Infertile roosters increase shortage in U.S. chicken supplies

Canadian hatcheries depend on U.S. imports but have been unaffected to date

A genetic problem in a key breed of U.S. rooster could affect Canada’s broiler chicken industry, which imports nearly all its parent breeding stock from south of the border.

The U.S. is already experiencing a shortage of breeder birds and the genetic issue could make supplies even tighter, American officials say.

If that happens, it could put Canadian broiler producers in a bind because this country has no companies of its own that supply breeding stock.

“It’s the U.S. or nothing,” said Giuseppe Caminiti, general manager of Canadian Hatching Egg Producers in Ottawa.

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So far, however, Canadian broiler hatcheries report no disruption to parent breeding stock imports.

“We haven’t had any shortages in terms of our placement,” said Craig Evans, chief executive officer of Granny’s Poultry in Winnipeg. “It’s business as usual.”

Aviagen, the world’s biggest chicken breeder, discovered a genetic problem in its main breed of rooster that was causing a reduction in fertility.

The breed, Aviagen’s standard Ross male, was believed responsible for an unusual reduction in chick output when 17 per cent eggs laid by the company’s hens mated with the rooster breed failed to hatch. Normal hatching failure rates are around 15 per cent.

Ruled out

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.

Aviagen, owned privately by EW Group of Germany, 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, said Mike Cockrell, Sanderson’s chief financial officer.

“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 has reportedly since replaced that particular breed with a new one and is mating it with the same type of hens.

The Ross is sire through its offspring to as much as 25 per cent of the chickens in the U.S. raised for slaughter. The majority of broiler parent stock in Canada is Aviagen’s Ross breed, Caminiti said.

He said it’s difficult to compare the U.S. situation with Canada’s, because American companies sometimes use a combination of other breeds, such as Cobb or Hubbard, in producing parent stock. In Canada, the same breed is used in mating males and females.

Canadian imports

Canadian broiler hatcheries order parent stock from the U.S. as day-old chicks, based on quota allocations. The chicks are delivered to broiler breeder farms where they are grown and mated. They start to lay fertile eggs at 24 to 25 weeks of age. The eggs go to the hatcheries where they are hatched and delivered to broiler farms as day-old chicks. The birds are then grown for meat.

Manitoba has 24 registered hatching egg farms. Manitoba Chicken Producers, a provincially regulated agency, represents hatching egg and broiler producers in the province.

Manitoba’s total allocation for parent stock of broiler breeders is 226,100 hens, said Karen Armstrong, Manitoba Chicken Producers assistant manager. The agency does not keep track of the roosters.

“All of our parent stock comes from the United States,” Armstrong said, adding the birds are all Ross.

The news of genetic problems in a major breed of broiler chicken comes at a time when the U.S. is already suffering from a short supply of breeder birds.

Stocks are also tight worldwide, partly because of an avian influenza outbreak in Mexico last year.

But Caminiti said there is no fallout in Canada just yet. Canadian imports of parent breeding stock from the U.S. are secure so far because orders are placed under contract two years in advance.

“We’re receiving the birds that we have ordered,” said Caminiti. “We have not been shorted. The market for breeders is tight but I understand is getting better.”

Shortages

The shortage of breeder birds in the U.S. appears to be affecting that country’s chicken production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting only a one per cent increase in poundage for 2014, compared to the long-term annual average of four per cent. Production for 2015 is projected to increase by 2.6 per cent.

At the same time, U.S. poultry exports for meat are predicted to increase nearly 10 per cent this year, creating a strain on domestic supplies.

Lisa Bishop-Spencer, communications manager for Chicken Farmers of Canada, said Canada’s supply management system helps shield the poultry industry from shortages and surpluses by matching supply with demand through the quota system.

“This way, from the consumer’s perspective, the supply of chicken available is steady, without shorting the market or flooding it. In essence, it ensures a consistently reliable supply of fresh, high-quality chicken,” Bishop-Spencer said.

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