Fashions don't necessarily change every year with chickens, that is, with the feathered kind. However, they are now changing rapidly in modern poultry raising.
Whereas standard type and colour have obsessed the fancier and exhibition breeder of the past, quantity egg and meat production are the dominant objectives of the commercial poultryman in 1951. While the first quarter of the century was marked by remarkable gains in egg production, the second quarter, recently concluded, has witnessed the consolidation of these gains in breeding flocks and the dissemination of better blood lines throughout the flocks of the world.
The magnitude of these gains in total production may be appreciated when it is realized that, as the statisticians tell us, the average hen lays 50 more eggs now than she did 50 years ago. Multiply this increase by the number of hens (500,000,000) on this continent, and we can only try to imagine he astonishing increase of 24 billion eggs that are available for human consumption in one year. In Canada alone, this increase amounts to about 2 billion eggs per annum, worth $60,000,000. To take care of this, the annual per capita consumption of eggs has increased from around 200 to 390 eggs in the United States – more than an egg a day – the highest in the world, and 300 eggs in Canada.
It is remarkable that, while such progress was being made in the production and consumption of eggs, the production and marketing of poultry meats had just dragged along as incidental to egg production. Poultry meats, in other words, have been largely represented by surplus birds not kept for egg production, and in many cases, have been poor meat type and quality. Within the past few years, it has been realized that not only the production but the marketing of poultry meats have been grossly neglected. In one branch alone, viz., broiler production, a startling change has taken place, one that promises to revolutionize chicken-meat production if it has not already done so. No longer is the light, skinny, bony broiler of 7 to 9 weeks fashionable.
Instead, great numbers of thick-meated and tender "baby beef" chickens are being produced, weighing 3 to 4 lb. or better at 12 weeks – 50 per cent more than the old-fashioned chicken. These frying chickens are being turned out by mass production methods in one to ten thousand lots or more, in big roomy pens, where they may be crowded but remain healthy as they are nourished by modern efficient rations. Such birds, moreover, grow so quickly into delicious tender meat that chicken-meat now competes in both quality and price with all other meats to be found on the market.
These modern chickens have to be early and full feathering, uniformly rapid growing, vigorous, plump-breasted, with maximum edible meat and minimum waste, to meet market requirements. In other words, they must be "prime" when very young. If the birds are kept to the heavier roaster or capon stage, they must be capable, moreover, of maintaining heavy weights desired. To make good roasters, they must also be completely feathered and comparatively free of pin-feathers when prime.
It was indicated some years ago, in the annual reports of poultry meat inspection of the Dominion Markets Branch, that the better grades were decidedly in the minority, and that there was urgent need for a breeding and selection program that would include not only the maintenance of egg production but extra pressure of selection for improved meat type in the breeding stock of this country.
Breeding research at the University of B.C.
There are two schools of thought as to the methods of breeding better meat types of chicken. One is to use out-crosses of the extremely broad-breasted low-set Cornish – an extreme type of meat game produced by fanciers – to such well-known utility breeds as the New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, or Plymouth Rock, and to breed back to the latter breeds until a type is more or less fixed. Some remarkably fine meat strains have evolved from these and other crosses in the past three years, as they have proved in the famous "Chicken of Tomorrow" contests that have brought so much publicity to the broiler business in the United States. In order to provide certification for R.O.P. in meat production, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is inspecting random sample progeny tests from matings entered by private breeders this year.
Another approach to the problem of improving meat type in poultry is through certification of meat characteristics as well as egg production in flocks already entered in R.O.P. This would merely involve further extension of existing inspection in Canadian R.O.P. to cover such economic factors as rate of growth in addition to early feathering and meat type as included at present.
Selection for market qualities
Under R.O.P. regulations, selection for improved meat type and better feathering has been continuous in University of British Columbia flocks of Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds since 1935. No significant correlation was found to exist between meat type and egg production in these strains, thus simplifying the dual purpose objective in breeding and selection. Little was known in the earlier stages about the mode of inheritance of various feathering characteristics in these two breeds, except that slow feathering appeared to be dominant to early fast feathering. The inheritance of full feathering was not fully understood although the Leghorns possessed the quality.
