What’s this?

OK – what do you think this is? And what’s it got to do with chickens?

What's This?

Well, it’s a great but simple piece of technology that is used right across the chicken industry and which has helped to significantly improve the environment and welfare of millions of meat chickens grown in Australia every year….in fact 600 million of them.

It’s called a nipple drinker, and they are used to provide water to chickens in almost every chicken barn in Australia.

Nipple Drinker

How does it work?

The principle is quite clever really, because it uses the chickens’ natural attraction to and interest in pecking at shiny surfaces and objects to teach them to drink directly from the delivery point. Each nipple drinker point has a one way ‘valve’ that allows water to flow out, but doesn’t allow air or other materials to flow in. Chickens peck at the bottom of the stem of the nipple and it releases water directly into their beak before closing off again. The nipple only releases a droplet of water when it is pecked, but releases a droplet each time it is pecked, so there is always easy access to plenty of water for the birds.

Chickens using the drinker

Day old chicks are immediately attracted to the shiny stems of the drinker as soon as they are placed in their shed, and very quickly learn to drink from them.

Chicks Drinking

Most nipple drinking systems have a cup below the nipple, to catch any water inadvertently splashed or lost during drinking, or any leakage from the nipple.

Cups underneath the nipple catch any splashed or leaking water

How have they improved the environment for chickens?

Firstly, the chickens have access to fresh water that is straight from the water source, and has not sat around in open water troughs or cups where it could be open to contamination by dust, manure or microorganisms. Therefore, its way more hygienic than any other option for delivering drinking water to chickens.

Secondly, it prevents spillage of water from water receptacles onto the floor of the barn, keeping the bedding material in the shed drier and therefore the chickens themselves drier, cleaner and healthier.

For more insights into what a chicken farm looks like and how it operates, go to growing meat chickens, or have a look at the image gallery of chicken farms on the ACMF website.

Myth Busting #1: Is it safe to refreeze chicken?

Do you ever take some chicken out of the freezer to defrost before leaving for work in the morning, only to get home and not feel like cooking? I know I do!

A question we get asked often is whether it is safe to put the defrosted chicken back into the freezer, and the answer is YES! But, only if the chicken was defrosted below 5 degrees Celsius (usually means in the fridge), and wasn’t ‘defrosting’ for longer than 24 hours at this temperature.

The myth that it is not safe to re-freeze chicken meat that has been defrosted is a mix between two issues: quality and safety. While it is safe to put chicken that has been defrosted below 5 degrees, back into the freezer, freezing and re-freezing chicken may deteriorate the quality of the meat. The reduction in quality can be caused by a number of things, but it includes the formation of ice crystals in the cells of the meat that can ‘break down’ the meat so that it no longer looks as good as it did when it was bought. This affects the look of the chicken meat much more than the taste, and definitely does not affect the safety of the chicken – it is still fine to cook for dinner!

Any time chicken meat is defrosted, it is very important that it is defrosted in the fridge, below 5 degrees, and it is best to store defrosting meat on the lowest shelf in the fridge.

Why defrost in the fridge? If you defrost on the kitchen bench then re-freeze it, you’ll be storing any bacteria that have multiplied during thawing at room temperature, which can start growing again next time you defrost it! And the more bacteria that are present, the greater the risk that someone might get sick. Thorough cooking will destroy the bacteria though, so it is important to always ensure that chicken meat is cooked through, and that raw meat doesn’t come into contact with anything already cooked or that will be eaten raw (like some veggies).

Why the lowest shelf of the fridge? Well there are two reasons for this: 1. It is coldest at the bottom of the fridge and 2. It avoids any water or ‘meat juice’ from the defrosting chicken from dripping onto foods lower in the fridge. These reasons are really important for food safety, because any bacteria that might be present on the chicken meat (and therefore also in the juices) can grow at temperatures outside the fridge and this is when it can go ‘off’ and potentially make people sick if it isn’t handled correctly and cooked thoroughly.

So remember it is safe to re-freeze chicken meat that has been defrosted but always remember in the fridge and not for longer than a day.

Busted!

For more information on busting this myth and food safety advice visit http://www.chicken.org.au/foodsafety/ and http://www.foodsafety.asn.au

Food Safety

Poultry at the Sydney Royal Show

The Steggles Commercial Meat Chicken Pairs Competition at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Sydney Royal Easter Show just keeps going from strength to strength!

Each year, schools from around NSW get the chance to test their understanding of how meat chickens are grown, and just how much needs to be done and how well they need to be looked after in order to grow out to a size that they could be processed for human consumption.

