Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?

…or the oceans, in the case of chicken meat available to Australian consumers.

Consumers often associate the beef and lamb that they buy as having been grown in Australia, but are not so confident about the origin of their chicken meat.

Well, good news! Almost all chicken meat available for you to buy in Australia is grown domestically!

To protect Australian agriculture and consumers from diseases of poultry, including those that can also infect wild birds, raw chicken meat from all other countries can only be imported under strict protocols. To date poultry producers in other countries have been unable to meet these requirements. The exception to this is chicken grown in New Zealand, which has a similar favourable disease status to Australia.

Not only do these restrictions on importation protect our local poultry flocks and wild birds, they also protect Australians from a range of public health risks that are more prevalent in some other countries.

Only some highly processed, fully retorted or cooked in-packaging chicken meat products can currently be imported. The high temperatures and prolonged cooking used to treat these products effectively sterilizes them. These foods – which include products such as canned chicken and some soups – account for only a small amount (less than 1%) of the chicken consumed in Australia.

While no raw chicken meat is able to cross any ocean, a small amount of chicken meat is imported from New Zealand – but that doesn’t count, because that’s only crossing a sea!

So consumers can be assured that, aside from a minuscule quantity of product from New Zealand, 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).

What about the future?

Australia’s tight biosecurity arrangements and protocols will hopefully continue to ensure that Australian consumers and our chicken flocks are protected from the risks of imported chicken meat, but there are always threats that these arrangements will be undermined and both the industry and consumers need to be vigilant.

Think I’m exaggerating these risks? Well consider the impacts of White Spot disease, a highly contagious viral disease of crustaceans including prawns, crabs, yabbies and lobsters that was introduced into Australia in imported prawns last year. Following its discovery on Queensland prawn farms back in November 2016 the disease has had a devastating impact on Queensland’s $87 million farmed prawn industry. Fortunately, white spot disease only affects crustaceans; it does not pose a threat to human health or food safety. But another example shows that Australian consumers can also be exposed to food safety risks through imports. Remember the frozen berries recalls in February 2015, then again in June 2017? These stemmed from imported frozen berries which were linked to hepatitis A cases in Australia.

We know that Australians want to know more about the origin of the food they’re consuming. The good news for those concerned that their chicken meat has been grown and produced in Australia to Australia’s high standards of food safety and animal welfare, is that from 1 July 2018, Australia’s new country of origin labelling standards will come into force and will require most foods (including all chicken products) to be labelled to indicate where they came from. To understand the new laws and what the labels means, and to learn how to recognise your chicken has been produced in Australia, see http://www.foodlabels.industry.gov.au/.

In the meantime, continue to enjoy your homegrown Aussie chicken, safe in the knowledge that it has been produced here in Australia, by Australian farmers, and to the highest standards.

Nerdy chickens? Supporting chicken welfare with science

by guest blogger, Dr Kylie Hewson*

The viability of the Australian chicken meat industry depends on the implementation of good welfare practices every day, for every flock, and this has been recognised since the start of the commercial industry back in the 1950s. Not only do farmers have an obligation to protect and respect the birds under their care, they also know that providing a high level of care for birds is what their customers want and the community expects, and it also contributes to productivity and a quality product. The livelihood of farmers therefore depends on them providing for good standards of animal welfare

So what is good welfare, and how can research, development and education contribute to ensuring that chickens that are raised for human consumption are kept at high standards of health and welfare?

Past research has demonstrated that good welfare is not achieved by focussing on single factors or meeting discreet design features of the chicken’s environment. Welfare is multi-factorial, and many factors impact on the welfare outcome for flocks of chickens, including weather (especially temperature and humidity), disease and health status, the type and standard of housing provided, access to and quality of feed and water, quality of the management (husbandry and stockmanship) provided by the farmer and air quality; the list goes on and on. All of these are interlinked and need to be managed on a daily basis by farmers – because of this, all of these factors, and combinations of them, have been the focus of past and present research projects.

