Is slow-growth broiler production sustainable?

A look at the environmental, economic and animal welfare factors.
 Melanie Epp
October 14, 2018
By Melanie Epp
While a relatively new trend in North America, slow-growth production is much more established in Europe. But research raises questions about its sustainability.
While a relatively new trend in North America, slow-growth production is much more established in Europe. But research raises questions about its sustainability. Photo Credit: Purdue Farms

Last year, Canadian Poultry outlined how some North American retailers were starting to source slow-growth broiler meat due to pressure over welfare concerns with conventionally grown chickens. Now, we look at economic, environmental and animal welfare factors attached to slow-growth broilers and also at Europe’s experience.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Whole Foods announced that it would be making the switch from conventionally raised broilers to slow-growth broilers. The move is expected to be complete by 2024 and will mean repopulating broiler farms that supply the store with breeds like Red Ranger and Naked Neck. Many believe that the move is activist not consumer driven, which begs the question: Is slow-growth production better? And, what are the economic, environmental and welfare implications of making the switch?

According to the Global Animal Partnership, slow-growing broilers grow 23 per cent slower than conventional breeds. While they deem slow-growing breeds as better, they do not take into consideration the environmental impact of 23 per cent longer production cycles. Tatijana Fisher, a PhD from the University of Kentucky, presented slow-growth broiler data at a Poultry Industry Council conference earlier this year. The data she presented came from self-selection feeding trials that compared the growth performance of Red Ranger (slow-growth) and Cornish Cross (conventional).

For the trials, birds were housed on the floor in groups of 25 in a standard system, Fisher says. The birds were offered four choices of feed: A protein concentrate that contained all of the necessary vitamins and minerals, cracked corn, pearl millet and rolled naked oats. Birds were monitored to see what they ate and, over the course of 20 weeks, average energy intake was calculated.

The findings show that while Red Ranger was cheaper to feed day-to-day, the cost to feed it out in the long run was much higher. In terms of growth performance, the Cornish Cross has a higher average daily gain than the Red Ranger.  “We have about a 1.9 feed conversion on the Cornish Cross, which is not the best you can get off them,” she says. “The Red Ranger had about a 2.2, which is downright awful on some level.”

“Still it was better than some heritage breeds, which have a feed conversion rate of about five,” she adds.

Fisher looked at other factors, too, including carcass weight without giblets as a percentage of live weight. The Cornish Cross was around 74 per cent, she says, while the Red Ranger was about 68 per cent. Most of that weight is lost from the breast. The Cornish Cross, in fact, has almost double the Red Ranger in terms of breast weight.

“If you’re selling this as a whole bird it’s kind of okay,” Fisher says. “It’s smaller and it’s different, but it’s not that bad. Cut up parts and you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting enough breast meat off of these birds to meet the breast meat demand on the market.”

Fisher said more research is needed to look at nutrient requirements, meat quality, behaviour and welfare parameters. She says they have not officially looked at welfare parameters, however she says she didn’t notice a difference between the two breeds when it came to mortality or other welfare-related issues.

The European experience
While slow-growth production is new to North America, it’s not new in Europe and has been particularly successful in the Netherlands where many retailers have made the switch. Researchers have conducted similar studies in Belgium to see if fast-growing broilers are more efficient when fed the same daily feed quantity as a slower growing strain. Evelyne Delezie, a researcher at the Institute for Agriculture and Fisheries Research in Belgium, concluded that feed efficiency was significantly better in the fast-growing strain than in the slow-growing breed.

“My opinion is that those animals have better welfare [slow-growth breed], but it’s not sustainable if you look at the efficiency of those animals,” she says.

Research has also been conducted in the Netherlands where adoption of slow-growth production is almost certainly the highest in the world. Retailers have vowed to source 100 per cent slow-growth breeds by 2020.

Today, about 90 per cent of the fresh market in the Netherlands is slow-growth. But has the move been a good one? Peter van Horne, economic researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, crunched the numbers to find out. He presented his findings at a recent poultry conference in Portugal.

Van Horne’s calculations considered production parameters, including growing period, the number of cycles per year, flock density, mortality, live weight, growth and feed conversion, comparing conventional breeds with slow-growth breeds. Revenue earned for both types of production were compared, and it was concluded that slow-growth producers earned more at €1.17 ($1.83 CAD) per kg versus €0.90 ($1.41 CAD) per kg for conventional breeds.

Van Horne’s calculations didn’t stop there. He wanted to know if the amount compensated was worth the extra cost. After crunching the numbers, he found that Dutch farmers made essentially the same amount of money for doing the extra work. The gross margin per square meter, he found, was 15.2 for conventional versus 15.7 for slow-growth production.

He did admit that most factors cost more in slow-growth production – heating, catching, litter and manure disposal – but pointed out that animal health came at a lower cost in slow-growth production. This, he said, is because 29 per cent of regular flocks are treated versus four per cent for slower-growing breeds.

“Farmers are happy with slow-growing birds because the margin is the same,” Van Horne says.  “To be honest, with the slow growing birds it’s less work. You don’t have to do the same amount of work because you have fewer birds and mortality is lower. You even get a better price because you have less work with the slower-growing breeds. Farmers seem to like it.”

Despite its success, Van Horne recognizes that slow-growth production has a larger carbon footprint – 20 per cent worse, in fact.

“That’s the dilemma,” the researcher says. “Some people say the slow-growing bird is a welfare-friendly bird, but the fast-growing is an environmental bird. Then you have to make a choice.”

For those who are considering making the switch, Van Boekholt advises them to come up with a strong branding and marketing plan. When it comes to pricing, he prefers to look at slow-growth chicken as an “added value” product, rather than from the price-cost perspective.

He also suggested that farmers know what they’re getting into before making the switch. “If you don’t believe in it, please don’t start,” he adds. “You really have to believe in it to produce slower-growing chickens because it is different. If you don’t believe in it, it will fail.”

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