Canadian Poultry Magazine

Liveability in Commercial Turkeys

By PIC   

Features Production Turkeys Poultry Production Poultry Research

PIC Update: December 2011

Fitness traits are of considerable importance for Canadian turkey producers, not only because they are directly related to production and economic profitability, but increasingly because of societal concern about animal welfare. Although poultry breeding programs have succeeded in improving productivity through selecting for higher growth rate and meat yield, successfully selecting for survival and health traits is much more difficult. Despite the importance of fitness in turkey genetic improvement programs, genetic parameters for survival, skeletal and locomotion traits, and associations of these parameters with other economic production traits have rarely been estimated and published in turkeys.

Survival is one general measure of an animal’s fitness. In commercial poultry farming, mortality may result from a variety of conditions, including disease, physiological stress and aggressive behaviour. In the simplest selection approach, bird survival is used as an indicator for many underlying health traits to be simultaneously improved. In selective breeding programs, skeletal and locomotion traits are of additional interest as indicator traits for overall bird survival and fitness. Some conformation defects have shown a genetic basis and have been connected to survival differences between turkey strains.

Drs. Ben Wood (Hybrid Turkeys), Steve Miller and Cheryl Quinton (University of Guelph) have been examining the quantitative genetics of specific fitness traits in turkeys and their effects on overall survival and other economically important traits. Their main goal is to find optimal selection methods to improve survival and fitness in modern commercial turkey strains. 


The research team studied production and fitness data from two strains in Hybrid Turkeys’ nucleus breeding program. Full pedigree and performance records were compiled from approximately 530,000 birds hatched between 2000 and 2008. Performance records included production traits (growth, egg production); survival traits (early- and late-period survival, longevity); and structural fitness traits (walking ability; structures of breast, back, hip, leg, foot and wing; disorders of footpad, skin, head and eye, crop). Survival and conformation traits and walking ability were scored.

Their findings? Body weights and egg production displayed moderate heritability whereas survival and fitness traits generally showed low heritability. Early survival (to three weeks) displayed low heritability, whereas late survival (three to 23 weeks) and longevity (age at death or cull) had low to moderate heritability. Correlation results suggested that early and late survival were likely genetically distinct traits. Leg structure health, hip structure health, foot health and skin health all displayed low heritability. Crop health displayed moderate heritability.

Correlation results suggest that unchecked selection for growth could reduce survival, walking ability, and hip, leg, footpad and skin health in turkeys. Therefore selection for better fitness is necessary to avoid deleterious effects of selection on growth alone. However, selection for increased egg production should not be detrimental to survival, based on correlations.

It was also shown that walking ability is a good indicator of fitness genotype. Selecting birds with good walking scores, or integrating these records in estimated breeding value calculation should indirectly improve other fitness traits.

The fitness trait parameters found in this study are for two genetically and functionally distinct populations currently used in Hybrid Turkeys’ breeding program, and account for the particular environment in which they are reared. Therefore, these parameters can be directly used in company genetic evaluations to more accurately select parents with superior fitness genotypes. Continuing this study, Hybrid Turkeys will be investigating methods to incorporate these results into its commercial multi-trait selection program.

Overall, this research contributes to knowledge of the genetic basis of fitness in turkeys and other poultry. These results will help Hybrid Turkeys and the poultry industry to develop more robust birds, increasing commercial income and profitability while improving animal welfare. For more information on this study, please visit .

PIC Picks
Changing of the Guard at PIC

By Tim Nelson, Executive Director

After many years at the helm Ed McKinlay has stepped down as PIC chairman. McKinlay has decided not to stand again as chairman and has also stepped down from the PIC board of directors. He made the announcement at the PIC’s annual general meeting, held Oct. 4 at Kay House in Guelph.

McKinlay, an egg, broiler and pullet producer, is a great proponent of the value of collective investment in research and education and continued to promote this throughout his chairmanship. This was exemplified in his last speech at the PIC meeting, where he said: “By sharing costs the poultry industry is able to provide effective, efficient research and education that provides farmers and other stakeholders with information that prepares them for the future.