The schools’ competition process was as follows:

  • All schools got exactly the same chickens; all chickens are from the same hatch.
  • All of the chicks were provided by Baiada Poultry, who markets chicken under the brands Steggles and Lilydale.
  • After six weeks in their care, schools got to select 2 female chickens and 2 male chickens to send to the Show for judging.
  • The chickens were judged by experts from Baiada Poultry on the opening day of the Show.

This year, 96 schools from around NSW took up the challenge….and challenging it was! The weeks leading up to the Show this year were particularly hot, which made keeping the chickens at the ideal temperatures and environmental conditions for optimal health particularly tricky – indeed, the judges were able to see in this year’s entries the impact of those conditions, with many entries not able to sustain adequate growth and bird vigour.

In selecting their winners, the judges take into account factors such as how well the birds have grown, how ’meaty’ they are, their overall health and vigour, whether they have any leg or feet issues that are indicative of sub-optimal housing or litter conditions, and also how similar in appearance the birds in each  pair are. All of these factors are important, not only commercially, but from a bird welfare perspective, so they are some of the same criteria used by the commercial industry to monitor how well flocks are performing in the field and how well they are cared for by commercial growers.

Above: The ACMF Assistant Executive Director, Dr Kylie Hewson and Executive Director Dr Vivien Kite, recording the judges’ comments.

Above: The ACMF Assistant Executive Director, Dr Kylie Hewson and Executive Director Dr Vivien Kite, recording the judges’ comments.

One unique aspect of this competition is that, not only are the pairs of chickens judged live, but they are also later processed and judged as carcases.

Above: Judge Jorge Ruiz from Baiada Poultry has his hands full judging the best female pair of carcases.

Above: Judge Jorge Ruiz from Baiada Poultry has his hands full judging the best female pair of carcases.

The standout pair of the competition for the judges this year was the male pair entered by Elderslie High School, Narellan – not only was this pair the clear winners in the live judging, but also went on to win the Best Meat Bird Pair in the carcase competition. Elderslie High School also exhibited the Best Commercial Meat Bird female pair, but it was the very even female pair prepared by Muswellbrook High School, Muswellbrook, that really impressed the judges when the feathers were off, clearly taking out the award of best female pair in the carcase section.

Feedback from schools has been that this competition presents a great opportunity for students to get to learn a bit about the industry, and also to gain an appreciation of how much thought, preparation, care and attention to detail in many areas (such as the right feed, the right environment, the right amount of ventilation, the right temperature, the right litter and optimal management of it), is required to successfully grow out commercial meat chickens.

All schools should be congratulated on ‘having a go’; we hope to see you back next year.

Thanks must go to dedicated judges from Baiada (Jorge Ruiz and John Howard) who did an incredible job sorting out the winners. Also, to the RAS of NSW for its support for the competition, and Giglio’s Fresh Chicken for processing the birds.

A particularly big thanks to Steggles for its ongoing support and sponsorship of this major annual event, which just keeps growing in popularity and reach.

The Show may just come around once a year, but there is a range of educational materials for school children available year round from the ACMF. These include an educational DVD, which can be ordered from the ACMF’s website (http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=206) and an information book called “The Story of Chicken” which is available to schools on request at http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=239.

Hatchery to Home

It’s Official: Chicken Remains Australia’s Favourite Meat

Earlier this month, ABARES (the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) released its annual update on current and forecast future production and consumption of Australian agricultural products, including meats. Its statistics show that Australians are forecast to consume a whopping 46.2 kg of chicken meat, per person, over 2015-16, not only cementing chicken’s position as Australian consumers’ favourite meat, but also making us one of the largest consumers of chicken meat in the world!

Those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s may well be asking the question: How did this come about? How did chicken go from being an occasional treat, consumed only on special occasions or at best as the odd Sunday roast lunch, to today eating the equivalent of almost a full kilo of chicken meat each and every week? I’ll try to answer these questions here:

How much has chicken meat production and consumption grown over the past 40 – 50 years?

Back in 1966 (half a century ago) Australians consumed just 7kg of chicken meat each. As mentioned above, it’s expected that per capita consumption of chicken meat will reach 46.2kg in 2015-16. Over the same period, consumption of beef, and of lamb in particular, has declined.

Graph of consumption March 2016

Source of data: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Why the massive growth in consumption of chicken meat?

Well, obviously, because it’s such a great product! But how did Australians get to realise what a great product it is? Simple – because they could afford to eat more of it.

In real terms, chicken meat has become more and more affordable over time – there has been no increase in the real cost of chicken meat over the past 50 years. In fact, chicken has never been more affordable than it is at the moment.

And how has this been possible? The chicken industry has been able to deliver a more affordable product because of significant improvements it has made in the efficiency with which chicken meat is produced, and overall improvements in productivity. These gains have been passed on to consumers by way of reduced prices.

