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Deacmber 22, 2017
America: How it invented - and continues to innovate - broiler farming
A brief history of American broiler farming and how it continues to define the industry's leading edge of efficiency and innovation.
By Eric J. Brooks
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
Having accomplished the miracle of getting bird flu under control while managing significant production (2.3%/yr) and consumption increases (3.1%/yr) in the five years since 2012, 2018 will see America's broiler sector take a breather. With the stubborn woody breast problem constraining finishing weights and falling red meat prices crimping consumer demand, production will rise 2.0% (to 18.97 million tonnes) and consumption by 1.8% (to 15.84 million tonnes) respectively.
On the back of a lower US dollar, exports will probably exceed their USDA projected 3.1% increase (to 3.19 million tonnes) and exceed 3.2 million tonnes. While this is lower than the 3.3 million tonnes shipped prior to the onset of bird flu, the long-term prognosis is not in doubt: America's proportion of broiler exports bottomed out around 28% during the bird flu crisis and it will gradually move back towards its long-run, one-third share of the world market for chicken meat.
More impressively, America has been more successful in bringing bird flu under control -with a minimal impact on production, consumption and exports- than any other large chicken meat producer or exporter. 
While Brazil will enjoy more elastic feed input supplies and labor costs, the US broiler industry's history is one of success built on two inter-related factors. The country that invented modern broiler rearing not only invents a majority of poultry rearing innovation: It is most successful one at incorporating them into its farm management techniques.
America's broiler sector was not always such a paragon of efficiency. Prior to the mid 20th century, chicken meat was a mere layer sector by-product: Almost exclusively obtained from rejected layers or roosters at the end of their breeding lives. Despite having the world's highest agribusiness productivity, even US chicken was more expensive than its equivalent weight in beef.
It was only in the 1940s that several coincident trends came together: The use of feed crops to boost animal productivity got its start several decades earlier when the invention of automobiles freed up feed grain supplies formerly used to power horse-based transport.
The substitution of professional quality feed inputs in place of free-range foraging and farm scraps profoundly boosted poultry productivity. It was only after the 1920s that the idea of leveraging America's growing feed crop surplus to grow chickens specifically for their meat (rather than giving discarded layers the chop) was born
According to America's National Chicken Council "Wilmer Steele of Sussex County, Delaware, is often cited as the pioneer of the commercial broiler industry. In 1923, she raised a flock of 500 chicks intended to be sold for meat. Her little business was so profitable that, by 1926, Mrs. Steele was able to build a broiler house with a capacity of 10,000 birds."
The Great Depression made feed inputs cheaper than ever, giving birth to the world's first broiler farming industry in eastern states such as Delaware, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas. The latter two states would become the center of a vast US broiler industry in decades to come. By the early 1950s, Americans were getting more chicken meat from dedicated broilers than from discarded layers.
By the 1940s, early attempts at animal genetics began improving the quantity, quality and speed with which chickens could accumulate muscle. It was also this decade that tetracycline was discovered to have animal growth promoting properties. It would soon be joined by bacitracin, penicillin and array of other newly discovered antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs). Supply chain efficiency was extended to the slaughterhouse when an Illinois plant became the first to perform government approved assembly line evisceration and packing of whole chickens in ice-filled wooden crates.
From the 1950s onward, the rapid introduction of integrated broiler farming operations provided the capital, scale economies to actualize these coincident innovations in feed quality, animal genetics and AGPs into a low cost, high protein food line: America's integrated broiler sector was born.
By the mid-1960s, it would account for over 90% of American broiler meat output. Integration provided the ideal ground to actualize poultry's superior feed conversion ratios: Soon, chicken became far cheaper and more plentiful than either beef or pork. Chicken's lower price, high nutrition and health food reputation soon boosted consumption: From 5kg in the early 20th century and 10kg in the early 1950s, chicken consumption totaled 34kg by 2000 and a USDA estimated 42kg in 2018.
The late 20th-century rise of working, career-oriented women resulted in skyrocketing demand for fast food and semi-processed home meals. This induced the innovation of assembly line cutting and deboning processes first taken for granted in America and later the rest of the world. - And that is another theme of America's superior broiler productivity: Should other countries wish to catch up to US productivity, be it in poultry genetics, farm lighting and ventilation systems or chicken deboning equipment, here too, they must mostly rely on American suppliers.
This mechanization of carcass cutting also made possible America's world-leading export niche: Consumers preferred breast meat but were less enthusiastic about dark meat portions such as wings, leg quarters or chicken feet. This resulted in America consuming most of its white chicken meat at home while exporting its dark meat parts, thereby becoming a leading global poultry meat exporter.
All these advances occurred against a gradual -but cumulatively colossal - advancement in poultry genetics: From 1965 through 2015, broiler weights nearly doubled, feed conversion ratios became 17% more efficient while growing time fell from over sixty days to as little as forty days. It is America's capacity to innovate broiler rearing like no other nation and to incorporate these innovations into its poultry farm management that enables it to defy a strong currency and remain the world's second largest broiler exporter.

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