The rooster’s wake-up call

Anyone who has lived on or near a farmyard with chickens is well aware of the rooster’s ability to trumpet the arrival of morning long before the sun peeks over the horizon.

But roosters have been delivering a wake-up call of a different sort lately — sounding the alarm over the risks inherent with the increasingly narrow gene pool used in commercial production.

The U.S. broiler industry recently discovered the Ross breed of rooster, which sires as much as 25 per cent of the U.S. broiler chicken supply, has developed a fertility problem.

After investigating why up to 17 per cent of the eggs these roosters fertilized failed to hatch, the breeder, German-based Aviagen, acknowledged an unspecified change made to its genetics boosted growth rates at the expense of fertility.

We are told the problem has since been fixed through more genetic tweaking, but this seemingly temporary genetic glitch is having costly effects.

The USDA’s chicken production forecast for 2014 released last month predicted 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. That’s cutting into the country’s export potential at a time when foreign demand is growing.

The fertility problem exacerbated an already existing shortage of breeder birds.

According to Reuters, breeders reduced their flocks when a spike in feed prices in 2011 squeezed their profit margins. Breeders have been trying to rebuild their flocks ever since and are now looking for other options, such as attempting to hatch eggs that would otherwise have been discarded and keeping their laying hens longer.

The shortages in the U.S. are pushing up prices at a time when beef and pork prices are already at record highs.

Canada sources all of its breeding stock from the U.S. and relies solely on the Ross rooster. But it has been unaffected — at least so far.

Thanks to stability of supply management, Canadian hatcheries are able to contract for their hatching eggs up to two years in advance. The industry reports those contracts are being honoured to date. As such, it appears Canadian consumers will be spared any potential price shock.

But it’s a wake-up call nonetheless about agriculture’s tendency to put all its eggs in one genetic basket.

And it underscores the irony of the University of Alberta’s reliance on charitable donations to preserve its flock of heritage poultry breeds.

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Two years ago, the flock was threatened by budget cuts, prompting the university’s Poultry Research Centre to appeal for public support under an innovative “adopt a heritage chicken” program. Individual donors — who now number 400 — pay $150 a year in exchange for receiving 24-dozen eggs over a 10-month period.

There are lots of great things we could say about how this approach supports the local food movement and offers urbanites an opportunity to connect with agriculture.

But it’s questionable whether as a society we want to rely on such methods to preserve genetic diversity. The need for such resources is not some nicety — the threat to supply from unforeseen genetic breakdowns is clearly not theoretical.

While the public’s support for this program is heartwarming, what’s needed is a long-term commitment from government.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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