A lot of research has contributed to these advancements in efficiency and productivity (providing better feeding practices and bird nutrition, better housing and husbandry, improved flock health), but they also reflect advancements in the genetics of the birds that are used both here and around the world, and the fact that chickens are inherently more efficient at converting feed into meat than other livestock species. Modern meat chickens have been bred for a range of criteria, including for their feed conversion efficiency. This has meant that the most significant cost in producing a meat chicken i.e. feed, can be reduced, for the same amount of meat produced.

Alongside this increase in affordability, the range of products available has increased, almost exponentially. The nutritional benefits of chicken in the diet have also been better recognized (see my earlier blog on this at http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/how-nutritious-is-chicken). So it’s easy to see how chicken meat consumption has increased so much over the past 50 years and how chicken meat has become Australia’s favourite meat.

Can consumption grow any higher?

This is a question that we get asked all the time – is there really any room for further growth in chicken consumption? The answer is a resounding “yes”.

With more people now understanding that many of the myths perpetuated over the years about chicken meat (such as that chickens are fed hormones, or that chickens are kept in cages – both completely untrue – see my previous blogs at http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/the-hormone-myth and http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/meat-chickens-and-cages ) many previous barriers to consumption are actually being lifted, and consumers are feeling better and better about eating chicken. With the current price differentials between chicken meat and other meats in Australia, consumption of chicken meat is certain to climb even higher.

To check out the full ABARES report, and see what it says about the future for chicken meat production and consumption, go to http://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/publications/display?url=http://143.188.17.20/anrdl/DAFFService/display.php?fid=pb_agcomd9abcc20160301_cQe9T.xml

Can chicken help long term weight loss?

Put on a few extra kgs over the festive season? Well, you’re not alone there!

This week (15 -21 February) is Australia’s Healthy Weight Week (healthyweightweek.com.au) – an initiative of the Dietitians Association of Australia, aimed at raising awareness of the importance of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. It’s a great concept and I’d encourage you to get involved.

It’s also a timely prompt to think about how chicken can contribute to achieving your healthy weight goals – and most importantly, staying there.

According to Lauren McGuckin, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, “Higher protein diets can play a role in helping some people lose weight and maintain weight loss. Lean chicken can contribute significantly to a higher protein diet and healthy eating.”

This comment hints at an interesting proposition for some – that you may not actually need to ‘go on a diet’ to actively lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Well the concept isn’t as ‘far fetched’ as it might sound to some. In fact, results of research undertaken by the ACMF a couple of years back (ACMF Diet and Chicken Survey. Galaxy Research 2010) showed that seven out of ten adults had made a conscious effort to lose weight in the previous two years, but only 7% of those ‘dieters’ actually succeed in reaching their long-term weight loss goal. The main reasons identified for this were:

  1. 65% of dieters only cut down on high calorie food when attempting to lose weight.
  2. 55% of dieters simply eat less of the food they are already eating when attempting to lose weight.
  3. 50% of all dieters will fail because they say they love food too much.
  4. 43% of dieters will fail to lose weight in the long-term because of a lack of willpower.
  5. 33% of people fail to achieve their weight target because they think dieting is too boring or there is not enough variety in diet options.
  6. 30% of dieters will crumble because they always feel hungry.
  7. 16% of dieters said that they didn’t achieve their goal because counting calories is too hard.
  8. Women dieters in particular find it hard to stick to eating ‘diet foods’, especially if they are the only one doing so in the family group.
  9. Men in particular are susceptible to falling off the diet bandwagon because they feel hungry.

If any of these sound familiar, then perhaps you need to think afresh about the beneficial role chicken could play in your diet.

Lets see how chicken’s main attributes stack up…

  • Chicken meat has the equivalent protein content of beef, lamb and pork. One 100g serve of chicken breast provides more than 50% of the recommended dietary intake of protein*. Protein consumption is generally accepted to increase satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrate or fat and may facilitate a reduction in energy consumption. This helps to overcome the ‘feeling hungry’ reason for failure to achieve weight loss goals described at 6 and 9 above.
  • Lean chicken cuts are low in fat and, importantly, over 55% of the total fat content is unsaturated fat.*
  • Chicken is a valuable source of minerals and also contains essential vitamins and all essential amino acids.
  • Lean chicken remains by far the most affordable lean meat on the Australian market.
  • Lean chicken is extremely versatile and easy to cook with…there are plenty of ways to prepare and enjoy it, so lack of variety in the diet (see point 5 above) does not need to come into play.
  • Consumer surveys tell us that chicken is a food which is popular with the whole family, so it’s easy to include it in meals that the whole family will enjoy (so much for point 89 above).
  • Forget about ‘excuses’ 3, 4, 5 above – chicken tastes good too!

*ACMF Nutrition Report – Food Health and Nutrition: Where Does Chicken Fit? May 2008 (see http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=224 )

So, can chicken help you to get back on track? Definitely!