“Because of prior investment in research leading to improvements in genetics, management, nutrition, health and welfare, poultry products remain very competitive with other proteins and food choices in the marketplace. The new information created through the research has been adopted by producers and industry, which has provided huge leaps in productivity and, as a result, sustained wealth.”

Along with his fellow board members, McKinlay presided over the PIC through some very turbulent times. In 2008 the board recognized that PIC needed to be more proactive in the delivery of research results to producers if producers were expected to continue to support PIC research. The resultant strategy was to include education in the overall mandate of the organization, which had traditionally been to fund research on behalf of all sectors of industry. The PIC has successfully been able to diversify and has provided a variety of targeted educational initiatives over the past two years, with more planned for the next 18 months.

McKinlay highlighted some of these initiatives: “Once again, PIC has very successfully partnered with OMAFRA to deliver the regional producer updates, administer the Biosecurity Outreach Program funded through Growing Forward, develop the PAACO (Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization) poultry welfare auditing course materials and develop the soon-to-be-released poultry transport decision support booklet ‘Should this bird be loaded?’

We have continued to work with the two poultry clubs at the University of Guelph, where students and PIC staff have developed a biosecurity video for release in the fall of 2011.

“PIC has also partnered with the university and OMAFRA on a number of educational initiatives funded by the province under the OMAFRA/U of G agreement and has been able to take advantage of various provincial funding opportunities made available through the emergency management and production funds offered by the province through OMAFRA. This year PIC has also been involved as project manager on several initiatives using funds provided by the federal government through the Agricultural Adaptation Council.

We thank all of these partners for their ongoing support.”

McKinlay’s unassuming, assured guidance will be missed around the PIC board table but he is ably replaced by Dr. Helen Ann Hudson, who has served on the PIC board for a number of years and at an executive level as chair of the Research Committee. 

Gary Fread replaces McKinlay on the board as an independent director. Fread will bring another level of knowledge and skills to the board, particularly in relation to how we more successfully integrate our work with other partners along the value chain. He has spent 25 years in senior management positions in food processing and was recently president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre.

PIC also welcomes Don Copland, no stranger to the Ontario poultry industry scene. He is a former broiler breeder grower and chicken producer and will be a great asset around the PIC board table, having just completed a stint as chairman of the Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta, an organization with whom PIC has a long-standing and fruitful relationship.

Copland replaces Bob Guy, general, manager of the Ontario Broiler Hatching Egg and Chick Commission (OBHECC) as the OBHECC’s appointed representative.

Guy has also been a long-standing board member at PIC and shared the tough times and the responsibility of developing a new vision and mission for the organization along with McKinlay and their fellow board members. Being a senior industry manager, Guy had a larger industry perspective, and a strategic and politically astute analysis of issues and how investment in research and education can be best utilized to help manage them.

On behalf of the poultry industry in Ontario, the new chairman and board of directors wish to publicly acknowledge McKinlay and Guy’s huge contribution to poultry research and education in this province and thank them for their guidance around the PIC board table.

PIC would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank all those who have supported us throughout 2011 and offer our very best to you and yours for the festive season and for a prosperous 2012.

Featured Researcher

Dr. Ben Wood hails from Australia, where he obtained his degree in veterinary science, followed by a PhD in beef cattle genetics.  He is now a quantitative geneticist with Hybrid (a Hendrix Genetics company), and has been adjunct faculty with the University of Guelph’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science since 2007.  Dr. Wood is involved in collaborative research with Dr. Steve Miller (quantitative geneticists and director of the Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock), Dr. Cheryl Quentin (postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph) and Dr. Stephanie Torrey (research scientist in poultry behaviour and welfare with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).  Much of his research is conducted using Hybrid pedigree farms historical data or data collected by PhD candidates on farm, two of which Dr. Wood supervises. Collaborative research projects include effects of genotype and environmental interaction on egg production, ultrasound use for the assessment of breast meat yield, and aspects of feed efficiency measurement and assessment – particularly the use of individual feed intake assessment using radio frequency identification technology. Dr. Wood is also investigating the effects of genetics on lowering the environmental impact of poultry production, particularly greenhouse gas emissions (C02 and methane), and genetic control of feather pecking in turkeys.

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