Roosters’ fertility problem hits U.S. chicken supply

Reuters — The world’s largest chicken breeder has discovered a key breed of rooster has a genetic issue reducing its fertility, adding to problems constraining U.S. poultry production and raising prices at a time when beef and pork prices are already at record highs.

The breed, Aviagen Group’s standard Ross male, is sire through its offspring to as much as 25 per cent of the nation’s chickens raised for slaughter, said Aviagen spokeswoman Marla Robinson.

Sanderson Farms, the third-largest U.S. poultry producer and one of Aviagen’s largest customers, said it and Aviagen systematically ruled out other possible causes for a decline in fertility before determining a genetic issue was at the root of the problem.

The issue is hitting an industry that is already suffering from a short supply of breeder birds.

The U.S. Agriculture Department last month reduced its U.S. chicken production forecast for 2014, predicting only a one per cent increase in poundage from 2013, well below the long-run annual average of four per cent. The agency predicted 2015 production would be up only 2.6 per cent.

The limited growth in output is occurring as foreign demand for U.S. chicken is on the rise. U.S. exports of poultry for meat are projected to reach 3.4 million tons in 2014, up from 3.1 million last year.

Sensitive bird

Aviagen, owned privately by EW Group of Germany, provides breeding stock to Sanderson and other chicken producers, which then breed the birds and hatch their eggs to produce meat.

Sanderson last summer first identified an unusual reduction in chick output involving the Ross breed. Mike Cockrell, Sanderson’s chief financial officer, said about 17 per cent of eggs laid by Aviagen hens mated with the rooster breed failed to hatch. Typically, the failure rate is about 15 per cent, he said.

Sanderson gradually eliminated a number of other potential factors, including the temperature in hatcheries and the source of corn fed to the birds, Cockrell said.

Aviagen sent a team of scientists to Sanderson last autumn to study the issue and has acknowledged that an undisclosed change it made to the breed’s genetics made the birds “very sensitive” to being overfed, he said.

“We fed him too much. He got fat. When he got big, he did not breed as much as he was intended to,” Cockrell said about the breed of rooster. “The fertilization went way down, and our hatch has been way down.”

Aviagen regularly tweaks genetics in birds to improve them, Cockrell added.

Aviagen declined comment on changes to the rooster’s genetics.

The chicken breeding company has replaced the breed suffering from fertility issues with a new breed, and is mating it with the same type of hens. It is too early to provide accurate projections for their productivity, but “results to date are favourable,” Robinson said.

Sanderson expects to fully shift to the replacement breed by autumn, Cockrell said.

Rebuilding effort

The fertility problem is occurring at a time when the industry is dealing with a shortage of breeder birds, which are in demand as the sudden hike in beef and pork prices this year has renewed demand for chicken.

The shortfall came about after breeders reduced their flocks when a spike in feed prices in 2011 squeezed their profit margins, according to Sanderson and poultry experts. While grain prices have now fallen and demand for chicken is on the rise, U.S. poultry breeders are still rebuilding their flocks.

Aviagen’s Robinson declined to comment on the reasons breeder birds are in tight supply. The nation’s other major breeding company, Cobb Vantress, owned by Tyson Foods, declined to comment for this article.

A lack of accommodation for newly born breeder birds after the 2011 cutback is slowing the rebuilding process, said Paul Aho, a consultant to Aviagen and a poultry economist.

— Tom Polansek reports on agriculture and ag commodity markets for Reuters from Chicago. Additional reporting for Reuters by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles.

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