OninChcnMs

Food Safety at Christmas

By Guest Blogger, Dr Kylie Hewson

Don’t forget the roast chicken for Christmas lunch – but also don’t forget food safety!

But what does ‘food safety’ actually mean? And how can we talk about it without getting bored and losing interest? It can be difficult to find a food safety message that will be effective and understood by everyone. Variables such as a person’s profession (do they work with food or not?), background (what sort of foods they like to prepare and eat?), understanding of foodborne illness (are they a doctor, or someone who has experienced foodborne illness previously?) and their understanding of bacteria (e.g. do they have a background in science or food technology?), will significantly impact on which food safety message will be most effective. But importantly, everyone is susceptible to foodborne illness!

Food safety is particularly important over the holiday season as people are much more likely to be catering for more people than usual in a single sitting and this is when things are more likely to go wrong.

A good place to start is with the Australian Food Safety Information Council’s (FSIC) ‘food safety at home’ quiz (http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/resources/shopping-quiz/do-you-pass-the-food-safety-at-home-test/), which will provide you with a starting point for how good (or not) your current food safety practices are at home. I scored 22.

There’s a lot of extra information in the answers to this quiz, which can be overwhelming and definitely hard to remember and put into practice when you are trying to follow a new recipe for a Christmas meal and pressed for time. Perhaps the best way to think about food safety is that it is a combination of a lot of small things that will prevent yourself (or anyone you’ve cooked for) from spending the holidays curled up on the bathroom floor (or worse)! That does not make for good memories of your carefully prepared Christmas meal.

So the simple, general, food safety theme I use when preparing a meal is CLEAN, COOK, TIME. Are the ingredients and utensils clean? Have I cooked it enough? How long has it been since it was cooked? Three little words are easier to remember than a whole page of information, which is important when we all have so many other things to remember at Christmas.

So, to chicken meat. When talking about any raw animal product it’s important to remember that it will not be sterile, even if it looks clean. Bacteria (most of which are harmless) will still be present on clean, raw chicken meat and the application of heat is really the only sure way to destroy bacteria. A previous Chook Chat blog (http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/remember-chicken-food-safety/) extends the general food safety message above to include ‘CHILL’ (instead of TIME) and ‘SEPARATE’. It’s a good idea to take extra precautions when handling raw animal products, and especially when cooking for a crowd. Chicken meat should always be kept ‘CHILLed’ in the fridge or freezer as bacteria don’t like the cold and won’t grow below 4°C – the best way to defrost chicken meat is in the fridge, or better yet, use a microwave. ‘SEPARATE’ relates to ensuring the juices that are on and in raw chicken meat don’t splash or drip on to any foods or utensils as bacteria are plentiful in these types of juices (as well as separating utensils or equipment used on raw chicken from those used for preparing other foods – particularly foods eaten raw – unless of course the equipment can be thoroughly cleaned in hot water in between uses).

Remember that bacteria are present everywhere – on your hands, clothes, kitchen utensils, other ingredients on the bench and even in the air. Chicken meat that has been left out for more than 4 hours after cooking should be thrown out, in case any bacteria have ended up on the food after cooking, some of which could have been happily growing at room temperature since. If in doubt – throw it out!

Which brings me to leftovers – there are usually plenty this time of year. Leftover chicken should definitely be reheated to steaming before it is consumed. Or better yet, cook a whole other meal using the leftover chicken meat in a pie, a casserole or on a pizza! But whichever way you use your chicken leftovers, make sure they are prepared with clean utensils, are reheated thoroughly and haven’t been in the fridge too long (no more than 2 days).

Our regular blogger, Dr Vivien Kite, will be back with another blog in February.

In the meantime, when it comes to the roast chook remember ‘Clean, Chill, Cook Separate’ and enjoy a safe, healthy, foodborne illness free Christmas!

Food Safety

Food Safety

Meat chicken behaviour – how do farmers use it?

Last month, I talked a little bit about meat chicken behaviour – not just what chickens do, but why it’s important. I foreshadowed that in my next blog I’d explain how chicken farmers use chicken behaviour to read and respond to their birds’ needs.

So, what behaviours does a chicken farmer use, and how does he/she interpret them?

What does a farmer listen for?

Most chicken farmers will tell you that they know, even before entering a shed, if all is OK based on the noise that is coming from the flock. In the daytime, the flock should be making a steady ‘hum’ of normal everyday bird activity and social interactions and the vocalisations associated with these. Hard to express in words, but here goes: a flock of baby chicks should be a chorus of ‘chip chip’; older flocks more of a ‘bwark bwark’ that some of you might relate to! There should not be a chorus of raucous squawking, and if the sound emerging from the flock is too high pitched and loud, there could be something wrong. The general noise level in a shed will increase with anything that might disturb or stress the chickens, including should there be something not right with the feed or water.

