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What’s going on here?

DSC_0668 Social chicks

What are the chickens in this photo doing? And why are they all bunched up together, I hear you ask?

Well, chickens are by nature social animals; they live in flocks.

In the wild, or in a backyard situation, this flocking behaviour provides individual birds with protection from predators and also allows them to keep warm (particularly important for baby chicks up until the age that they develop their proper feathers).

On commercial meat chicken farms, the barns that chickens are housed in provide them with protection from predation, and are equipped with heaters and ventilation systems to manage the environment at the ideal temperatures for their age at any point in time. Nevertheless, chickens continue to exhibit a comprehensive range of social behaviours relevant to their age

Their desire for social contact is perhaps most noticeable when they are resting – as many of the baby chicks in this photo are – when ‘clumps’ of resting chickens can clearly be seen throughout their barn.

However, this behaviour can also be used by farmers to monitor whether their chickens are comfortable. Too much clumping together, particularly if it is concentrated in the middle of the barn, could mean that the chickens are too cold; not enough clumping together could mean that the environment in the barn is too hot. Concentration of chickens around the walls of the barn can often mean that the temperature in the barn is too hot, as it is usually the case that it is cooler along the walls of the barn. Avoidance of certain parts of the barn floor could mean that the bedding in some parts of the barn isn’t ideal. All of these signs are used by farmers to monitor the ‘comfort level’ of their flock and to take action accordingly. Ideally, small groups of chickens should be evenly distributed across the floor of the entire barn.

So, what can this photo tell us about how comfortable these chickens are?

Let’s pan out and see:

DSC_0668 Pan

DSC_0705

Looks OK!

By the way, did you wonder what the plastic chain is in the top photo? It’s there to provide something for the chicks to peck at, if they are interested.

If you are interested to learn more about the behaviours that chickens display on commercial chicken farms, and how farmers use chicken behaviour to monitor the health and welfare of their flocks, then have a look (and a listen!) to our previous blog at http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/meat-chicken-behaviour-how-do-farmers-use-it/

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.

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.

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

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.