There’s a Problem With Chicken Fertility

The nation’s largest rooster breeder says failed hatchings are up 2 percent due to a “genetic issue.”

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
July 9, 2014, 8:48 a.m.

First a vir­us came for our pork, in­fect­ing pigs with a deadly diarrhea and in­creas­ing su­per­mar­ket prices for the meat na­tion­wide. Now, an­oth­er staple of the Amer­ic­an car­ni­vore is fa­cing a bio­lo­gic­al threat of its own.

There’s a prob­lem with chick­en fer­til­ity.

Re­u­ters re­ports that the Avia­gen Group, the world’s largest chick­en breed­er, “has dis­covered that a key breed of roost­er has a ge­net­ic is­sue that is re­du­cing its fer­til­ity.” The re­port does not in­dic­ate the nature of the ge­net­ic prob­lem. Rather, Avia­gen “has ac­know­ledged that an un­dis­closed change it made to the breed’s ge­net­ics made the birds ‘very sens­it­ive’ to be­ing overfed,” which pre­sum­ably, in turn, de­creases fer­til­ity.

Pre­vi­ously about 15 per­cent of eggs from Avia­gen hens would fail to hatch chicks; now, that fig­ure is 17 per­cent. That in­crease will trans­late to sig­ni­fic­ant im­pacts on the mar­ket, as Avia­gen sires as many as 25 per­cent of the na­tion’s chick­ens. In 2010, U.S. poultry farms pro­duced 36.9 bil­lion pounds of chick­en, which is roughly on the same scale as the mass of con­crete in China’s ter­ri­fy­ingly enorm­ous Three Gorges Dam, and more massive than the great pyr­am­id at Giza. 

This comes at an in­op­por­tune time for the U.S. poultry in­dustry. Due to re­cent hikes in the price of beef and pork, de­mand for chick­en is ex­pec­ted to rise. Chick­en com­pan­ies would typ­ic­ally re­spond to such de­mands by in­creas­ing the num­ber of chick­ens in the mar­ket, Re­u­ters re­ports. With de­creased fer­til­ity, that may not hap­pen. Pro­du­cers are scram­bling to catch up.

“At this point the broil­er in­dustry has yet to make any con­sist­ent strong in­creases in pro­duc­tion,” the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s June poultry pro­duc­tion re­port reads. “Al­though with good do­mest­ic prices, lower feed costs, and fore­casts for price strength in the beef and pork in­dus­tries, the broil­er in­dustry would nor­mally be mov­ing in­to an ex­pan­sion mode.” Slow growth in chick­en pro­duc­tion led the USDA to de­crease this year’s chick­en out­look by 195 mil­lion pounds, which is equal to about the av­er­age yearly chick­en con­sump­tion of 2.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans.

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