Biotechnology Used in Georgia’s Poultry Industry
Philip L. Graitcer
In Georgia, poultry is big business. It’s the state’s largest agricultural commodity — bigger than peaches and peanuts - accounting for about 3 billion dollars of Georgia farm income.
So anything that can make the poultry industry more efficient, means big bucks to the state’s economy.
At the University of Georgia, one scientist is using biotechnology to develop a better chicken.
“About 75 percent of the cost of raising a chick is feed,” according to John Starkey, President of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, the poultry industry’s trade group.
“Feed is our primary cost, our primary ingredient in producing chickens. So being able to reduce that amount of feed helps us control and regulate our costs.”
In the last couple of years, corn — one of the main ingredients of feed — went from $2.50 to nearly $8.00 a bushel. That caused the price of feed to skyrocket. So it’s an economic priority to have a chicken that efficiently converts feed into meat.
Spread out on the rolling hills of the UGA Poultry Research Center in Athens, there are rows and rows of grey, tin-roofed cinder block chicken houses. Here’s where scientists like Mike Lacey, head of UGA’s Department of Poultry Science, are dealing with every aspect of a bird’s growth and development.
“The biotechnical techniques we can use to ferret out issues that deal with reproduction, or nutrition, physiology, even food safety, those molecular techniques are essential to understand what’s going on in the birds and being able to make poultry production as efficient as possible.”
Samuel Aggrey, a geneticist in Lacey’s department, is mapping the chicken’s genetic structure to identify which genes that control how efficiently a chicken uses its feed.
“Feed efficiency is basically conversion of feed into meat and the efficiency at which animals do that some animals may convert the feed into fat. Others may convert it into protein.”
Aggrey has two flocks of a special breed of chicken. In one, the chickens were selected for leanness; in the other, they’re fat.
He tracks everything— how much they eat, how much weight they gain, how fast they grow, and even how much manure they produce. Then he compares these data to a map of the chickens’ genes contained on a tiny microchip.
“We’re looking at variation in the gene is causing change in these traits. When we find that variation we know exactly what gene to select on to make the necessary changes to put more efficient birds on the market.”
Aggrey hopes his findings will lead to a chicken that will have more meat and less skin and abdominal fat.
“For the producer will have an efficient bird. Less feed means less waste in manure. Less manure means less pollution. For the breeder, we are breeding an efficient bird. …For the consumer, you have lean meat. So it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
And, although a leaner, more feed efficient chicken may be years away, Aggrey thinks that could make a big difference in the poultry industry.