The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC; http://www.rirdc.gov.au/) manages the levy funding that the chicken companies provide for research on all aspects of chicken production, including bird welfare.

Determining the standard of welfare achieved without anthropomorphising (to ascribe human form or attributes to), can be incredibly difficult because we can’t ask the chickens directly. Not only do chickens have different needs to us, they meet them differently too. For example, when it’s cold outside a human may put on a jumper, but we know we don’t need to put jumpers on chickens because we know that birds naturally group together to keep warm. So, the focus of welfare research is on providing objective information on what constitutes high welfare and how to achieve, and maintain, it.

welfare assessment RDE1 (002)Areas of research that are currently being undertaken relate to free range, including how and when birds use the range, and how to reduce the trade-offs between systems, how to measure welfare (particularly trying to identify measures that can be used practically on farm) and how to manage breed traits that potentially impact on welfare (see the Chicken Family Tree blog for more information on chicken breeding: http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/the-chicken-family-tree/). There is also research investigating aspects of farm management that can impact chicken welfare such as maintaining the quality of bedding provided to birds, ventilation management and the usefulness of perches.

As agriculture becomes more tech-savvy, the chicken industry too is looking at ways that technology can help farmers manage bird welfare. For example, the RIRDC Chicken Meat Program is looking at early detection of bird welfare issues through monitoring levels and patterns of activity of the flock as a whole that farmers can be alerted to a potential issue.

As any researcher can tell you, there is never an end to research because there is never an end to the possibilities for continual refinement and improvement of practices, particularly as things like technology progress and better ways to do things are discovered.

So the next time you’re enjoying a meal that includes chicken, stop to think about all the researchers that contribute to the quality of life and quality of product that you’re eating and all the effort that is put into keeping it that way – and if you know of anyone that ‘speaks chicken’ I hope they choose a career as a poultry scientist!

*Dr Kylie Hewson is Research Manager of the Chicken Meat Program of RIRDC

Shower On, Shower Off

“What’s this got to do with chickens?” I hear you say.

Well, in some parts of the chicken production business, quite a lot!

Why? Because it’s one of the many biosecurity measures that may be implemented by industry to protect flocks from infectious disease.

What’s biosecurity?

From a chicken industry perspective, biosecurity refers to a set of preventative measures designed to stop the introduction and subsequent spread of diseases, thereby protecting flocks, individual farms and the industry more broadly from the impacts of infectious diseases (see more at http://www.farmbiosecurity.com.au/). They also aim to prevent the spread of other pathogens that could potentially have human health consequences. Therefore, biosecurity is all about keeping the chickens, and people, free from disease or illness.

The chicken industry has had in place for many years a detailed set of procedures to manage biosecurity risks on farms (see National Farm Biosecurity Manual for Chicken Growers), and implementation of biosecurity practices is a part of everyday business for an Australian chicken farm.

What sorts of biosecurity measures does a chicken farm implement?

There are a range of measures that would typically apply on an Australian chicken farm. They include:

  • Limit contact with other animals (particularly other poultry and wild birds), for example by bird-proofing chicken barns with wire netting or, on farms which have access to an outside range, by ensuring the range, as far as possible, does not attract or provide habitat for wild birds or rodents, for example by keeping the range tidy, well drained, and the grass mown to prevent seeding…oh yes, and not leaving feed and water out on the range!
  • Make sure feed and water is clean and uncontaminated, for example by only using town water, or treating (eg by chlorination) any otherwise untreated surface water (such as from a dam or river) that might be used on the farm.
  • Limit vehicle/equipment movements onto and around the farm, and clean and disinfect equipment that has might have been on another farm prior to farm entry (and particularly entry into the areas where the chickens live).
  • Limit risks of people bringing disease and pathogens onto the farm and contaminating the chickens. That’s right – people present a significant biosecurity risk themselves; they can bring in disease on to farms on their hands, hair, skin, clothing and footwear…even potentially in the breath they exhale! Here’s some examples of what farmers can (and do) do to reduce this risk:
    • limit visitors, and control visitor movements;
    • make sure that staff, contractors and visitors have not had recent contact with other poultry farms or birds (including at home);
    • require any farm visitors to change into freshly laundered clothing and footwear on the farm, or to put on protective coveralls and over-boots prior to entering a barn or range area;
    • anyone entering a barn (including the farmer and staff) to use disinfectant foot baths and hand washes at the barn entry.

