Government involvement in poultry breeding

Peter Hunton
Tuesday, 30 July 2013
By Peter Hunton
Photo courtesy of Chicken Farmers of Canada.

Jul. 30, 2013 - As in many other jurisdictions, Canadian governments, both federal and provincial, played a part in poultry breeding in the past 100 years. In Canada, the federal government had a very strong research program in poultry genetics from the 1950s until the 1990s. In addition, several universities – notably Guelph and Saskatchewan – had significant programs of genetics research and teaching that helped the industry develop.

The Canada Department of Agriculture (as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada was then known) established a Record of Performance (ROP) system that enabled breeders to have independently audited records of progeny tested cocks, whose progeny would sustain increased prices for hatching eggs and chicks. In addition, laying tests were established in most provinces to test small groups of hens submitted at point of lay, to independent testing stations. However, by the middle of the last century, it became obvious that the results of these tests depended at least as much on the skill of the breeder in growing and selecting the birds as on their breeding value or genetic potential. In addition, sample sizes were quite small.

The Random Sample Test became the accepted method of comparing stocks from different breeders. The tests consisted of obtaining samples of hatching eggs from the breeders to hatch at least 100 pullets (in some cases more), which were grown under standard conditions. They were housed in standard cages, with a randomly distributed, replicated pattern, and the identity of each group was unknown to those looking after the birds. The last surviving Canadian Random Sample Test, in Ottawa, was shut down in 1990.

Basic studies in poultry genetics were a large part of the federal government's wide-ranging research program. The outcome was of interest not only to commercial poultry breeders, but also to breeders of other farm animals. Dr. Robb Gowe established the major poultry genetics program in the early 1960s, and although mainly based in Ottawa, the program (in its early stages) had replicates of the selected populations in several federal stations across the country. The primary goal of the program was to investigate broad-based populations (derived from commercial White Leghorn hybrids) for commercially important traits like egg numbers, egg weight, egg quality, liveability, etc. A unique aspect of the research was that unselected control populations were maintained so as to separate the effects of genetic selection from those of uncontrolled changes in the environment. Although these selected lines eventually became highly productive, they were, as far as is known, never used in a commercial environment.

Another federal government program specifically designed to provide stock to commercial breeders, operated for a few years in the 1960-70s under the guidance of Sterling Munroe. According to Donald Shaver, this was instituted to provide a Canadian alternative to his "monopoly" on the supply of parent stock! Fisher Poultry Farms, in Ontario, used the stock for a few years.

Poultry Health Programs

Provincial governments at the time were primarily involved in developing poultry health control measures. The diseases of concern were those unwittingly passed from parents to commercial offspring.

In the early days of the rise of commercial hatcheries, Pullorum disease (also known as bacillary white diarrhoea, caused by the bacterium Salmonella pullorum) was a constant threat. The disease was characterized by adult carriers, which showed no symptoms, passing the bacteria through the hatching eggs to baby chicks, which suffered very high mortality. Fortunately, a rapid blood test was developed that could detect the carriers. Most provincial governments provided testing services for parent flocks, and any carriers were removed from the breeding flocks. As a result, Pullorum disease is rarely seen today.

Individual breeders in the latter part of the 100-year period also eradicated, by various means, other Salmonella species, and several strains of Mycoplasma. These actions were mainly voluntary, although some assistance from governments was available.

As a result of these programs, breeders being shipped today are guaranteed to be free of Salmonella pullorum, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, and a variety of other pathogens specific to individual breeders and poultry types.

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