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Genetic selection of broilers

Improvements in chickens for a sustainable future

Published: October 21, 2011
By: John Hardiman (Cobb-Vantress, Inc)

Improvements in chickens related to broiler breeder production, efficiency of broiler growth, environmental improvements and enhanced poultry wellbeing are helping to promote a sustainable future for the world’s poultry industry. Since the early 1900’s commercial breeding companies have used the science of poultry breeding and genetics to help shape permanent production and wellbeing improvements in broiler parents and their broiler offspring for customers in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, genetic improvements in the Cobb 500 over the last 30 years included a 10 percent increase in carcass yield, an 11 percent increase in breast meat percent of live weight and a .60 reduction in feed conversion ratio therefore producing broilers which require 25 percent less feed per unit gain. In addition, there has been continuous improvement in reproductive traits while the number of selection traits related to broiler wellbeing and the environment including leg and skeletal health, metabolic disease, broiler livability and feed conversion have been expanded.

In the United Sates in the 1940’s, broiler industry breeding improvements included identifying lines showing maximum crossbred performance for broiler traits including fast growth rate (fewer days to market weight), rate of feathering and livability and also included selecting specialized meat type lines improved by progeny testing for degree of fleshing as mentioned in Hanke et al. (1974).  Specialized male and female commercial broiler products such as Vantress, Indian River and Arbor Acre were among the first to be developed and were further popularized by “Chicken-Of-Tomorrow” contests. As a result of these efforts, rates of genetic progress in broiler traits increased with time to a market weight of 3.2 pounds (1.45kg) decreasing to less than 12 weeks and commercial feed conversion ratios fell below 4.0.
By the 1960-1980’s broiler breeders had added direct selection for reduction in fat and improved feed conversion along with selection based on careful measurements of total carcass and breast meat yields designed in part to accommodate the increased demand for deboned poultry products.
 Genetic selection has contributed greatly to the improvement of poultry over the last 50 years as described by Siegel et al. (2006). In fact, comparisons of selected commercial lines versus a non-selected Athens-Canadian random bred control line separated by over 44 years reported by Havenstein et al. (2003) showed that 85-90% of broiler growth rate, carcass and part yield changes appeared to be due to genetic selection in broiler stocks. A large variety of different breeding strategies have been used by broiler breeders to make genetic improvements in individual traits including reproduction, growth rate, feed efficiency, yield, meat quality and heat stress as well as to help reduce metabolic and skeletal disorders and these have been summarized by Thiruvenkadan et al. (2011).
Commercial results
From 1980 to 2010 U.S. broiler weights for the Cobb 500 product at 6 weeks of age increased from about 2.5 pounds (1.13kg) to 5.5 pounds (2.50 kg), meat yields improved from 64% to 74% of live weight, breast meat yields of live weight improved from 12% to 23 % while feed conversion ratios (pounds of feed per pound of gain) decreased from approximately 2.40 to 1.80. From 1995 to 2011 egg production of the Cobb 500 increased by 15 eggs or by almost one egg per year. Selection continued against birds with physical defects including for example crooked legs, toes, keels or backs, poor feathering, dark feather or shank color, short legs and poor breast conformation.
Throughout the 1990’s and in the new millennium Cobb added additional selection traits related to chicken wellbeing including more sophisticated measurements of leg health (e.g. tibial dyschonlasia (TD) and femoral head necrosis (FHN)), walking ability, cardiovascular fitness (e.g. ascites), skin condition (e.g. foot pad dermatitis) and disease resistance. These trait measurements are now routine parts of Cobb broiler breeding selection programs and include X-ray testing for TD, FHN evaluation, gait assessment, blood oxygen measurement for ascites control and foot pad dermatitis grading. Associated with this, Cobb incidence of TD in pedigree lines decreased, field reports of ascites declined and company regional managers reported reductions in leg problems in each world region. In addition, US field results summarized by Agri Stats (2010) documented continued progress in field broiler livability and reductions in percent condemns between 1988 and 2010 reflecting both genetic and management efforts to improve bird health. New extramural research in a variety of health related areas are being supported in hopes of further improving the innate immunity of Cobb broilers and also resistance to Salmonella, Campylobacter, Marek’s disease and Avian Influenza. 
Research conducted by Williams et al. (2006) on the effects of genetic selection on the environment have calculated estimated improvements in broiler related global warming potential (tCO2) of 23 percent over 20 years and broilers continued to show the lowest estimated GWP100  tCO2 values of the major meat producing species in the UK with a value of 4.6 for chickens versus values of 16, 6.4 and 17 for beef, swine and sheep, respectively.  In addition, broilers from 2010 when compared with broilers from 1980 were expected to show a reduction in dry manure output of 18,174 tons (16,522 tonnes) for each 52 million broilers processed per year at 5 pounds (2.27 kg) in an analysis based on personal communication with Teeter (2002).  Genetic improvements in feed conversion are believed to be largely responsible for many of the positive changes in these environmental impact measures. 
Many commercial broiler breeding companies, including Cobb, are supporting both external and internal research regarding the effective use of SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) gene markers and genomics as an aid to traditional selection. These involve the collection of both blood samples and phenotypic trait measurements from pedigree chickens followed by sophisticated DNA and statistical analysis to identify genetic differences related to important production, welfare and environmental traits. It is believed that accuracy of selection and therefore rates of genetic progress will be improved by combining standard phenotypic trait measurements on individual birds with genotypic estimates from these DNA analyses as discussed by Goddard et al. (2010).
Genetic selection for improved chicken performance has been very successful in making permanent changes in breeder and broiler performance related to production and efficiency of growth and meat production. Improvements in the feed efficiency have in turn led to expected improvements in reduction in broiler waste production and also in gasses of global warming potential. Broiler livability has been shown to have improved in the U.S. while broiler condemns have decreased concurrently. Numerous new traits have been incorporated into commercial selection programs designed to help further improve skeletal and leg health, skin integrity, cardiovascular fitness and disease resistance in broilers.
Breeding for a sustainable future will require the continued addition and integration of more accurate and effective trait measurements plus new applications of molecular genetics and genomics to help solve the challenges of increasing both production and efficiency in broilers while helping to balance and improve bird health, animal wellbeing and the environment.
Agri Stats. 2010. US Broiler livability and field condemn (%). Vital Signs 1998 through 2010. unpublished subscription service.
Goddard  ME, Hayes BJ, Meuwissen TH. 2010. Genomic selection in livestock populations. Genetic Res. (Camb) 92:413-421.
Hanke  OA, Skinner  JL, Florea  JH. 1974. American Poultry History. American printing and publishing, Inc. Wisconsin, USA.
Havenstein GB, Ferket PR, Qureshi MA.  2003. Growth, livability, and feed conversion of 1957 versus 2001 broilers when fed representative 1957 and 2001 broiler diets. Poult. Sci. 82: 1500-1508.
Havenstein GB, Ferket PR, Qureshi MA.  2003. Carcass composition and yield of 1957 versus 2001 broilers when fed representative 1957 and 2001 broiler diets. Poult. Sci. 82: 1509-1518.
Teeter, R.  2002. Personal communication.
Thiruvenkadan AK, Prabakaran R, Panneerselvam S. 2011. Broiler breeding strategies over the decades: an overview. World’s Poult. Sci. 67:309-336.
Siegel PB, Dodgson JB, Anderson L. 2006. Progress from chicken genetics to chicken genome. Poult. Sci. 85: 2050-2060.
Williams A, Audsley E, Sandars DL. 2006. Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities.  Main Report. Defra Research Project IS0205. Bedford: Cranfield University and Defra. URL: www.silsoe.cranfield.ac.uk, and www.defra.gov.uk. Accessed: 6-July-2011.
Watch John Hardiman´s conference at the XXII Latin American Poultry Congress, Buenos Aires, Argentina:
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Kelvin Musonda
10 de septiembre de 2012

