Canadian Poultry Magazine

Celebrating Genetic Progress: Bringing affordable chicken to consumers through genetics advancements

Kristy Nudds   

Features Business & Policy Trade

Bringing affordable chicken to consumers through genetics advancements

It now takes only 9 g of feed to produce 1 g of breast meat – 50 years ago it took 28 g. The photo above shows the stark difference in the amount of feed required to produce the same amount of breast meat.

The first – and most likely the only – birthday party for chickens was held in late November at the Alberta Chicken Producers Poultry Technology Centre at the University
of Alberta.

It was a 50th birthday party, celebrating the genetic progress that has been accomplished by researchers in Canada.  It acknowledged the individuals who worked at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa for their contributions in making today’s chicken more economical and available in many more ways to consumers.  Also highlighted was how their contributions are helping current researchers continue the poultry community’s understanding and improvement of production performance. 
The idea for the party was hatched by Dr. Frank Robinson, Dr. Val Carney, Dr. Martin Zuidhof, Dr. Doug Korver, Nick Wolanski, and Dr. Rob Renema, all current researchers affiliated with the University of Alberta’s Poultry Research Centre (PRC), those who are furthering the genetic progress that began half a century ago.

The party also served to increase awareness of the preservation of poultry’s past and to educate students.


Dr. Frank Robinson welcomed guests to the party and to what he and his colleagues believe is “one of the strongest communities of poultry science research, teaching and community service in Canada and beyond.”

“By your attendence today, you are helping to expand our community, our knowledge base and our pride in learning,” he said.

Honoured guests included:  Dr. Robb Gowe, a former head of the poultry genetics research group at the Central Experimental Farm and later a director of the Animal Research Institute; Dr. Ed Merritt, the chief scientist behind the development of the Ottawa Meat Control Strain: Dr. Allan Grunder, former poultry genetics team leader at the Animal Research Institute; Dr. Roy Crawford, a professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, responsible for researching several qualitative genes of economic importance and responsible for preserving genetic lines of commercial poultry in an unselected state; Dr. Donald McQueen Shaver, founder of Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms Ltd., instrumental in the commercialization of technological advances and licensing of laying hen and broilers for distribution in over 90 countries; and Dr. Jim Chambers, the last member of the poultry breeding team in Ottawa who contributed to the development of control stocks.

Each of these invited guests told attendees of their past research, the challenges they faced and provided a unique insight into the evolution of poultry genetic selection.
Dr. Merritt said that when he first went to the Experimental Farm in the early 1950s was to go to a poultry club meeting and discuss poultry husbandry and the different breeds, such as Rhode Island Reds.  “That’s about as far as we got in this poultry club,” he said.  “It just shows you how far back we were in those days.”
He spoke of the development of the original poultry meat control strain developed by him and Dr. Gowe, which was created by combining four meat strains (first by two-way crosses and then four-way crosses) and random breeding this population. The control strain was maintained using a restricted pedigree system. This strain was originally known as the Ottawa Control meat strain, and is now known as strain K. 
This strain has served as an invaluable tool for subsequent researchers to determine the effects that modern meat selection programs have had on traits such as growth, conformation, body fat, and composition.  A random sample of the original strain was sent to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Regional Research Station in Athens, Georgia and was known there as the Athens-Canadian Randombred Control.
Comparative performance was then be established with the Ottawa Control.  
Using this strain as a benchmark was discussed by Dr. Jim Chambers, who conducted much of his early genetic research at the Control station in the 1970s and 1980s.  He said that the purpose of having control strains was “to test the progress of selection and to act as a germplasm resource.”  He used the control strain extensively for comparative physiology work.
Chambers did much work on selecting for bodyweight (BW) and improved feed efficiency (FE), eventually developing a second Ottawa Control strain in 1978.  In his earlier research days abdominal thickness was used as a measure but now to decrease the metabolic problems associated with growth he suggested that measuring organs would perhaps be a more useful approach.

Dr. Gowe was recognized by all of the former researchers as being “instrumental” in the establishment of control lines. The use of control strains was developed at Cornell and as a graduate student there he said he became “fascinated with the genetics research that was being done” both at Cornell and in Edinburgh.

Gowe said that control strains are “essential” and performing selection studies without these strains, in his opinion, “won’t work.” He said that an accurate measure of progress on traits of interest cannot be obtained without the ability to separate out environmental factors. 

He also stressed the importance of preserving genetic stock and used an analogy of corn breeding to drive home the point. “We have to be careful that we don’t diminish gene pools,” he said. 

Dr. Grunder said the “lines of chickens were all ready for me” when he joined the Control station and grew to appreciate the importance of such strains as he continued his career. He spoke of his research with green muscle disease and how he was able to use both of the Ottawa Control strains to determine that the disease was related to increased bodyweights and that selection against the disease should be part of breeding programs.
 Dr. Shaver, who began his career in poultry breeding at the age of 12, said that in the early years of purchasing stock and mating offspring that “we were crossbreeding and didn’t know it.”

After returning from the Second World War, he began convincing breeders to let him have stock, forming what eventually became Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms Ltd. He said that everyone in the room should pay “homage” to Dr. Gowe for his insight into using controls and preserving genetic lines. Shaver himself has been a great promoter of conserving stock and preserving germplasm (genetic material) to maintain biodiversity and variability for future breeding programs. 

He has donated germplasm and stock to the University of Alberta and Dr. Robinson applauded him for his continued efforts.

Dr. Crawford has also donated stock to the U of A and is himself a conservationist of poultry stock. He was pleased to see some of his mentors in the room and noted that many “master’s and doctorates have resulted from the use of old stocks. It has paid off scientifically.”

At the University of Saskatchewan he used such stocks as teaching materials and found pure lines to be “a terrific source of mutations.” He has also worked extensively with grassroots (hobbyist) organizations “those actually doing true conservation” to preserve non-commercial and rare breeds. 

He noted his work with such organizations as Rare Breeds Canada and with the UN’s Food And Agricultural Organization (FAO) and his disappointment with AAFC’s failure to preserve genetic stock, but said it was “really encouraging” to see the lines that have been saved at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Val Carney said that, in 1957, liveweight (LW) was the primary selection criteria, whereas today it is joined with FC, number of eggs, hatchability, cardiovascular fitness, and skeletal integrity.

She said that the contributions of Canada’s poultry pioneers has enabled current researchers with the PRC to study the unintended consequences that have resulted from the selection for increased growth and production.

Here’s a sample of how the PRC is using preserved stock to study:

• Breast Slope: modern selected strains have a greater “slope” between the bottom and top of the fillet (i.e., one end is essentially thicker than the other), which has implications for processed products and consumer acceptance

• Immune Function: Dr. Korver is studying the relationship between innate immunity, which is metabolically expensive, and growth rate to determine the effect of growth rate on immune function

• Meat Quality: Parameters such as drip loss and water holding capacity are being compared to determine if and how selection for growth rate has affected the quality of muscle tissue

Dr. Rob Renema, the last presenter at the party, relayed the challenges faced by current researchers.  He noted that broiler genetics are “constantly changing” and the result is that management has become strain-specific. “We have to work much harder to get the most from these birds,” he said.

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