Blog-30-Images-1

And what about those showers?

Well, in those parts of the chicken production cycle where disease presents the greatest risks to the total operation – for example, breeder farms, which supply the fertile eggs which are hatched to produce the chickens that might ultimately go out onto many, many farms; or at hatcheries, where an infection could likewise be spread to very susceptible baby chicks with as yet incompletely developed immune systems, and which may also end up going out to many, many farms – even more stringent biosecurity measures need to be implemented.

One of these is usually that any staff and visitors to the facility can only enter through a shower facility where they must have a complete head to toe shower and change into a complete new set of freshly laundered clothing provided by the facility on the other side, with no personal items to be taken onto the facility, without prior decontamination. In the case of some extremely biosecure facilities, the process must be repeated again on the way out. A visit to one of these facilities can result in a very bad hair day for many visitors – I’ve done it, so I can speak from experience here!

Blog-30-Images-2b

Is the system infallible?

No – chicken farms contain many live animals; they receive fresh air from the ambient area (which can also carry airborne microorganisms) and have many contacts with the world outside the farm; they are working farms, not containment facilities. So equally important in the industry’s health program are other preventative measures, such as vaccination and farm hygiene, and being able to recognise and immediately respond to signs or suspicion that something may have breached biosecurity barriers. Together, biosecurity, other preventative measures and actions (including vaccination), and the ability to recognise and preparedness to respond to a disease, are the most important tools the Australian chicken industry has to keep its flocks healthy and safe from diseases and pathogens.

For those interested in learning more about what biosecurity means for the chicken industry, and what practices are adopted, there will be a new biosecurity video available in the coming months…I’ll let ChookChat followers know when it’s released.

Lean chicken’s contribution to the ‘bottom line’

How many times have you heard it reported that Australia is in the grip of an obesity epidemic?

Well, to help to address this, this week (13 – 19 February) the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) is organising online initiatives and a series of activities around Australia in support of Australia’s Healthy Weight Week (AHWW). AHWW is an initiative of the DAA aimed at raising awareness of the importance of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.

The ACMF is proud to be a sponsor of Australia’s Healthy Weight Week 2017, now in it’s tenth year.

In a previous blog (Can chicken help long term weight loss?) I explained some of the attributes of lean chicken meat that contribute to maintaining a healthy ‘waistline’, which include:

  • 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*. Higher protein diets can play a role in helping some people lose weight and maintain weight loss. 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’ that people often cite as one of the key reasons they fail to achieve weight loss goals.
  • Lean chicken cuts are low in fat and, importantly, over 55% of the total fat content is unsaturated fat (see: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=224).
  • Lean chicken is extremely versatile, easy to cook with and tasty!

Add to this the fact that lean chicken remains by far the most affordable lean meat on the Australian market, and you have several very good reasons why lean chicken meat can help you out with your ‘bottom line’!

I’d encourage everyone to get involved in a Healthy Weight Week event – go to http://healthyweightweek.com.au/events/ to find one in your area. Personally, I’m going along to the cook-off with the Week’s Ambassadors Callum Hann and Themis Chryssidis (http://healthyweightweek.com.au/celebrity-cooking-events/) being held in Pitt Street Mall, Sydney on Monday 13 February to kick start the Week. I understand that chicken will be on their menu!

AHWW17.chook17.amend 8feb

Download the great ‘Everyday Healthy’ recipe book full of healthy meal options to prepare at home – it’s free – and check out these great chicken dishes: Cajun chicken burger with yogurt sauce and purple slaw, Allspice chicken with chimichurri and brown rice, or Poached chicken salad with Chinese cabbage, coriander and sesame – YUM!