Dear John (VP COBB),
Thanks for this informative article.
I am a principal at the only livestock production institute in Lusaka, Zambia and I have been keeping broilers since 1993.
The commercial results you have reported on make good reading and I have personally observed them in Zambia. I should hastly indicate that my observation has been that while there is a remarkable decrease in the feed conversion ratio (FCR) for the cobb 500, there has been an increase in lameness. It is, however, pacifying to read that new traits have been incorporated into your commercial selection programmes which are also aimed at improving skeletal and leg health. This is good news because the high incidence of lameness that I have observed in the cobb 500 takes away from the benefits of a reduction in FCR.
Thanks for the update and good luck.

Kelvin Musonda
Palabana Institute of Animal Husbandry

Sufian Zuber Kyarua
5 de septiembre de 2012
Thanks for very nice informative article.It highlights me more on challengesas on early 2000`s ifaced on COBB 500 in Tanzania.I had to visit supplier and some farmers in Harare Zimbabwe for comparison where i realised the enviromental contribution on genetic performance can not be neglected.Thank you for this discussion.
Dr Wisal M.Khan
5 de septiembre de 2012

Dear John Hardiman VP Cobb

Thanks for the very nice and informative article. I am very pleased that people like you in the industry has shared his work and the knowledge with others. It is very informative especially all this improvement in the Poultry and meat industry nowadays sucessfully fillfull the current daily Protein requirements of the daily humen life in both case meat and egg sector .
I have really enjoyed this type of work while I was working on the PL project and know all the very basics of this work .
Brother Maheswar Rath: nowadays when someone is selecting some GP project for there GP and PS all the criteria you have discussed needs to be discussed with the GGP /PL company and they have a lot of choices for it ie that how much body wt you will need at the brolier level and eggs and chicks at the PS level, also the selection of Males are very important at this stage .

Thank you again for such discussion .

Maheswar Rath
4 de septiembre de 2012

Dear Vice President of Cobb-Vantress Inc,

I am very happy with your approach on selection programs for future improvements in broiler stocks . I am a poultry consultant in India and i found cobb is doing very well all over in Asia as cobb4,cobb5 .Your information on future genetic selection criteria have been very critical and need of the day to exploit the genetic contribution to induce immunity to various problems encountered in the field conditions as well as to support the muscular growth by concentrating on skeletal selection criteria. I am hopeful your team RnD will further make contribution to world in terms of food production protecting the various well being and environmental issues as well. More utilization of feed within time frame would contribute significantly for the over all efficiencies of the stocks. More control of breeding stocks for restriction of egg wt and number of hatching egg per dam , and better transfer of immunity to Hatching eggs would be very much useful along with all other vital issues which you have briefed .Thank you for the information on genetic progress and targets.

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