The Future of Technology in Poultry Production
Technical strategies to improve production, eliminate waste, and ease regulatory burdens in poultry production.
The poultry industry has traditionally been quick to adopt new technologies that help improve productivity and reduce costs. Recent pressure – from regulatory changes and consumer demand to a lack of market supply due to avian influenza outbreaks – has the industry testing and implementing changes across multiple areas.
Aviary housing systems are growing more diverse. In wealthier countries, retailers are demanding more cage-free products. European producers also are expecting legislation banning cages for laying hens, swine, mink , and rabbits.
“The avian influenza outbreaks are causing logistic nightmares for the global egg sector,” said Teun van de Braak, manager of customer service and support with Hendrix Genetics, a poultry breeding company based in the Netherlands. “We know that birds in free-range housing systems have a higher chance to catch viruses. As a result, they have been locked up inside the barns for months, affecting the income of egg producers.”
Cage-free systems also turn the conventional wisdom associated with feed intake around. Traditionally, producers focused on reducing feed intake while maintaining production – helping minimize feed costs while getting maximum output.
“In cage-free, we have to make sure the hens have enough appetite and feed intake to make sure egg production goes long,” van de Braak said. “She needs extra energy for maintenance because the bird is making more movements. Cage-free management is completely different. Laying hens have been bred to be top athletes, but we only have 17 weeks to make them top athletes.”
Productive life of layers
Extending the productive life of laying hens is a focus of Hendrix Genetics. Today, decreasing egg quality and higher mortality are the main reasons why a flock is depleted, not the production of eggs. Maintaining the quality of eggs and moving towards longer laying cycles helps in improving profitability and sustainability.
“Our goal is longer laying cycles, without molting, which improves the potential of laying hens,” van de Braak said. “Keeping flocks longer and longer helps make sure producers have eggs to sell. Longer cycles, from a breeding point of view, allow producers to collect more eggs over a hen’s lifetime.”
Hendrix Genetics identifies birds with healthier and longer productive lives and selects those parents to help every generation gain extra eggs than the one before it. Right now, the company is averaging one week longer compared to the previous flock.
Recent research shows different types of lighting affect laying hen behavior and welfare. Both the amount and quality of light are essential for birds. Across the world, fluorescent lighting is being swapped for LED options, which have a positive effect on chickens.
“Chickens can see much better than we can,” van de Braak said. “What doesn’t look like flickering to us – our typical light bulbs – to a chicken will seem to flicker. With LED lighting, we can include a whole color variety that can give them extra red, blue or green colors.”
Red light can increase fear in broilers while increasing production in layers, according to Swedish researchers. A combination of red and white appears to reduce stress levels in layers, while broilers respond better to blue light. Blue light is also associated with increased perching behavior, while green light may be associated with lower mortality and higher fertility.
Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are culled after sexing, which occurs 24 hours after hatching. Male chicks cannot lay eggs and are not suitable for meat production. Preventing culling is a dilemma being addressed by breeding experts and hatchery equipment manufacturers. This is particularly a concern in Europe, where regulation may limit producers’ options.
Soos Technology is developing a technology that can influence embryonating chicks to develop as females rather than males. The Israeli-based company is currently conducting commercial pilots in New York to further prove the technology before a large-scale rollout. Commercial producers in Italy and Belgium are already testing the technology.
Most of the technologies addressing this issue have focused on sex identification at the incubation stage (before hatching). Soos Technology is taking a different approach and pushing the egg to develop as a female using changes in environmental conditions, including the transmission of sound waves to the embryos.
In chickens, sex determination takes place after six days of embryonic development. The co-founder of the company found that one of his coops had more females than others. He traced the cause to a piece of electrical equipment, which generated a specific soundwave. He isolated the sounds and began testing their application. The current iteration consists of a special egg tray with a transducer to apply soundwaves evenly to the developing eggs.
Lab-scale experimentation found the technology to be greater than 80% effective in generating female eggs. More recent commercial trials show 60% to 65% results consistently, which is still a huge win for the industry.
“The problem with male chick culling is huge,” explained Efrat Petel, general manager of Soos America. “This is the only industry that loses 50% of its production. Imagine a bakery where you bake 100 loaves but can only use 50! For every chick producers cull, they lose money.”
Photo credit: istockphoto.com/SimonSkafar
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