Hy-Line: Building a heritage of firsts
Founded in 1936 by Dr. Henry A. Wallace, and as the world's oldest layer genetics company, Hy-Line International continues to stay ahead of the industry with many innovative firsts, beginning with being the first poultry breeding company to apply the principles of hybridisation to commercial layer breeding in the 1930s.
By Ngai Meng CHAN                                                                                             
Decades ago, there were many layer genetics companies globally. Gradually, the market began to choose those that brought them success in this very competitive business, resulting in weaker brands disappearing or being absorbed into the more flourishing companies. Today, only a few players remain, one of them being Hy-Line, not without much commitment and sheer hard work.
Entry into the poultry genetics industry requires a very significant capital-intensive investment, a large reservoir of pedigree line breeding hens, and years of hard work to establish a market, as people familiar with the industry will know.
While Hy-Line today is today the largest selling layer in the American egg industry and around the world, it does not take its leadership position for granted, and keenly understands that it must continue to invest heavily in research and development.
Hy-Line's 1940s ad for its egg quality lab
As early as the 1940s, the company's commitment to R&D had led to its production of layers which were valued for their feed efficiency, liveability and egg quality. High egg quality, driven by consumer demand, was made possible by Hy-Line working in close partnership with poultry producers. Back then, Hy-Line's egg quality laboratory was breaking 200,000 eggs a year, measuring Haugh units and scoring the eggs for shell strength, shape, size and colour.
The Haugh unit is a measure of egg protein quality based on the height of its egg white. The higher the number, the thicker the white, and the better the egg quality. The test was introduced by food technologist Raymond Haugh in 1937. 
Growth was exponential during Hy-Line's first twenty years. By 1960, the company had sold more than 70 million chicks in Europe and the Americas. Today, Hy-Line's Egg Quality Laboratory tests more than one million eggs each year using the most modern technology available.
Hy-Line's egg quality lab today. (From top to bottom) Dynamic stiffness machine; albumen test
To date, the company lay claim to a long list of innovative firsts, beginning with hybrid vigour (improved biological quality in a hybrid offspring) from crossing multiple elite pure lines to produce hybrid layers in the 1930s, the use of blood types as a genetic marker for liveability in the 1960s, and the introduction by a major breeder feather-sexing (visual examination of a chick's wing feathers to determine its sex) of day-old chicks with the W-36 breed in the 1970s.
More recently, Hy-Line was the first poultry breeding company to establish an in-house molecular genetics programme in 1996 and complete a state-of-the-art laboratory the very next year. In collaboration with university scientists, Hy-Line was also the first layer breeding company to privately fund and implement genomic selection on a commercial scale.
Hy-Line's molecular genetics programme strives to identify the many small variations in the DNA of each elite bird that have an impact on the important traits being studied. DNA samples from every selected bird from every Hy-Line generation since the programme was started in 1996 have been maintained, creating the world's most extensive DNA archive in the poultry industry. Having this historical data allows the company to make even better selections for a bird that can meet future demands.
In 2013, the Hy-Line molecular genetics laboratory was upgraded to generate SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms) information. Combining information from both the 650,000 SNP 'chip' and the company's in-house SNP detection system is said to provide the best and most rapid identification of genetic variations important for commercial egg production. The system allows individual testing of thousands of samples for hundreds of carefully selected SNPs at a rate of over 100,000 tests per day.
Hy-Line continues to partner with suppliers to create proprietary technology that fits its lines and enable efficiencies in its laboratory.
Genomics is giving the company more than 15% future gain per year. However, while genomic selection is a powerful tool, Hy-Line says that the technology is not advanced enough yet, nor will it be in the near future, to completely replace traditional methods. Therefore Hy-Line continues tradition selective breeding, complemented by genomic selection.
Outside of the laboratory, Hy-Line has the industry's largest and most comprehensive field test programme with sire-coded progeny placed in commercial operations in several locations around the world. Through the programme, the company gets real-world results from test birds producing in different climates under a variety of management systems, feeding programmes and disease challenges. The results facilitate family selections and provide essential data for the selection process. Information from hundreds of thousands of birds in both the research and field test programmes is then fed into massive databases for statistical analysis.
Additionally, Hy-Line has research farms in the United States under strict biosecurity conditions that allow it to test more than 30 different traits of importance to commercial egg production and bird welfare.
"Our newest research farm, opened in 2014, affords Hy-Line scientists data past 90 weeks on all our lines to ensure accelerated rates of genetic progress in persistency of rate of lay and egg shell quality selections," said Dr. Neil O'Sullivan, director of research and development at Hy-Line. "Persistency of lay and egg shell quality show higher genetic variation at older ages so this information will help ensure continued genetic progress. The extended cycles also couple well with our genomics programme allowing unique mating strategies to enhance genetic variation."
