August 5, 2013
Hubbard: Reinventing poultry breeding with 'less feed, more meat' - and lots of innovation
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A game changing poultry breeder, Hubbard transformed the industry with new performance standards as much as it did with leading edge birds. CEO Olivier Rochard explains how this French poultry breeding firm shifted mind sets in tandem with its innovations.
by Geraldine EE
When Hubbard developed its F15 parent stock it did more than launch a new innovative chicken breed. To coincide with the F15's world product launch, also it introduced the 'Feed Saver' concept which challenged traditional poultry efficiency measurements widely used in the industry. Through such innovative product launches and strategies, Hubbard made itself into a game changer within the industry.
In Brazil, for example, Hubbard changed the rules by focussing on live broiler efficiency through lowest feed conversion, low mortality and total meat yield and saleable parts. As a result, rising sales of Hubbard parent stock (PS) made it the number two supplier in the world's top poultry exporting nation.
On the other side of the world in Russia, Hubbard through its distributor ISABALT, emerged as that nation's dominant breeder with more than 50% of the market share for parent stock. It accomplished this not only through its product and service offerings, but also by its ability to challenge performance criteria commonly used in the poultry production process. With the Russian broiler market growing at an average of 15% to20% from 2005 to 2011 and broiler output nearly tripling over the same period, Hubbard grew in tandem with Russian agribusiness, establishing itself as a key player in this fast growing, promising market.
Challenging convention, advancing performance
Marketed in tandem with the introduction of its F15 chickens, the 'Feed Saver' concept is designed around 15% to 17% less maintenance feed required per chick produced, while producing more hatched eggs and chicks per unit area (m2) of breeder housing. It thereby both cuts costs and boosts layer productivity.
Parent Stock performance is conventionally measured using the hatching eggs/hatching housed (HE/HH) ratio. As an alternative performance criteria, Hubbard introduced egg hatching density (HE/m2), along with the ratio of feed costs to hatching eggs (feed/HE).
Similarly, in measuring live broiler efficiency, alongside conventional growth and production indexes, Hubbard considers meat yield density per housing surface area (kg/m2) an accurate economic measure, comparable to the traditional feed conversion ratio (FCR).
Hubbard also takes into consideration the level of bird condemnation, promising a lower incidence of bird condemnation through good litter quality and leg strength. It aims to reduce leg defects while improving bird liveability through an array of economic, welfare and sustainability criteria. These include performance indicators such as such foot pad lesions and hock burns, both of which it seeks to minimise.
"We are working on welfare traits in selection, mainly through our R&D, and this is not easy to do. This has always been a huge concern in Northern Europe and that has always been very important for us, as a company," says Olivier Rochard, CEO of Hubbard.
Most importantly, when it comes to the key criteria of measuring poultry meat yield, in addition to looking at mere carcass yield, Hubbard takes into consideration total meat yield instead of only breast yield. And this emphasis on the yield of bonier, dark meat parts is in keeping with agribusiness market development trends.
Traditionally, in the North American market, the focus of breeders has always been to increase white meat, as that is the type of chicken meat traditionally preferred in the west. However, dark meat is valued in Asia, and increasingly, in African markets, which are becoming an important agribusiness growth driver.
On average, the price of thigh meat is about the same as that of white meat in Asia and Africa. In Japan in particular, thigh meat can be three to four times more expensive than white meat.
However, the situation has also changed over the past few years in North America - white meat used to be 6-7 times more expensive than thigh meat; nowadays this ratio has come down to a factor 2 and wings are at the same price level as white meat. This is because even in the mature American market, the demographic rise of Hispanic and Asian minorities has boosted the consumption of dark meat parts. Yet, most of Hubbard's competitors were focussed only on boosting the white breast meat yield per bird.
"We are not only focusing on white meat. Up till now, the 'western' chicken industry has concentrated mainly on how to produce more white meat," says Rochard. "This is not the way we foresee the future. Also, modern meat processing technology will make it easier to debone legs. This will lead to a further decrease of the white meat/dark meat price ratio."
In a nutshell, Rochard explains that, "Our goal is total meat output and our message is: Less Feed, More Meat". Indeed, with rising cost of feed on the minds of producers, tackling feed conversion and maximising yields are issues not to be skirted.
Hubbard has made feed conversion the top priority of its breeding objective and assesses the whole life FCR of the bird. Towards this end, new radio frequency identification (RFID) technology provides more precise feed consumption measurements. With far greater precision than before, RFID based systems track birds, what they eat and how much they eat, among other parameters. Through such means, feed conversion efficiency throughout each poultry life cycle stage is more accurately ascertained.
Genetics is only part of the answer
In expressing the bird's full potential, Hubbard recognises that genetics is only part of the equation. Achieving the best performance also requires the best technology and management on both breeder and broiler level.
Rochard elaborates that, "We select birds with the best genetic potential. But then to express this genetic potential, we have to put these birds in good condition with equipment properly set up, coupled with husbandry skills." To achieve this end, Hubbard emphasises training its customers in techniques that optimise poultry's performance potential. Hence, its technical service teams always work closely together with customers.
Apart from pedigree breeding centres in North America, Europe and South America, Hubbard implements international product testing and pedigree sib-tests programmes –the latter tests individual animals' desirability as breeders based on the performance of their siblings. A means of introducing new, innovative poultry genetics, such sib-tests are commonly done when no parental information is available.
These poultry performance trials are conducted under field conditions that both evaluate and develop the animals' vitality and robustness. As poultry productivity is deeply affected by local climate conditions, trials are carried out under different field conditions in France, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Bangladesh, India and Thailand.
