Canadian Poultry Magazine

Breeding for sustainability

By Treena Hein   

Features Genetics

The Canadian poultry industry has made enormous sustainability gains, and breeding is the main reason. Here's a look at some of the most impactful advances.

Hy-Line measures feed conversion ratio in two ways: by feed consumed per egg mass produced and by feed consumed per number of eggs produced. Photo: Hy-Line International

Over the last few decades, the Canadian poultry industry has made enormous sustainability gains, and breeding is the main reason. Already, the industry has attained huge advances in feed conversion ratio (FCR), growth rate and egg production. At the same time, breeders have long focused on welfare in terms of leg strength, overall robustness and more. 

With broilers and turkey, less feed to produce the same bird weight means the environmental impact of feed production is lowered on a per-bird basis. Hendrix Genetics notes that over the past 40 years, the amount of feed needed to produce one kg of meat has halved.

On the egg side of the industry, today’s hens can consume less feed than ever before to produce the same or more egg mass through higher FCR, higher persistency of lay, longer production cycles and more. Hy-Line International notes that over the past 30 years, up to 350 grams of feed saved per kilo of eggs and 15 to 30 grams of feed saved per egg has reduced the overall carbon footprint of the global egg industry by some 20 per cent. 


With all categories of birds (broiler breeders, broilers, layers, turkeys, ducks and so on), higher FCR also means total excretions per bird is lowered, reducing environmental impact on this front as well. Aviagen also notes that better feed conversion leads to better nutrient utilization, resulting in a reduction of nitrates and phosphate excretion into the environment.

What’s happening right now with further sustainability breeding advances? Canadian Poultry contacted major breeding firms to gather the latest updates.

Before diving in, however, note that all poultry breeding firms now use cutting-edge technologies to advance their breeding goals related to sustainability and more. This includes computer vision, CT scanning, RFID technology, other sensor systems, and artificial intelligence-level software.

At companies like Hendrix Genetics, for example, RFID technology is helping to reduce bird handling and more efficiently capture breeding data. At the Hendrix pedigree facilities, feed stations use RFID technology to capture individual feed consumption. 

The company also uses RFID to capture individual bird weights each time they step on a scale. Birds can hop on and off the scales as many times as they like, which increases the number of data points collected. It also means better acceleration of genetic progress.

At Cobb-Vantress, the complex broiler traits that contribute to overall sustainability includes improved broiler skeletal and leg health, enhanced heart and lung efficiency, improved robustness and livability, improve growth, FCR and total yields, and improved production traits.

In addition to the current standard use of new technologies, another way Cobb-Vantress is accelerating breeding advances is through a new research initiative it announced in January. “We invited research project proposals from leading academic institutions across the world to specifically help address these trait areas,” Herring explains.  

Laying hens
Geneticists at Hy-Line continue to make selections to improve egg farming sustainability. They’re doing so by focusing on key laying hen traits such as persistency of lay, eggshell quality, internal egg quality, disease resistance robustness and adaptability to different housing systems. “FCR conveniently brings these various traits under one measurable figure,” explains global product manager Thomas Dixon. 

Hy-Line measures FCR in two ways: by feed consumed per egg mass produced and by feed consumed per number of eggs produced. 

Currently, Dixon reports, “Hy-Line continues to improve the feed efficiency of our layers at a rate of five grams of feed per dozen eggs produced each year. This improvement may not sound like a lot but as this improvement flows through the some two billion Hy-Line layers worldwide each year, we project several positive annual impacts. 

“These include a reduction of 11,000 hectares of cropland required for the same output as the previous year, and elimination of CO2 emissions from grain production required to feed Hy-Line’s world layer flock by the equivalent of 30,000 automobiles annually.”

In its laying hens, Hendrix Genetics has significantly improved the length of the laying period while maintaining egg quality. “Over time, we have increased emphasis in our breeding programs on improving survival and robustness (ability to strive under challenging conditions),” explains chief innovation and technology officer Johan van Arendonk, adding that this contributes to improved sustainability.

Sustainable laying hen reproduction
There is also hope that a thorny sustainability (and animal welfare) issue related specifically to laying hens may be solved through new breeding advances. Researchers in Israel are using gene editing to create hens that lay eggs from which only female birds hatch. 

This negates the need for using the energy to power machines and the labour presently needed to incubate all layer breeder eggs and either test them (using various technologies in development) and use the male eggs for other purposes, or to identify male chicks after hatching and cull them. 

The governments in Germany and France have banned the mass killing of male chicks and most other European Union countries are looking at similar bans.

Using gene editing, a team from the Israeli Agricultural Research Organisation, Volcani Centre, has achieved the creation of hens that only produce female chicks, following seven years of research with Huminn, an American-Israeli firm. 

Eggs are laid by these hens that contain male embryos. But when the eggs are exposed to blue light for several hours, the male embryos fail to develop. Female embryos are unaffected by the blue light and develop normally.

The researchers did not respond for comment, but about gene editing and its future use in poultry, William Herring, vice president of research and development at Cobb-Vantress, says, “We believe it’s an interesting technology that has potential to address areas of poultry production that, so far, have been difficult to progress.”

Disease, conserving genetics and more
Gene editing is suited to situations where a single gene controls a trait. Thus, it may make more of an impact indirectly on improving sustainability through preventing or controlling disease processes in poultry, rather than directly improving sustainability through improving bird growth rates and FCR. These are complex processes controlled through many genes. Fewer sick birds mean less wasted resources and higher sustainability levels for the industry.

There are already several research projects looking at how gene editing can knock out a single gene in poultry and other livestock types, preventing a disease process from taking hold in the first place. 

And in a recent review paper titled “Chicken genome editing for investigating poultry pathogens”, a group of researchers from Scotland noted that the development of novel in vitro cell culture systems, coupled with new genetic tools to investigate gene function, will aid in developing novel interventions for existing and newly emerging poultry pathogens. 

They added that, “Our growing capacity to cryopreserve and generate genome-edited chicken lines will also be useful for developing improved chicken breeds for poultry farmers and conserving chicken genetic resources.”

No matter the size of the role gene editing will play in years to come, further sustainability advances in poultry breeding are anticipated. 

As Tim Burnside, global vice president of welfare, sustainability and compliance for Aviagen Group, notes, “Gains in feed efficiency will continue, sustaining the businesses of our customers, their local societies and the planet for decades to come.”

For more
Aviagen has just released an animation, “Delivering Improved Productivity and Sustainability for the Broiler Industry over the past 20 years”, outlining these improvements and their concrete sustainability benefits. Visit their YouTube page at to view this production. 

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