Hy-Line's newest Dennis Casey Research Farm opened in 2014
Among others, the 30 different traits include liveability, egg production, feed efficiency, nesting behaviour, persistency of lay, and interior and exterior egg quality traits. Egg producers are now demanding a hen that persists and produces over a longer life span, and Hy-Line is responding promptly. With the latest research farm, each generation is now evaluated at the pedigree level for these traits past 90 weeks of age.
Animal welfare has become a more important issue in the last 30 years. Responding accordingly, Hy-Line has developed hens that socialise well in groups and adapt to different production systems. This behaviour of hens is best reflected in Hy-Line's leadership in the liveability trait.
In terms of sustainability, highly efficient Hy-Line hens have a smaller carbon footprint when compared to less efficient varieties. Lower feed consumption results in less demand for grain and, in-turn, fewer acres of land required to provide it.
For example, Hy-Line varieties eat five to eight grams per bird per day less than other varieties. For every one million Hy-Line layers used, that is equivalent to 1,825 tonnes of feed savings, meaning more than 278 hectares of land is not farmed.
Less feed intake also means lower emissions of waste in the form of manure into the environment. Similarly on the basis of one million Hy-Line layers per year, 1,825 tonnes less manure is produced. That means nine tonnes less phosphorus is excreted and 68 tonnes less emission of ammonia to the atmosphere. Highly efficient Hy-Line layers, combined with improved management practices, consequently contribute to a more sustainable industry.
Hy-Line currently invests in excess of 20% of annual turnover in research efforts, making it one of the most significant investments for its future as a company. Developing layer genetics is its core business, the company highlights.
With a solid foundation in research and development, Hy-Line is able to address unique consumer-driven market requirements within strict parameters. The most common are egg shell colour and egg size.
The company has two white egg layer breeds to address markets with standard egg weight profiles and large egg size demands - the W-36 and CV-24.
CV-24 complements W-36 by meeting the market need for:
·          Prolific egg numbers
·          Adaptability to low density feed
·          Strong performance in challenging environments
·          Excellent egg shell strength
·          Flexibility in alternate systems
·          Calm disposition and easy management
·          Persistency for long single-cycle production
For brown egg markets, the Hy-Line Brown meets the egg size needed for most markets. It can even be sourced to distributors in precise versions within a ± 1 gram egg weight profile to address the specific requirements of each market.
Of the world's top 11 layer companies, more than 71% of the layers are Hy-Line W-36 and Hy-Line Brown. Hy-Line varieties account for more than 50% of the ten major global markets.
Particularly for the China market, Hy-Line Brown commands the highest market share - more than 60%, or 800 million layers. It also holds the largest market share of eggs in China at 38%.
The Hy-Line W-36 (left) and Hy-Line Brown
Hy-Line works with the largest importing and multiplication companies in China who are actively growing the business, and importantly, these partners respect intellectual property.
According to Hy-Line, their partners are key to the company's success. Hy-Line's distributors are experts at navigating the complex regulatory environment and know the China egg market intimately. Hy-Line has worked with some of those distributors since the 1980s, way before the country officially opened up to international trade.
Hy-Line understands that neither a US nor European model can be forced into China. It respects its partners' unique insights and work to provide them its distinctive expertise in genetics, management and overall know-how in producing winning layers. This strong partnership has enabled Hy-Line to become the layer brand of choice in the worlds' top egg market.
The company's commitment to forging strong partnerships extends to all other markets, including Southeast Asia where it has seen dramatic growth over the past five years, and expects further growth in the near future.
As examples, Vietnam and Thailand are growing brown egg markets, where the hot, humid conditions require a robust bird.
For the past three years, Hy-Line has enjoyed a close relationship with Ba Huan Company in Vietnam. Ba Huan has started on a conservative scale to focus on solid, sustainable growth, by focusing on producing quality chicks and quality eggs, and taking on the responsibility to expand at a steady pace to avoid disrupting the market. This has naturally led to sustainable growth in Vietnam for Hy-Line.
For Thailand, Hy-Line has developed a good core business with several hatcheries over the past five years. Recently, this success has been tempered by the outbreaks of bird flu in Europe and the US, making the supply of breeding stock difficult. While this situation has temporarily disrupted exports, it has helped to relieve the overall oversupply of layer day-old chicks due to over-housing of competitors' parent stock in the Thai market in 2014. By July 2015, Hy-Line expects the market to begin to stabilise and imports to resume to normal levels, when the company can again expand on its partnerships in the country.
Globally, Hy-Line's brown and white egg stocks are sold to more than 120 countries, and are recognised for efficient egg production, leading liveability and superior egg quality, which all bring greater profits for the end user.

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