Welfare and Efficiency in Poultry Production

Demand for chicken meat is rising around the world and this is leading to calls for greater efficiency and sustainable intensification.
calendar icon 3 September 2015
clock icon 6 minute read
Modern breeds of broilers are already highly efficient producers of protein thanks to a combination
of diet, management and selective breeding. Photo: Shutterstock

However greater intensification also has implications on poultry welfare. Often the economics of production and concern for the welfare of the animal do not meet.

This dilemma, according to Dr Marian Dawkins in a paper delivered to the Australian Poultry Science Symposium in Sydney earlier this year, needs to be addressed by making sure that good welfare is an economically viable part of the sustainable, efficient poultry production needs.

Dr Dawkins said there needs to be an agreed and workable definition of good welfare and better ways of measuring and assessing welfare so that its financial advantages can be more clearly evaluated and integrated with other priorities.

The concern over how to feed the rising human population while at the same time keeping the effect on the environment down to a minimum has led to calls for agriculture to become more ‘sustainably intensive’ and more efficient.

Dr Dawkins said that more than 60 billion chickens are killed each year and chicken meat is forecast to overtake pork as the most consumed and most popular meat by 2020.

Modern breeds of broilers are already highly efficient producers of protein thanks to a combination of diet, management and selective breeding.

However, Dr Dawkins said that selective breeding for efficient feed conversion has already had side-effects on the health and welfare of the birds including susceptibility to cardiovascular disease and lameness.

Selective breeding for fast juvenile growth rate has also had an effects on the welfare of the parent birds.

Without feed restriction, these breeder birds rapidly become obese, have locomotory problems and the males have reduced fertility.

As broiler growth has continued to increase, the degree of feed restriction needed to keep broiler breeders on a healthy growth trajectory has also increased, but Dr Dawkins said that these findings raise serious questions about what will happen to the welfare of chickens in the ever more efficient agriculture of the future.

Poultry breeding programmes based on economically important production traits have already been held responsible for reduced welfare in both broilers and breeders over the last 50 years, she said.

Because of this bird welfare is under continued and increased threat.

Dr Dawkins said that the welfare of the birds cannot be seen in isolation. It has to be taken into consideration with other concerns as agriculture strives for more efficiency, a reduced environmental impact and greater economic viability.

If taken in isolation, she said, chicken meat will be affordable to only a small minority of relatively wealthy people with particular views about animal ethics.

However, Dr Dawkins said that if the case can be made for the economic, human health and environmental benefits of high standards of animal welfare, then welfare becomes a necessary and commercially important part of sustainable food production worldwide.

“In the same way that ecologists increasingly make the case for conserving habitats and preventing the loss of biodiversity by putting a monetary value on the ‘services’ or ‘natural capital’ that a healthy environment provides, such as water retention, soil fertility, pollination and tourist attractions, so the business and other benefits of animal welfare need to be drawn out far more clearly than they have been up to now,” Dr Dawkins said in her presentation.

“Healthy, high welfare animals bring a range of commercial benefits such as lowered mortality, reduced food waste, higher quality products, lower costs of medication, but these benefits have not yet been sufficiently appreciated or even documented.”

It has often been said that consumers are willing to pay for high welfare and other ethical concerns, but the consumer is fickle and price dominates the consumer decision.

Dr Dawkins said that making the case for good welfare as part of sustainable, efficient poultry production needs at least two components:
a) An agreed and workable definition of good welfare
b) Better ways of measuring and assessing welfare so that its financial advantages can be more clearly evaluated in relation to other priorities such as human health, animal health, environmental protection, reduction in antibiotic use and financial gain.

Dr Dawkins said that the simplest way to define animal welfare is that the animals are healthy and the have what they want.

Technology to measure and asses welfare is becoming a more and more essential tool for the poultry producer in order not only to meet welfare and food safety standards but environmental, feed, land labour and other pressures.

Technology can also help to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the stockman and improve stockmanship.

While good stockmanship remains essential even to intensive poultry production, Dr Dawkins said there is now an increasingly important role for automated measures of welfare that allow continuous assessment of large commercial flocks and so lead to more effective management. For example, smartphone cameras inside broiler chicken houses are able to detect flocks with a high proportion of lame birds, using simple measures of optical flow.

The same system is able to detect flocks that are likely to end up with a high percentage mortality and high levels of hockburn as measured in the slaughter plant

However even greater improvements in flock management with consequent improvements in both efficiency and welfare are possible by improving the analysis of the data already collected by producers, such as records of mortality, culls, water use, vaccination, temperature and humidity.

Dr Dawkins concludes that there are potential conflicts between standards of welfare and commercial poultry production that can best be resolved by working with the poultry industry to find solutions to the many pressures it faces across the world.

These include controlling disease, responding to worldwide calls to reduce antibiotic use, meeting national and international standards of food safety and product quality, absorbing rising feed costs, improving efficiency of production and responding to demands for higher standards of animal welfare.

“Before assuming that welfare and efficiency are inevitably in conflict, we need to challenge some widely held assumptions and look for the economic gains that high standards of animal welfare can bring,” Dr Dawkins said.

“As health is an important part of animal welfare, there are obvious economic gains from breeding programmes and management systems that concentrate on improving poultry health and thus have direct economic gains through more, healthier animals and losing less to waste.

“If animal welfare is seen as a single goal, isolated from other concerns of the poultry industry, then it is likely to lose out in the face of other priorities. But if its true economic value is appreciated, then animal welfare becomes firmly established as a key part of sustainable agriculture.”

For the full paper, visit this link.

September 2015

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