Four key facts about Australian meat chickens

With Christmas and a new year just around the corner, it seems a good time to remind readers of some of the key facts about Australian meat chickens, including what they look like and how they are reared.

Since this is about the chickens themselves, I’m going to focus on four key facts…the ones that in visual depictions and in words meat chickens are most often misrepresented.

Key Facts Infographic

1. In Australia, if its red or brown, it’s not a meat chicken

How often do you see news articles or other stories about the Australian chicken industry with images depicting red or brown coloured chickens (often in cages as well, another sign that they’ve got the wrong bird; more on that later).
Well, guess what? Those red or brown birds are almost certainly egg laying hens, not meat chickens.

Current Australian meat chicken strains are almost exclusively white feathered – at least they are after they shed their fluffy yellow baby down, a process which starts from about a week of age.

Why are they white? Well, partly it’s to do with the original breeds that were selected to be crossed to create a heavier, meatier chicken hybrid strain specifically for meat production. These efforts commenced in the 1950s when white Plymouth Rock chickens were crossed with white Cornish chickens to produce the original hybrid meat chicken strains. However, white feathering has, in itself, been seen as a desirable characteristic for a meat chicken (and has generally been preferentially selected for over the years) because it results in a more visually appealing carcass. As it is almost impossible to remove 100% of pin feathers from all birds during processing, and because coloured feathers contrast so much with the skin colour, they are undesirable from a customer appeal perspective. It’s worth noting that it’s conceivable that different coloured breeds of meat chicken may be adopted in Australia in the future, but for now, pretty much all meat chickens in Australia are white.

In appearance, today’s meat chickens also look ‘chunkier’ than egg laying chickens as they have been bred, using conventional genetic selection techniques, to carry more meat.

For more information about the breeds used by the two industries see my earlier blog: meat chickens vs laying chickens.

2. Both male and female chickens are used

Both male and female chickens are used to produce chicken meat, as is the case right around the world.

Unlike the case for the egg industry, where only hens are required to lay the eggs that are sold for human consumption, both male and female meat chickens can be, and are grown for meat and are equally valued by the chicken meat industry.

More information on the differences between male and female meat chickens in terms of how they look or how they grow can be found in a previous blog: Are meat chickens male or female?

3. No hormones are used

How many times have you heard people talk about hormones in chicken meat? …that hormones are ‘fed’ to chickens? … that the hormones in chicken meat are causing an epidemic of early maturity/puberty in our young kids today?
Well, guess what? All the above are simply UNTRUE!
The origin of the “hormones in chicken” myth, and why they are neither used or useful in chicken production are explained in the blog: The Hormone Myth.

4. Meat chickens are never reared in cages

Australian meat chickens are grown on the floor of large sheds or barns. The floor of the barn will always be covered with a bedding material (the industry calls this bedding ‘litter’), which comprises some form of absorbent material, for example wood shavings, rice hulls or chopped straw.

If you would like to get an idea of what an Australian chicken farm looks like, there are plenty of photos on the ACMF website of both the exterior and inside a typical chicken shed (see http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=200&gallery=Broiler%20Farm for some examples).

What about the photos you see in the media and elsewhere of chickens confined to cages? They are photos of egg laying chickens. Cages are often used in the egg industry.

For more explanation of how Australian meat chickens are housed, have a look at this earlier blog: Meat chickens and cages?

Thanks for your interest in my blog this year and for sharing it with your online communities.

Wishing all my blog readers and their loved ones a safe and happy Christmas. Chook Chat will return in February 2017.

Food Safety Myths Busted!

by Guest Blogger, Kylie Hewson

Food Safety

Food Safety

There are many myths surrounding chicken meat, and keeping with the theme “Raw is Risky” for Australian Food Safety Week (6 – 12th November), which is coordinated by the Australian Food Safety Information Council (AFSIC Food Safety Week), we’ve decided to focus this month’s Chook Chat blog on those myths that relate to raw chicken meat and food safety.

