Many modern breeds of broiler chickens can reach market weight (~6 lbs) in less than 6 weeks. Hatching at only 0.1 lbs (1.6 oz), this means that in a matter of weeks, broiler chicks are 60 times heavier than their hatch weight. Their growth rate has increased dramatically in the last few decades – mainly due to genetics (specific breeding programs) and improved nutrition. Though this improvement in growth efficiency has led to cheaper chicken meat production, there is some concern that the poorer welfare outcomes of these highly efficient birds has been an unintentional consequence of this genetic selection. Heavy body weights at such a young age put excessive strain on developing bones and organs. Broiler chickens are often susceptible to leg problems that lead to lameness and pain, as well as heart problems including heart attacks and other complications.
Though growth rate has been implicated as the main welfare insult, the solution isn’t just about controlling growth rate. For example, growth rate can be controlled to some extent via nutrition and dietary regimes as well as lighting schedules, but doing so can create another set of welfare problems, including hunger and hunger-related behaviors. In addition, just because certain breeds grow more slowly than others, there is no guarantee that other aspects of welfare are improved. Therefore, it is more than just finding “slow grow” breeds – it’s about ensuring that all aspects of welfare are considered, hence the “Better Chicken Welfare Initiative.”
What is G.A.P. Doing?
G.A.P.’s fearless leader, Anne Malleau, knew there was a need for a large-scale, comprehensive study and to produce publicly available research on breed differences – something that had previously only been done on a piecemeal basis. In order to reduce difficulties in assessing data coming from multiple studies, Anne knew it would be best to collect the data on a wide range of parameters, including those associated with welfare and production, all in one study. This idea was quickly becoming a very large undertaking and so G.A.P. looked to include partners in the quest for improving welfare. In 2016, G.A.P. engaged the world-renowned poultry research team at the University of Guelph. Together, with the invaluable help of the breeding companies, including Aviagen, Hubbard, and Cobb-Vantress, G.A.P. and the University started the initial plans for the project. Though G.A.P. played a major role in funding and planning the study, the data collection and analyses are being independently conducted by researchers at the University.