Can you tell the difference?

Listen to this audio clip of a flock of young meat chickens who are comfortable and engaging in a normal spectrum of day to day chicken activities and are not distressed:

OK – now listen to this clip:

Can you hear a subtle difference?
This is the same group of chickens, but slightly heightened level of alarm (due to an unfamiliar person moving through the flock).

And this?:

Well, this chick woke up and found that his flock mates had moved away from him…and he didn’t much like it until he found his way back to them.

What does a farmer look for?

There are many visual cues that farmers use to assess the status and level of comfort of their flock, and to tell them if something isn’t quite right. These are a few of them:

  • Chickens shouldn’t be overly flighty or fearful – they should certainly move away from you and get out of the way when you move through them, but definitely not panic!
  • They should be alert, even at times of the day when most of them are resting on the floor of the shed; they definitely shouldn’t look listless or depressed.
  • They shouldn’t be panting heavily – that means they are too hot, and the farmer will need to take action to cool the shed down.
  • They should be eating and drinking normally; crowding around the drinkers or feeders could indicate a supply problem.
  • If they are too bunched together – particularly if they are bunched together in particular parts of the shed – they might be too cold, and shed ventilation may need to be altered.
  • How the chickens are distributed around the shed tells the farmer a great deal. If they are not using the whole shed floor area, it could also be telling the farmer that the shed is too hot, too cold or that there are areas where the litter on the floor is wet or uncomfortable – all possibilities that the farmer will need to investigate and address.
  • Depending on the time of day, they should generally be doing particular things; there will be times of day when the chickens would be expected to mostly be resting, and other times that the farmer would expect that their chickens should be engaged in a range of different activities – some resting, some standing, walking, scratching around, feeding and drinking, and interacting with each other.

A good chicken farmer is therefore more than just a ‘farmer’…he/she is a genuine ‘stockperson’ and an expert interpreter of chicken behaviour.

NEXT MONTH: As we approach Christmas, its time to remind ourselves of the key principles of food safety. Do we really understand what we should be doing (and why) when preparing our Christmas roast chicken? Our guest blogger, Dr Kylie Hewson, Assistant Executive Director at the ACMF, will help to answer these questions.

Meat Chicken behaviour – what they do and why it’s important

In last month’s blog, I talked about traditional selective breeding, what it means, how it is done, and what its impacts have been in terms of the productivity of modern meat chickens and flow-on benefits for consumers. I hinted that in this month’s blog I would discuss whether and how selective breeding might have changed bird behaviour in the course of the development of modern meat chicken breeds, and I invite readers to join me on a journey through the behavioural repertoire of a modern meat chicken.

Chook Chat - Selective Breeding

Chicken Behaviour

That journey starts here.

Chicken behaviour is something that’s very close to my heart. Why so? Because it’s essentially what I did my research on here in Australia and overseas – albeit many years ago! And far from being an esoteric subject, chicken behaviour is a serious and important issue, not just for the chicken, but because it’s a critical tool that chicken farmers use in managing the flocks in their care on a daily basis.

But first, let’s get back to the question I posed in last month’s blog….

Has selective breeding affected the behavioural repertoire of a modern meat chicken?

Well, the answer is that modern meat chickens probably have the same repertoire of behaviours as their ancestor, the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of South East Asia, but certainly the extent to which they display these behaviours has changed.

Social skills

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that chickens are social animals; they live in flocks. Heard of a ‘pecking order’? Well the term originated with chickens and, yes, modern chickens also have one, albeit not so obvious in meat chicken flocks because they are young birds, which are not generally kept to their potential adult age. To establish a pecking order chickens do show aggressive behaviours towards each other (how else do they establish a pecking order…by counseling perhaps?), and it’s common to see play or practice ‘sparring’ encounters between pairs of birds in young meat chicken flocks.

Chickens also communicate vocally with their flock mates.

One obvious manifestation of their flocking tendencies is that, even in the large flocks kept in some meat chicken sheds, they tend to congregate in loose ‘groups’ across the shed area, rather than spreading themselves out absolutely evenly across the available floor area. Indeed, one research study (K. Febrer, T.A. Jones, C.A. Donnelly and M. Stamp Dawkins M (2006) Forced to crowd or choosing to cluster? Spatial distribution indicates social attraction in broiler chickens Animal Behaviour 72: 1291-1300) showed that even at stocking densities far exceeding those ever used in Australian commercial chicken farms, meat chickens in commercial houses consistently spaced themselves closer to other birds than would be expected if they were just placing themselves at random, or if they were avoiding each other.