1. Raw chicken should be washed before it’s cooked

NO it shouldn’t! Raw chicken meat doesn’t need to be washed before cooking but more importantly it shouldn’t be washed! Modern processing conditions ensure the chicken meat reaches your table with as little bacteria on it as possible (but there may still be bacteria present). Rinsing in water doesn’t remove bacteria anyway and actually increases the risk because this splashes chicken juices and any accompanying bacteria, around the kitchen onto benches, prepared foods and utensils etc. This is an easy way to get cross-contamination in the kitchen and cross-contamination is a big contributor to foodborne illness. The only things that should get washed in a kitchen is anything that comes into contact with raw foods, and especially hands.

2. Once the chicken is cooked the risk of food poisoning is gone

YES for the chicken itself, but NO it’s not, potentially, for other raw foods! While the risk from chicken meat itself is gone after cooking (assuming it’s thoroughly cooked and consumed or refrigerated within 2 hours), cross contamination from whatever came in contact with the raw meat before it was cooked still exists. So things like knives, chopping boards and particularly hands and anything they’ve touched such as towels, can still have bacteria from the raw meat present. It’s easy to see how the bacteria can be transferred from these things to foods that are consumed raw (like salads) or food that’s already been cooked and because there is no additional cooking step to kill the bacteria the food gets eaten along with any cross-contaminating bacteria! So either have utensils and boards specifically for raw meat or clean them immediately after use for raw meat and before use on anything else. But always wash your hands!

3. It’s OK to defrost frozen chicken on the bench

NO it’s not! Raw chicken meat should always be thawed below 5 degrees Celsius, which usually means the fridge, or by using a microwave. The microwave is fastest but can damage the quality of the chicken if you’re not careful so often the easiest way is to defrost gradually overnight in the fridge because this maintains the safety and quality of the meat. To prevent cross-contamination with foods in the fridge put the meat in a container which prevents juices dripping on other food and even better, put it on the bottom shelf.

4. It’s not safe to refreeze chicken

YES it is! This was covered in a recent Chook Chat blog (http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/is-it-safe-to-refreeze-chicken/). It is safe to put defrosted chicken back into the freezer, but, only if the chicken was defrosted as described in 3 above 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.

Test your food safety knowledge with the Food Safety Information Council’s “Raw and Risky” quiz.

I hope you enjoy a foodborne illness free Food Safety Week!

Nutritional credentials of chicken stack up

With National Nutrition Week (including World Food Day – 16 October) just around the corner (National Nutrition Week 16-22 October), it’s a perfect opportunity to remind readers of the nutritional attributes of chicken.

So, what’s so great about chicken? And what role does it have as part of a healthy balanced diet?

The most important nutritional fact to remember about chicken meat is that it is an excellent source of high quality protein while having generally lower fat levels (and particularly saturated fatty acids) compared with other meats.

Many people incorrectly believe that chicken doesn’t provide the same density or quality of protein that red meat delivers – the reality is quite different. In fact, the protein content of all meats (chicken, beef, lamb and pork) is almost identical – around 22% for raw lean trimmed meat cuts.

Some other key facts about the nutritional quality of chicken:

  • Chicken is really low in fat compared with other meats
  • Chicken is really low in saturated fatty acids compared with other meats
  • All meats provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and different meats may provide these at different levels. For example, beef and lamb contain more iron and zinc that chicken meat, but chicken is one of the best sources (and highest of all meats) of niacin, an important nutrient for energy metabolism.

Lean Chicken - Packed With Protein

If you want to compare the nutritional content of different meats, here is a simple tool you can play with that allows you to select different meats and compare their nutrient profiles: http://www.chicken.org.au/database.php This tool uses data available from NUTTAB (2006 version), the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) online database of the nutritional composition of Australian food stuffs.