At first selection consisted largely of discarding the slowest feathering types and the sharper breasted, angular meat specimens, and including only the better feathering, plumper breasted birds in the breeding pens. Arbitrary classifications were used to distinguish various grades. Observations were made of feathering, and weights taken at ages of 6 weeks in chicks and at regular intervals until maturity. Families were marked according to grading of offspring and undesirable ones eliminated. The U.B.C. strain of Reds is now pure for early fast feathering, but lacks the full feathering of the White Leghorn or certain strains of New Hampshires. Recent studies indicate that a bareback factor and slow feathering in the neck, hackle, and tail may be factors inhibiting full feathering in birds pure for the early feathering gene.
The popularity of the Barred Plymouth Rock as a table bird had until recent years become almost proverbial on general farms in Canada. While its position has recently been challenged by the New Hampshire and to a lesser degree by the White Rock and Light Sussex, the Barred Rock has earned its prestige in the trade for its feeding and fattening qualities and ability to finish well as a roasting chicken or a heavy, fat fowl. In these forms its fleshing is unsurpassed. The Barred Rock, however, has not been so suitable for broiler or fryer production because of some slow-feathering characteristics and lack of uniformity in many strains.
In order to utilize the desirable qualities of both the Barred Rock and Red, including the autosexing colour pattern of the former, a crossing project was undertaken to fix the white barring factor in the early fast-feathering Reds. By first crossing a Barred Rock male to Red females and back crossing to Red, and then to Barred Reds in succeeding generations, pure Barred Reds (autosexing Redbars) were produced. They were superior in meat type, and tested 96.3 per cent accurate in autosexing. Meanwhile the U.B.C. strain of New Hampshires was giving good performance in eggs and meat production and hatchability. Moreover, although a newer breed, they excelled in viability, showing the greatest resistance to disease, including the paralysis complex. Lacking only the barring characteristics for autosexing purposes, a Barred New Hampshire (Hampbar) bred after the fashion of the Barred Red (Redbar) became a promising prospect. Time was saved in fixing the colour pattern of the breed by using Redbar males for crossing with specially selected New Hampshire females. Results ere so favorable in production and apparent vigor of early generations as to suggest greater emphasis being placed upon the development of this new autosexing breed. Accordingly a plan for improvement by crossing both ways by males and females to New Hampshires was extended last year. As time goes on, this technique of breeding improvement may be carried on with this autosexing breed, thus offering a very broad scope for utilizing good blood lines in New Hampshires for improvement of the Hampbars. Satisfactory egg production was secured in R.O.P. last year, while the larger entry appears still more promising this year.
The current shortage in supplies of heavy roasting chickens and fowl in Canada, and the comparatively firm prices of same, no doubt will encourage increased production. However, high feed prices require maturity or finish for market at earlier ages. It will therefore be earlier feathering, earlier maturing and faster growing strains of poultry that can provide material for profitable production. The New Hampshires have been setting the pace and are now being improved in meat type, reduction in broodiness, and persistence in production. The Hampbars have the advantages of autosexing and lighter pin feathers in the dressed carcass. The Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are also being brought up to higher utility standards of meat as well as egg production to serve modern needs in the industry.
Much attention is also being given to the remarkable advances made very recently in the efficiency of broiler rations. Elaborate tests are being conducted, in U.B.C. nutrition laboratories, of A.P.F.*, antibiotics, amino acids, and other supplements or ingredients that stimulate rapid early growth in chickens. With better bred stream-lined chickens, nourished by better feeds, poultry meat production is gaining rapidly on egg production in economic importance.
Recent records made in the production of broilers and fryers in some areas have been truly sensational, adding many millions of dollars to returns from broiler production constitute as much as 80 per cent of the value of all agricultural products. While the accent seems to be on youth in the form of the young tender chicken, there is a great need, too, for increased production of big roasters and capons. More people really want to eat more chicken if the industry will only provide the right kind and quality.
*Animal Protein Factor