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Study finds slower-growing chickens have better mobility, animal welfare

But would also raise prices for consumers.


September 18, 2020
By The Canadian Press

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Stephanie Torrey, an assistant professor of animal science at the University of Guelph, co-led the study.

Stephanie Torrey designs obstacle courses. Obstacle courses for chickens.

The avian games were part of a recent study co-led by Torrey, an assistant professor of animal science at the University of Guelph, that found making chickens grow slower was better for their well-being.

The most popular chicken breed raised today can be market ready in as little as a month. And while those birds may not be the healthiest, the Canadian poultry industry says slower growing birds would be bad for business, the environment – and consumer’s pocketbooks

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And most of these birds, worldwide, come from a single breed: the Cornish Rock.

Chicken hasn’t always been popular for its meat, at least in North America. Until the Second World War, most chickens were raised in people’s backyards to produce eggs and, eventually, be turned into a stew. Chicken wasn’t eaten daily, or even weekly.

But during the war, most red meat (beef, lamb and pork) produced in Canada and the U.S. was sent to support the war effort, leaving those on the home front to find alternate protein sources.

Nudged by supermarkets and the poultry industry, who had framed chicken as an affordable, accessible alternative, demand for fowl started to increase. To meet this growing demand, grocery store chain A&P held a competition in the 1940s aimed at developing a new breed that grew fatter, faster.

The contest resulted in a cross between two older breeds, the White Plymouth Rock chicken and the Red Cornish Hen, that now makes up roughly 90 per cent of the global poultry population.

That’s led to chickens that are so large and grow so quickly – some strains reach maturity in a month – that they have chronic mobility, cardiovascular system and muscular issues.

That’s where Torrey’s study, which was commissioned by Global Animal Partnership, a Texas-based animal welfare certification program, comes in.

“What we were doing was benchmarking the welfare and productivity of 16 strains of broiler chickens to understand if there was a better breed of broilers – and to understand if there was a relationship between growth rates, body weights and welfare.”

Thus the obstacle course: One of the experiments forced the chickens to hop across a wooden beam to reach their food and water, to help the researchers evaluate how well they could move.

They found the slower-growing chickens had fewer mobility issues and ranked better on standardized animal welfare tests.

Still, the benefits of an industry-wide transition to slower-growing birds is far from simple.

“Widespread implementation, in Canada, of slower-growing birds would have a significant negative impact on the environment and affordability,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, director of brand and communications for the Chicken Farmers of Canada, an industry organization representing and regulating Canadian chicken farmers.

Converting a third of Canada’s flock to birds that take two weeks longer to grow – roughly 30 per cent more time compared to most chickens now – would require more than 668 million extra litres of water and about 213 million kilos of extra feed, she said.

The additional weeks of growth would also cost about $391 million a year she said, likely raising the price for consumers.

Yet even slower-growing chickens “would be a lot more efficient than other meat,” Torrey said.

The equation between animal welfare, environmental impact and costs is particularly complicated in Canada, because of the poultry industry’s unique management regime.

Like dairy, Canada’s poultry industry is regulated under a supply management system that limits the number of chickens (and eggs) that Canadian farmers can produce and sets the price of chicken based on farmers’ costs of production.

Under the system, farmers need to purchase the right to raise a percentage of the total number of birds in the country – known as quota – and register with Chicken Farmers of Canada, which manages how much they can produce in concert with the federal government.

“Knowing who each of these farmers is allows us to implement very strict farm food safety, animal care, and sustainability programs,” Bishop-Spencer said.

“These programs are mandatory, they’re enforceable and they’re audit-able.”

That sets Canadian chicken farmers apart from regions where poultry isn’t supply managed, such as the U.S. and the E.U., Bishop-Spencer said.

Without a central governance body to enforce animal welfare standards and a resulting lack of limits on production, non-Canadian farms are motivated to grow birds as quickly and cheaply as possible. That’s not good for their welfare – or consumers.

But Canada is different.

“Supply management is really good, for not only food security, but food sovereignty in Canada,” Tina Widowski, a co-author with Torrey on the study, said.

That’s because it stabilizes the market, ensures a national standard and makes it profitable for smaller farmers to stay in business, she said.

In contrast, Canadian farmers who aren’t in supply-managed sectors, such as vegetable and grains, have seen their net incomes crash over the past 20 years, due to increased costs of production.

However, Widowski said it is a divisive practice. “People are against it,” Widowski explained, noting that some commentators argue it artificially increases the price of dairy, eggs and poultry.

“But we have control, and those are the industries that have been able to make changes in terms of animal welfare a lot more readily, because they have the income to do it,” she said.

And those changes might include raising slower-growing birds, Torrey and Widowski noted.

They’re both members of the expert panel that creates Canada’s chicken welfare standards – the National Farm Animal Care Council – and it’s likely their research will inform the next review of these standards.

But in the meantime, it will be up to farmers – and consumers – to decide how long their chickens grow. And the answer isn’t clear.

“It’s going to be a balance,” Widowski said.

“But in the grand scheme of things, we should point out that chicken meat is the most efficient compared to all other meat products, except for fish and eggs.”


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1 Comment » for Study finds slower-growing chickens have better mobility, animal welfare
  1. Rob Renema says:

    When I’m teaching people about chickens, I talk about growth in a modern broiler being comparable to a big growth spurt in a teenager. My personal experience with growth spurts as a teenager was tiredness and lethargy. I can relate to a broiler that may show reduced motivation to get through the test to the food source (like the tests the researchers used). If footpad health is being properly maintained through careful management, not moving as much would appear to be what the bird wants and am lost as to why allowing the bird to do what it wants is somehow being considered as reduced welfare. With current management methods, there is no excuse for poor foot condition. I would consider management methods to shift growth patterns or slightly slow growth (if this is what we needed to do ensure leg health) long before considering a breed change (with all the baggage and negative environmental impact that comes with it).

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