Make sure you compare like with like (for example, only compare raw with raw, cooked with cooked; or highest quality cuts with their equivalent in other meat types, as I have done in the example used below to illustrate the sort of information you can generate.

Nutrition Database

Remember that different cuts of chicken vary in terms of their nutrient profile. This is particularly the case for fat levels. Since most of the fat in chicken is in the skin, cuts which are generally eaten with skin-on or which have a high proportion of skin, such as wings, will have a higher fat content than cuts generally eaten with skin off, like breast fillet. Fortunately (a) it is easy to remove the skin and to trim any surplus fat from chicken meat and, (b) breast meat is not only the leanest part of the chicken, but it represents almost half of the edible meat you get on a whole chicken (representing between 41 and 49% of the total weight of edible chicken on a carcase).

You can also use our online comparison tool to compare the nutrient content of different cuts of chicken, or different cooking styles.

But the good news for chicken meat lovers doesn’t end there, because:

  • Chicken remains by far the most affordable lean meat on the Australian market.
  • Chicken is extremely versatile and easy to cook with …there are plenty of ways to prepare and enjoy it.
  • 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, feel free to feel good about eating chicken…it’s a great option and can play an important role as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Are meat chickens male or female?

The simple answer to this commonly asked question is: “both”.

Both male and female chickens are used to produce chicken meat. That’s the case right around the world.

Unlike the case for the egg industry, where only hens are required to lay the eggs that are sold for human consumption, both male and female meat chickens can be and are grown for meat and are equally valued by the chicken meat industry. This is just one of many differences between the two industries…. other differences include that meat chickens are never grown in cages and come from completely different breeds of chickens than egg laying chickens (for more information about the breeds used by the two industries see my earlier blog: no cages for meat chickens).

While it’s not possible to know whether the meat that you buy has come from a male or a female chicken (they will look and taste the same), roughly 50% of the meat chickens grown in Australia will be males and 50% females.

Are they grown differently? Do they look different?

These days, both male and female meat chickens are generally grown together in the same barns. Indeed, it’s impossible to distinguish between them when they are day old chicks delivered to farms around Australia. However, from about 30 days of age physical differences between the two sexes start to emerge, and by the time they are collected for processing for human consumption (which is before they have reached sexual maturity), it is possible to differentiate between young male and female meat chickens in a flock.

Males are a bit ‘meatier’ in their breasts, their legs and feet are thicker and their combs and wattles (the red floppy fleshy bits on top of their head and below their chin respectively) are bigger, brighter and more noticeable.

Blog Sketch_MaleFemale Chickens_160822F (002)

Male chickens tend to grow a bit faster, and at the same age will be a bit bigger than their female counterparts. Therefore, while the ratio of males to females when they hatch is roughly 50:50 (slightly more males, for some reason), when we look at which of the sexes contributes the most meat, it probably works out more like and 55% from males : 45% for females.

Are any of the meat chicks that hatch not placed on farms?

A small percentage of chicks (less than 1%) that hatch may be too weak or otherwise unfit to survive the first few days after hatching, and it is the responsibility of hatchery staff to identify these and euthanise them at the hatchery so that they do not suffer.

All fit and healthy day old meat chickens that are hatched are sent out to farms.

Male or female? Can you pick the difference?

The meat chickens in the foreground of the photos below are the same age and from the same flock. Can you tell what sex they are?

Male and female-1

If you are interested in hearing more from the industry then follow our monthly blog posts and regular #MythBustingMonday tweets @chookinfoline

The Chicken Family Tree

In 2016, Australian chicken farms will produce over 590 million meat chickens. But where do they come from?

It may be obvious, but it’s something most people don’t think about – every meat chicken has a set of parents, and those parents have their own parents, and so on up the line. But where are these parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Where are they kept and what do they look like? And how does the whole chicken breeding and multiplication process work?

This is the story of the Australian meat chicken’s family tree…and it starts, not here in Australia, but overseas in the nucleus breeding operations of the world’s two largest poultry genetics companies.

