Breeding Better Chickens
There are more chickens in the world than any other bird, with nearly 900 million meat chickens being processed globally each week. Modern breeds of chicken are bred to reach their slaughter weight in less than six weeks – half the time it would take traditionally. This has implications for the health and welfare of the birds.
FAI Farms with funding from the Tubney Charitable Trust and the Farm Animal Welfare Trust (FAWT), ran a five-year project at our farm in Oxford to develop and test a genetic selection process that aimed to optimize both chicken meat production and the birds’ welfare.
Mobility is a key welfare issue for broilers and we have shown that by selecting breed stock on the basis of the subtleties of how they walk it can be improved without compromising the productivity of the bird.
We continue to run a successful and novel breeding programme focusing on other major welfare and sustainability issues facing modern poultry production. Since 2011 we have been looking at selection techniques to reduce the need for restricting feed in broiler parents. To do this, we grow broilers on adlib feed to 15 weeks of age, monitor their growth rate, and select birds that grow rapidly to slaughter age and then slow down. Rather than continuing on a trajectory to obesity, these birds move from a plump juvenile to a slimmer adult, without feed restriction.
The practice and ethics of euthanizing day-old cockerels is another challenge for which we are exploring several solutions. The method we have chosen to follow is inspired by nature. Given that many males and females display considerable differences in size, we asked the question: what if we could select for size in chickens so that we have a slim super ovulating female and a large plump male? Sourcing diverse phenotypes, we have embarked on a long-term breeding program to do just that, always crossing the large plump males with the small slim females.