02-12-2013 09:23 AM | News, Poultry

Improvements in genetics could see hens production increase by a third

Improvements in genetics could increase a laying hen's production by more than a third by 2050, delegates at the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) were told.

Andrew Joret, chairman of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), told those attending the conference that egg production had improved significantly since he had joined the industry as a management trainee 37 years ago, and he said the improvement would continue through genetic development, use of technology and improvements in feed.

He said that in 1976, when he started out in the poultry sector, production stood at 230 eggs, produced at a feed conversion ratio (FCR) of 3.0:1. All eggs at that time were produced in the United Kingdom in traditional cage units, he said. Today, in the new enriched colony units stipulated under European Union rules, hens were yielding 300 eggs - 100 eggs more than 37 years ago, said Andrew. The feed conversion figure had also improved, and was now down to 2.1:1.

"Even free range, which we know doesn't yield quite as much as colony, would be typically, and there is a lot more variation, of course, in free range, on average about 300 eggs. The FCR for free range would be somewhere around 2.4. Miles better than the cage yield of 1976," said Andrew.

Over the next 37 years, there would be more production gains, he said, with a typical layer producing as many as 550 eggs by 2050, although the increased number of eggs would be produced over a longer period - 100 weeks rather than the current 72. He said that geneticists were currently concentrating their efforts to increase production on extending the productive life of the bird. "The whole pressure in the selection process for eggs is now producing a bird that we can keep for longer. Instead of killing it at 72 weeks we would kill it at 100, and the real key to that is shell quality; in being able to grade those eggs significantly longer." Andrew also said that by 2050 the FCR figure would be approaching 1:1.

"So where has this improvement come from?" said Andrew. "Well at the top of anyone's list would be genetics. It is, after all, the geneticists who create the potential for what we can deliver on our farms. But there is a 'but' here and the 'but' is welfare. I would say it is important that it is not done at the expense of welfare." Some years ago there had been some problems on welfare, he said, particularly leg problems in the broiler industry, but the breeding companies had taken those problems on board, incorporating them into their selection programmes. The consequence had been slightly less improvement in production traits but it had resulted in a more rounded bird.

"In the egg sector, and this is even more difficult because we are trying to change behaviour, the thing for us would be to try to breed a bird that you don't need to beak trim. It is highly relevant because, of course, potentially, we have a ban on beak trimming facing us in 2016. Personally, I think if that happens it will be an absolute disaster for animal welfare," said Andrew, who said that keel bone dame was another issue for the egg sector to address in the years ahead.

Andrew said that the improvements in production were not simply the result of genetics. Dramatic advances in computer technology had played a part, enabling formulations to be closely controlled to ensure that a bird received the right nutrition for its age at all times. The introduction of in-feed enzymes, which did not exist in 1976, had also made a difference - particularly in improving feed conversion ratio.

Poultry housing had improved, providing much greater control over the bird's environment, and productivity had also been improved by an increase in the scale of egg production enterprises. Ironically, he said that the unintended consequence of the European Union's ban on conventional battery cages last year had been the biggest intensification the industry had ever seen.

Andrew said that all these things together had contributed to increasing the productivity of the country's laying units, and the people who had benefited from these improvements had been consumers, who had seen the cost of their food fall over the last 37 years. "Of course, as businessmen, we hope that some of it sticks to us, and I leave aside whether there is a fair distribution right across the supply chain, but the real beneficiary, because of the competitive nature of our business, is the consumer," he said.

In 1976 consumers spent 25 per cent of their income on food. Today, consumers spent just 10 per cent of their income feeding themselves. Back in the seventies it took 14 minutes for an average person to earn a dozen cage eggs. It now took seven minutes. "You can see where the improvement has gone. For all the criticism, it ends up with the final consumer."

Andrew said that changes in the world over the next 37 years would see the global population grow from seven billion to nine billion and resources becoming scarce. Rock phosphorous, important for bones, was something that was becoming more scarce, he said. One way to address a shortage of phosphorous would be to re-introduce the use of meat and bonemeal. He said that consumers may be even more resistant to the use of meat and bonemeal than GM, but a shortage of phosphorous could eventually lead to that resistance being overcome.

Andrew said that climate change and carbon footprint had increasingly become a consideration for food producers. Eggs and poultry had the lowest carbon footprint of all animal proteins and, with beef and sheep production still lagging way behind and pork production only improving slightly, he said he expected that eggs and poultry would account for an increasing share of people's diets.

In the poultry sector, itself, the intensive bird had the lowest carbon footprint. "How will it play out as we go forward as resources her scarcer? I think the answer is that different countries will do it in different ways. I am sure that in the UK at the moment animal welfare, certainly in the egg sector, is the dominant issue and, even though free range eggs have a slightly worse carbon footprint than colony, I can't see that being a reason for changing buying habits, at least not now.

"But 37 years on, in a different world, it may be seen slightly differently. It may be that what we start to get to is a phrase that is being used a lot these days. That is 'sustainable intensification.' I think that is where we will go, certainly in some countries," he said. "In places like China they will opt for the intensive bird rather than free range." However, Andrew said he suspected that the British would still stick with the free range bird.

One continuing problem for the egg sector in the years ahead would be price volatility. "We need to re-think the way we sell," said Andrew, who said something had to change if the supply chain was to operate effectively. Retailers needed producers, he said, and if they wanted to ensure supplies in the future they needed to work together with packers and producers to overcome price volatility. If they did not do so then the whole system could collapse.


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