Docility

One very fundamental behavioural change is that modern meat chickens are more ‘docile’ or less flighty and less fearful of humans than their ancestor the Red Jungle Fowl. This feature is not unique to modern chickens…it is a characteristic typical of all animals that have been domesticated over the centuries (in the case of chickens, probably over tens of thousands of years). In fact, recent research conducted by a team of behavioural geneticists at Linköping University in Sweden has shown that simply selecting Red Jungle Fowl for reduced fear of humans leads to co-selection for a range of other traits of value to humans. Even after just three generations, the birds selected for ‘tameness’ grew faster, laid larger eggs and produced larger offspring than their more fearful counterparts (B. Agnvall, A. Ali, S. Olby and P. Jensen (2014) Animal Volume 8 Issue 09 September 2014, pp 1498-1505). More recent evaluation of the fifth and sixth generation of the selected birds apparently has shown that the tamer birds also gained more weight per kilogram of food consumed i.e. they were more efficient.

Exploratory and foraging behaviours

Chickens explore their environment – with their eyes, their beaks and their feet! In the wild, they required these behaviours to uncover food and water. In fact, chicken farmers exploit this to ensure that the day old chickens which arrive in their sheds quickly learn to find drinking water from equipment which you and I would probably not intuitively associate with delivering water.

Chicks Drinking

Chickens are omnivores, and their wild and backyard relatives eat seeds and other plant materials, insects, worms and other small animals, and even scavenge on the carcasses of dead animals (even of their own species). They therefore have quite a high requirement for protein. This hasn’t changed in the modern meat chicken, and chicken diets are formulated to meet these requirements.

Because they have been bred and are reared in conditions where they have food in front of them 24 hours a day, meat chickens are, not surprisingly, less active than their wild ancestors. However, they still display a range of foraging behaviours in their shedded environment, which includes pecking at and scratching in the litter (for example, sawdust, wood shavings or rice hulls) on the floor of their shed. Due to their somewhat altered body shape compared to their ancestors – more muscle, particularly breast muscle – the way that they walk looks different….to make an analogy in the world of sports, a bit like comparing how a shot putter walks compared to a marathon runner.

Comfort behaviours

Meat chickens in commercial sheds possess and do display the full gamut of comfort behaviours seen in their wild ancestors – resting, preening, stretching, wing flapping and even dust-bathing!

To stay comfortable, chickens regulate their temperature by moving themselves into more comfortable locations! They don’t have sweat glands, so if they are too hot they will attempt to lose heat by panting to lose heat from their respiratory tract and by holding their wings away from their body to maximise direct heat loss to the environment. If they are too cold they will huddle together to keep warm.

Alert but not alarmed! – predator awareness and avoidance

Although essentially protected by virtue of their relationship with their human keeper and the housing provided from predation by the likes of foxes, cats, birds of prey etc, modern meat chickens have retained their fear of predators and display a range of behaviours to protect themselves from predation. They show very distinctive responses to visual stimuli or sounds that might represent a predator bird overhead, for example, and farmers need to be careful not to expose them to sights or loud noises which might panic them.

Interestingly, meat chickens which have access to an outdoor range tend to display more behaviours associated with fear and alertness for predators than they do when they are inside their shed.

Why is behaviour important?

The issue of how important is it to the chickens themselves for them to perform certain behaviours is the subject of much conjecture and scientific debate, although it is clear that some behaviours are more important (or more motivating) for chickens than others. This is a topic for another day.

However, where it becomes really important in chicken farming is that farmers use key chicken behaviours in a myriad of ways to monitor and manage their flocks… even though sometimes they probably don’t even realise they are doing it – it is just part of the ‘art’ of being a good chicken stockperson. Forget all the manuals, modern technologies, controllers and other assorted gadgets that all farms can and do have to help farmers manage their flocks – the key attribute of a good farmer is their ability to ‘read’ their flocks.

How they do that? Well, join me next time to learn more about how chicken farmers use chicken behaviour to read their birds’ needs.

Selective breeding – why is it important and what does it mean?

Selective breeding – why is it important and what does it mean?

In an earlier blog, I described how modern meat chickens have been selectively bred to grow well and put on a lot of muscle (meat), in the context of explaining that these characteristics have been achieved without the use of hormones (hormones not having ever been fed or in any way administered to meat chickens in Australia for over 50 years) – see: Chookchat – the hormone myth

In another blog, I explained how different selective breeding paths had led to separate chicken breeds for commercial meat chickens and egg laying chickens which not only perform very differently (one grows to a large body size and carries lots of meat; the other produces lots of eggs), but which also look quite different too.

In this month’s blog, I’ll explain a little bit more about how traditional selective breeding works in the modern chicken meat industry, why we do it, and what the impacts are for the chickens, the industry and consumers.

Selective breeding – why?

