The difficulty of measuring feeding behaviour in a large group is overcome with the use of electronic feeding stations.
One of the challenges with poultry research is that the birds may not respond the same in trial conditions as they do in a commercial setting. So how do we find the turkey that is most efficient under group housing conditions?
Owen Willems, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, working under the supervision of Dr. Ben Wood and Dr. Andy Robinson in the Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock is trying to do just that.
His area of research is focused primarily on the genetics of feed efficiency and feed behaviour in group-housed turkeys, looking at the correlations between feed efficiency and time spent feeding, number of meals, feeding rate, and daily feed intake. As a geneticist, Willems is ultimately in search of the most efficient turkey, housed in the same large group conditions as it will be raised commercially.
CONVENTIAL RESEARCH FLAWS
Seventy per cent of the total production costs is feed, said Willems, with most primary breeders selecting for feed conversion values. Under conventional feed trial research, data would have to be gathered on individual birds — weigh the bird, weigh the feed in and weigh the feed out — but that data would not always reflect the behavioural aspects involved with group housing in a commercial environment. In a commercial setting the bird would face competition from other birds for feed and water, while in an individual research pen, a meek bird that would do poorly in a group could still be considered as a good performer.
But how do you keep track of feeding behaviour in a large group? As far as Willems was concerned, other livestock industries, beef, swine and dairy, were using auto feed measurement systems, so why not turkeys?
Picture 320 turkeys in one big pen with 32 electronically monitored feed intake stations, ten birds per station. The birds are all “Large White” toms, from 15 to 19 weeks of age. Attached to the wing web of each bird is a generic RFID tag, similar to those used in the dairy industry. The tags weigh 5.6 grams and cost around two dollars each but the information they provide is priceless.
ENHANCED DATA COLLECTION
The birds would enter feeders that are mounted on scales, providing data about their feed intake, duration of feeding and the number of times they fed every day. Willems describes the data collected as “vast.” Some birds preferred the central feeders; some preferred the ones on the sides of the pen. “The system records data from each scale every second and the turkeys are active around 14 hours a day,” said Willems, “giving us the capacity to record about 1.6 million data points a day.”
His data is already being used for both research and commercial purposes. In future, it will provide a large dataset for mining and analysis by subsequent graduate students. For example, Willems suggested that someone could now use the data to look at behavioural and animal welfare considerations, while the commercial application is really about improving the breeding candidates that will then become future generations at the commercial level.
The Poultry Industry Council of Ontario, the University of Guelph and industry partner Hybrid Turkeys provided funding for the project.