Based on how poultry lines under development react to local conditions, such as weather, feed and housing, Hubbard's researchers then decide how to proceed with the selection of pure lines at its selection centres.
"One of our main goals during selection is to put the birds as close as possible to conditions on the field, so that they express the same traits; and so we can do better selection on these traits," says Rochard. "It is very important for us to be close to the field conditions and sib testing is of great help".
Colour = taste, tradition and welfare
Apart from meeting actual field needs in different markets, Hubbard offers different breeds catered to specific market needs. True to tradition, the French enjoy good food and cooking. From its base in Quintin in France, Hubbard is well-positioned to answer these needs. For 40 years, Hubbard has been developing the Hubbard Colour product range, with specific birds for markets favouring more traditional, more tasty and welfare-oriented birds, such as in France, various EU nations, and other parts of the world.
Rochard rationalises this need for product differentiation, stating that, "We think we need to address not each specific market, but different segments, to be able to address as many markets as we can all over the world."
In particular, Hubbard is seeing an increase in demand for its colour birds in northern Europe, North America and Asia, particularly China. Increasingly, affluent, highly educated consumers are boosting demand for such 'premium' meat derived from colour poultry breeding stock. Although it may come from less efficient birds, it makes for boast tastier meat with better texture. Such consumer preferences are similar to the demand for premium 'Wagyu' beef or 'Black' (or Kurobuta) pork.
Moreover, with colour birds, because there is less pressure on growth performance, their robustness is very good and in principle, they do not need antibiotics.
Slow-growing by nature, colour birds take a longer time to reach their maturity weight ranges of 2.0kg to 2.5kg birds. In fact, growth rate of the medium or slower growth birds can range from 25g/day to 50g/day, versus an average of 60g/day to 65g/day for conventional white birds.
On one hand, the production cost of slow-growing birds will obviously be higher and there is a trade-off between the higher price and with the better taste, texture and better welfare characteristics. On the other hand, certain markets like China prefer the taste of traditional, slower growing breeds. This fact cannot be changed but the performance of such birds can still be improved.
Thankfully, because there is a wide range of products for colour birds, with many different males and females, each male can be crossed with one of the females, giving many combinations and possibilities. This gives a different range of growth within the colour birds. Even between conventional and colour birds, the colour female can be cross-bred with the conventional male to get offspring with growth rates in between the two, but with the robustness of the mother.
"That gives a combination in between and this market is growing," says Rochard.
With a belief in their product development strategy and such a rational, long-term concept in mind, Hubbard's new R&D and production centre for the development of the Hubbard colour product range in St. Loup d'Ordon, France is expected to bring even more promising results. Important investments have been made during the two past years in line with this vision.
The Natural Concept
Behind Hubbard's products such as the colour range and concepts including FCR and total meat output lies the 'Natural Concept.' It has the objective of producing poultry meat in a more sustainable fashion. The Natural Concept is a vision inherited from Groupe Grimaud, of which Hubbard became a part of in 2005.
Rochard explains that, "Through our Natural Concept, we are really giving answers to how we could make this industry a lot more sustainable in the future. We are developing precise solutions to address this in the future."
Firstly, its breeding programme, which favour feed efficiency traits, does not only allow producers to make poultry meat more economically, but also reduces the carbon footprint of livestock production. Also, robustness as a measure of performance allows the most efficient use of the whole product output, including all chicken parts, hence reducing wastage.
"On the human health front, antibiotic resistance is growing and there is more demand from northern European and North American consumers for antibiotic-free meat. We think that this is a real trend which will grow very fast in the near future," says Rochard.
In fact, at Hubbard's R&D centre, and even more in its production centre, with some exceptions, the company has not been using any antibiotics for more than five years.
Rather than relying on controversial antibiotics, Hubbard manages animal health and minimises disease risk by fine-tuning the bacterial ecology management of its breeding environment. It also stimulates the immune system of the animals by competition and vaccination. The company only resorts to antibiotic 'super-molecules' with prudence, such as during outbreaks of proven pathogens or as a preventative measure during instances of major stress.
Last but not least, it gives back to the earth the necessary nutrients by composting organic by-products from its breeding and production operations.
'Chicken farmers' at heart
"At the end of the day, we are still chicken farmers," says Rochard. "We may be specialised in Research and Development, but we must not forget that we remain chicken farmers."
Perhaps Hubbard's ability to understand its customers and provide what they need is neatly encapsulated in Rochard's underlying philosophy, explaining that, "Our strategy is to develop good products. If we have good products, we know we are going to be able to sell." Towards this end, about 15% of Hubbard's annual turnover is recycled back into R&D.
Going forward, using quantitative genetics to improve the pure lines at its research centres is a technological milestone for Hubbard. In the near future, Hubbard will apply DNA markers, assisted selection and other biotechnology developments to gain an even greater knowledge of each individual bird's genetic potential.
According to Rochard, "Quantitative selection is and will be the basis of our work; and it will remain so for the coming years. But genomics will help us to increase the accuracy of selecting the best birds for our customers."
With regards to the company's other key success factor, Rochard expresses appreciation for the transnational team of Hubbard staff around the world. "Behind of, in front of, the company we are, there are many good people and good team work, and everything starts from there. We cannot do anything alone. Everything starts with a great team."
For now, and the near future, Rochard and its team at Hubbard will continue to focus on 'Less Feed, More Meat' in meeting the needs of its customers and the industry.
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