First, a bit of background.

Since the time man first domesticated animals, selective breeding has been used to develop better or more useful strains (or breeds) of the animals from the genetic diversity that naturally exists in the population of a single species.

Heard of Charles Darwin? Well, he was the first to describe the connection between domestication, selection and evolution. In the first chapter of his famous book, “On the Origin of the Species”, Darwin discussed how domestication and selective breeding had produced significant changes over time in a range of animals, including dogs, cattle and pigeons. He went on to expand on how deliberate selective breeding by man has been used to create desired changes in domesticated animals in his 1868 book “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication”.

Just consider what we’ve done with the following animals:

Dogs – Through selection and cross breeding, a vast diversity of breeds of dog has been developed over the centuries, including breeds which are highly suited for:

  • Herding livestock – e.g. Border Collies, Cattle Dogs and Corgis (yes, Corgis were bred for herding cattle and sheep!)
  • Hauling and pulling – e.g. Siberian Huskies
  • Hunting – e.g. Retrievers to retrieve kills during a hunt, Spaniels for flushing birds out of bushes, Rhodesian Ridgebacks for hunting lions, and Terriers for finding, digging out and killing rats and other vermin
  • Guarding and protection – e.g. Doberman Pinscher
  • Lapdogs – for, well, keeping your lap warm I guess!

Dog breeds

Photography: www.istockphoto.com

Horses – some were developed for heavy work like ploughing or pulling carts (e.g. Clydesdales), some for carrying men to war, some for speed and racing (e.g. Thoroughbreds).

Cattle – like all domesticated animals, cattle have been bred to be quieter and more manageable. Different breeds of cattle have also been developed which either produce more milk (e.g. Friesians and Jerseys) or more meat (e.g. Charolais).

Chickens – different breeds have been developed that are smaller (bantams), or produce more eggs, or which are larger and more ‘meaty’, or just aesthetically unique!

Some fancy breeds of chicken were just bred for their good looks!

Some fancy breeds of chicken were just bred for their good looks!

A modern hybrid meat chicken

A modern hybrid meat chicken

All of this has been achieved using a very simple ‘tool’ – and that is selective breeding.


How is it done?

The principle of selective breeding is simple – it relies on the selection of individual animals which show the most desirable characteristics as the parents for the next generation in the breeding program, and repeating this process over many generations.

Selective breeding is particularly effective for animals that have a short reproductive cycle, the number of offspring are high and the breeding effort is focused and involves a large number of animals. This fits the chicken perfectly because a chicken becomes sexually mature within less than 6 months and can produce more than 200 eggs in one year. There are currently a small number of specialised breeding companies that undertake programs for meat chickens as part of an international effort to produce the ideal meat chicken! These efforts have been going on for decades, so it is easy to see why selective breeding has been so successful in the meat chicken industry.

Does selective breeding make something a Genetically Modified Organism?

No!

Genetic engineering, often referred to as genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome (set of genes) using biotechnology. It could, for example, involve extracting the genes from one plant or animal and inserting them into the genome of a totally different species. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are generally defined as organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or recombination.

Traditional selective breeding, on the other hand, leads to gradual but cumulative changes in a population of animals over time using natural processes. Selective breeding therefore does not make an animal a Genetically Modified Organism, and modern breeds of chickens are no more Genetically Modified than your pet Poodle or Labrador.

So, the breeding of modern meat chickens isn’t something out of science fiction; but is it rocket science? Well, the answer is yes and no! No, because the principle is so simple – just mate the animals with the most desirable characteristics with each other to produce the next generation. And yes? Because the technologies used to choose the best parents to produce the next generation from can be cutting edge. For example, chicken breeding companies have used an X-ray unit called a lixiscope to identify subclinical leg bone abnormalities in meat chicken breeding stock, allowing them to actively select against its presence in breeding stock, thereby improving overall leg health in meat chicken breeds – funnily enough, the lixiscope was in fact developed by NASA scientists! Meat chicken breeding companies have also used a technique called pulse oximetry to measure the oxygen saturation levels in the blood of chickens, an important indicator of susceptibility to several metabolic diseases, in order to develop breeds which have stronger cardio-vascular and respiratory systems.

Will we ever see GM chickens used commercially?

I preface my comments here by saying that I’m personally not opposed to the use of Genetic Modification (GM) technologies to improve agricultural productivity, if it can produce significant benefits in a shorter time frame, and so long as the products are properly evaluated so that they pose no risk to the environment, human health or food safety and animal welfare.

But will the Australian chicken industry ever use breeds of chicken derived from GM technologies? Well, maybe, but I believe it would only do so if the outcome wasn’t just about improvements in productivity (i.e. something in it for the producers); it would have to be for some characteristic which has broader community or social benefit, for example, birds resistant to avian influenza.