Our chicken genetics come from overseas

Almost all of Australia’s meat chickens are derived from two large international poultry genetics companies – Aviagen and Cobb – and the specific hybrid breeds used here (referred to as ‘Ross’ and ‘Cobb’) are pretty much the same as are used right around the world. Because of the size of their breeding operations, and therefore the numbers of birds and flocks they can maintain and are therefore available to select from, these genetics companies have powerful selective breeding programs and are able to make significant improvements to the genetic potential of their breeds at each generation. We call the genetic flocks they maintain the ‘nucleus’ breeding flocks – and it’s all achieved using conventional selective breeding techniques.

In a previous blog (see selective breeding), I described how selective breeding works, why it’s done, and what attributes the breeding companies select for.

How do we get these genetics into Australia?

New genetic lines of meat chickens developed by the international breeding companies are imported, under strict quarantine, as fertile eggs. Typically, there might be, say, 12,000 fertile eggs in a single importation, and 2 – 3 new importations each year for each major breed. These fertile eggs are hatched out in quarantine stations in Australia before being released to breeder farms. We refer to this generation as the Great Grandparents (GGPs) of the meat chickens that are for eating. In actuality, at any importation there are a variety of different lines introduced. It’s a little complicated to explain, but this is done to provide for optimal attributes in the male and female lines of later generations, and to capture hybrid vigour in later generations. A little more on that later.

And what breeding happens in Australia?

The GGPs that come out of quarantine stations are housed in highly biosecure farms around Australia and themselves go on to produce fertile eggs that are hatched to produce the next generation – the Grandparent (GP) generation. The Grandparents are then used to produce a Parent (P) generation, and finally these Parents are mated to produce fertile eggs that hatch to become the ultimate generation – the 590 million meat chickens that are used for meat consumption annually.

At each breeding step, two things happen. Firstly, there are different breeding lines crossed to produce crossbred male and female lines for the next breeding generation and, secondly, the number of birds in the subsequent generation is multiplied up. Once mature (at about 20 weeks of age) each breeder hen can produce about 130 offspring in a single year.

The whole process is represented in the infographic below. This shows how the numbers of individual birds in each generation steadily increases through to the ultimate meat chicken generation, and – voila! – we end up with 590 million meat chickens.

ChookChat_Infographic#7_Final

Why do we import new Great Grandparents? Why don’t we just use existing meat chickens to breed more of the same?

The answer to the first question is simple….we import new chicken genetics on an ongoing basis because the strains are improving all the time. We would fall behind the rest of the world, and fail to deliver the benefits that ongoing selection offers to consumers, if we didn’t do so.

And while the meat chicken generation is perfectly capable of going on to maturity and themselves produce offspring, they are generally not used for breeding. The reason why they aren’t used is that, as I mentioned previously, several different genetic lines are brought in at each new importation, each of which has specific characteristics desired in the next generation. These lines are then crossed to produce a subsequent generation which differs again from the one before…and so on. The use of crossbreeding is common in animal production – it creates a stronger, more robust progeny due to the principle of ‘hybrid vigour’, whereby the robustness and health of the cross is greater than the average of their parents. It’s the opposite of inbreeding – a concept people may be more familiar with. The greater the genetic differences between the parents, the more to gain from hybrid vigour. In the case of the Parents of the ultimate meat chicken generation, the male and female parent lines each also bring their own characteristics – the male, good muscling and body weight, and the breeder hen the capacity to lay plenty of fertile eggs to be hatched into meat chickens.

So the meat comes from Australian chickens?

Yes – the chicken meat available across Australia is almost exclusively from meat chickens grown in Australia, even though their ancestors may have come from other parts of the world. They are genuine “fourth generation” Australian meat chickens.

But… what comes first?

Well, the above may not answer the age old rhetorical question “what comes first…the chicken or the egg?” but I hope it helps to explain a little about the breeding processes required to deliver the 590 million meat chickens required to meet the demands of Australia’s chicken meat consumers each year.

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.