Precision feeding raises reproductive potential of hens

EDMONTON — Precision agriculture is coming to the chicken barn.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have developed a precision feeding system for broiler-breeder chickens that could result in more uniform and productive birds.

Poultry researcher Martin Zuidhof has helped develop a system that feeds birds throughout the day while measuring how much each one consumes and gains.

“What has been really gratifying with precision feeding has been the interest. It is so revolutionary. It changes the way we think about feeding broiler-breeders,” he said.

“There is no system like it anywhere in the world for collecting data on free run individuals.”

Birds at the poultry research centre in Edmonton are tagged with a radio frequency identifier on the wing and neck when they are about two weeks old.

Their feeding activities are then monitored.

Zuidhof has learned that the metabolism of birds that are fed once a day is adjusted so feed is stored differently in the body.

“When you feed just in time, those birds don’t have to store and mobilize nutrients,” he said.

“If they can grow and maintain themselves and produce eggs when they are getting feed at just the right time, they are quite a bit more efficient.”

The research team has also monitored water intake, but did not see a big difference.

Birds that are precision fed have less fat, but breeding birds need a certain level of body fat. As a result, they may receive a different diet when they start reproducing.

These birds are the parents of broilers, so allowing them to feed more frequently would likely help them produce healthier chicks.

Precision feeding could also produce more uniform-sized birds with wide ranges in weight.

“Some birds would be as little as 1,200 grams and some birds would be over three kilos,” he said.

“Having a uniform flock allows all the birds to do their personal best.”

Smaller birds do not lay as many eggs, and the larger ones may not be as fertile or may have difficulty mating.

Birds that are not fit and do not mate well produce fewer chicks, while those that get too much feed could produce too many yolks or eggs with soft shells.

Researchers in Colombia have attempted a more hands-on management approach following the same feeding principles. Working with the same strain of birds, they achieve higher yields with 146 chicks per hen compared to 117 in Canada.

“That is a good 25 percent more, so we are 25 percent below the reproductive potential,” Zuidhof said.

“One of the ways we are hoping to achieve some of that potential is with precision feeding.”

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