What are meat chickens selected for?

The focus of meat chicken breeding programs has itself evolved quite dramatically over the years. In the 1960s, the goal of selective breeding in meat chickens was basically all about increased growth rate and increased meat production (i.e. producing larger chickens in less time). These days, the approach is much more balanced, with health and welfare very important breeding targets. This is illustrated in the figure below, which I have extracted from the ACMF website and which compares the 1960 breeding goals of a major meat chicken breeding company with its goals in 2013. This shows that the focus has changed from growth and yield to a broad spectrum of outcomes, with a clear emphasis on improving animal welfare, reproduction and fitness outcomes.selective breeding targets

Why is it important to the chicken industry?

It is estimated that somewhere between 60 – 80% of the significant gains in meat chicken performance that have been made over the past 60 years are due to genetic improvements made in the breeds that are available and used commercially.

These have all been made possible by traditional selective breeding.

Why should it be important to consumers of chicken meat?

Consumers have benefitted from the improvements in productivity that have resulted from the gains made through selective breeding, particularly in terms of lower prices for chicken meat, greater availability of chicken meat, and more consistent quality. It’s selective breeding that’s allowed chicken to become a regular part of our Australian diet, rather than a special treat, only affordable on special occasions (which was the case when I was a child).

And what about the chickens themselves?

You’ll have to wait and see, because in next month’s blog I’m going to discuss something that’s very close to my heart…and that’s chicken behaviour, and whether and how it might have been changed in the course of the development of modern meat chicken breeds.

So join me next month for a journey through the behavioural repertoire of a modern meat chicken.

Australian Chicken – truly home grown!

Why new Country of Origin labelling?

Remember the frozen berry recall in February this year? If so, you may also recall that this incident led to widespread calls for better information to be provided on the label of food products sold in Australia so that consumers could understand where the food had been produced and/or where the ingredients in it had been grown. In reality, this matter had been under consideration by the Australian government for some time – indeed a report on an inquiry into country of origin labelling of foods had been released in October 2014. Nevertheless, the frozen berry incident undoubtedly provided significant impetus for the development of a system for country of origin labelling of food in Australia.

The outcome of this is that the Australian Government is proposing a new labelling system to deliver clearer and more consistent messages regarding the country of origin of foods sold in Australia. The proposed new system was announced in July.

The new labeling system is a big step towards ending the confusion around country of origin labeling, especially for consumers who want to know how much of a product was manufactured or grown locally.

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How will it affect chicken meat?

Three years ago, the ACMF undertook a survey which revealed that widespread misconceptions out there in the community about the origin of chicken meat sold in Australia, with over 65 percent of Australians believing that some, most or even all of chicken meat in Australia is imported ((Ref: Galaxy Research, Australians aged 18-64 years, sample 1,218 respondents, July, 2012). This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, as I explained in my blog back in March:
All fresh and frozen raw chicken meat and virtually all further processed and cooked chicken products that are offered for sale in Australia have been produced in Australia (and I mean the chickens have been grown on Australian farms, and processed in Australian processing plants, to Australian standards). Some cooked chicken meat (probably less than half a percent of all chicken meat sold in Australia), is imported, but only if the chicken meat has been processed in accordance with the required protocols (which include prolonged exposure to high temperatures) to destroy viruses and bacteria of concern and to ensure that there is no unacceptable risk to consumers or Australian poultry. This product mainly ends up as an ingredient to processed food (e.g. in canned chicken, soups or animal food). A small amount of cooked chicken meat is also imported from New Zealand.

What will the consumer see in store?

Once introduced, consumers will see statements about where the food was produced, grown, made or packaged. Most Australian food will carry the familiar green kangaroo symbol and an indication of the proportion of Australian ingredients through a statement and a bar graph on the packaging. The new system will also provide clearer rules around when food labels can carry ‘made in’ or ‘packed in’ statements.

The new labelling system is expected to be rolled out in 2016.

What about chicken labels specifically?

Because virtually all chicken meat on sale in Australia has been grown and produced in Australia, you could expect:
• On all fresh chicken, consumers could expect to see ‘Grown In’ Australia country of origin claims.
• On frozen value added chicken products, consumers could expect to see ‘Packed In’ statements and ‘Made In’ Australia claims from 100% Australian chicken / or xx% Australian ingredients.
• On the small range of products containing imported chicken (for example some canned chicken products), consumers will see statements regarding the country of origin eg ‘Made in New Zealand’.

So, will the proposed new country of origin labelling system help to correct existing misconceptions? I hope it will provide reassurance and a reminder to Australian consumers that, whether it is frozen, fresh or value added, close to 100% of all chicken sold in Australia is locally grown. Look out for familiar green and gold on pack!