidence of things slowing down.

“Chickens are unique in that their generation intervals are small and the amount of progeny that you get from a single mother – and even more from a father – is huge,” says Mr Moye. He explains that one male is mated to 14 hens, and the potential is there to get somewhere in the range of 1,400 chicks from those pairings.

Better feed conversion ration saves resources

Genetic improvement means getting more protein from the same amount of agricultural land. Here’s the figures that back it up:

  • In the USA, the 0.145 improvement in feed conversion ratio between 2000-2010 meant the same amount of chicken could be produced with 11% less housing – that’s 8,500 houses
  • With maize making up 55% of the diet, 9.57m fewer tonnes are needed each year — equivalent to cropping 2.66m fewer acres
  • Base that figure on global broiler production – 60 billion birds – and you save 17.4m tonnes of feed a year, equivalent to taking 4,100 sq miles of corn out of production

“That is why we’re able to move this genetic progress like we can over time. No other species has the ability to apply this kind of selection pressure as we do with poultry.”

Mr Moye points to US statistics, which show that selection has led to the total meat yield from an eviscerated carcass has jumped from 69% to 75% between 1997 and 2011. Similarly, between 1992 and 2011 the time taken to reach 2.26kgs decreased by nine days.


Mr Moye is, however, worried about the pace of growth rate improvement, pointing to the Indonesian poultry market – the fifth or sixth largest in the world and comprising almost entirely of live birds grown to about 1.3kg.

“At the rate we’re moving, that 1.3kg bird is going to be just 13 days old in the year 2050.”

That, for Mr Moye, is a concern. “I don’t know if we understand what the relationship is around the quality of the meat, not just to an age but to a weight.”

You can’t change the market, he insists, but he wonders how it fits with more mature regions, such as the USA, where a bird can be grown to 3kg, then leftovers chilled or frozen. That’s not an option in many countries.

“They are always going to be growing a small chicken, so we have to deal with that. We have to understand how all those markets fit together.”

The solution is to focus on improving feed conversion. “That’s the number one thing we’re chasing,” says Mr Moye. Although pedigree stock birds need to be as well-rounded as possible, Cobb is now beginning to select for single traits at great-grandparent level.

Mr Moye believes a 1:1 feed conversion ratio will be almost attainable. “We have the potential to get very close,” he says, noting that some birds within the breeding programme are already approaching that level.

This article is based on a paper delivered by Jerry Moye at the Oxford Farming Conference 2014.


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