Poultry farming facts and fallacies

There are plenty of misconceptions around chicken meat, and righting the wrongs is part of what Professor Velmurugu Ravindran from Massey University does*.

The world’s most popular meat is chicken, and New Zealanders are eating more of it than ever before, says Velmurugu (Ravi) Ravindran, a poultry production lecturer and poultry nutrition expert from Massey University.

Chicken overtook beef as the country’s most popular meat several years ago.

Poultry production falls into two major categories: meat production, mainly from meat chickens, but also including meat from ducks, turkeys and game birds; and egg production, from laying hens.   

Professor Ravindran also knows all about poultry nutrition, and most of his work has been with the meat chicken industry. In fact, New Zealand is the world leader when it comes to efficient chicken meat production. Meat chickens grow faster and more efficiently here.

“There are three major diseases of poultry – avian influenza, Newcastle Disease and Infectious Bursal Disease,” Prof. Ravindran says. “New Zealand is the only country with none of these viruses.”

He says this means meat chickens are not vaccinated, and they can put all their nutrients into growth, rather than bolstering their immune systems.

Layers get a different type of food to their meat chicken cousins. They are older birds, and start laying at about six months, so they are more tolerant of any nutritional challenges. They also need more calcium (for egg shells) and are cheaper to feed than broilers.

“The broilers are only five or six weeks old when they are processed. They are fast-growing and require feeds with high levels of protein and energy.”

Prof. Ravindran says meat chicken genetics are chosen from all over the world, and modern, fast-growing meat chickens are the result of more than 30 years of breeding.

The eggs of the meat chicken great-grandparents are imported from Britain and the United States.

“The fast growth has come from the improvements in genetics, not from hormone use. Hormones have never been used in chickens in New Zealand.”

He says chicken meat in the early says came from males of the layer type. They were not bred for meat, so hormones were used to fatten them in some other countries.

“In these countries, hormones were only used in the 1960’s, for perhaps five years. But people quickly realised using them was a bad idea and stopped. It was banned 50 years ago.”

Prof. Ravindran thinks that hormones have been found in chicken meat in some developing countries, such as parts of the Caribbean. But there has never been any hormone use in New Zealand or Australia.

He understands the public’s concerns, though.

“People go to the supermarket and they see much bigger chicken breasts on the shelves than they used to. But it’s all through breeding, not from the use of hormones.”

There is also concern about the level of antibiotics used in chicken feed. In New Zealand, antibiotics are given to chickens to control a deadly disease called necrotic enteritis, not as a growth promotant. They are withdrawn seven days before slaughter, to ensure the meat is antibiotic-free.

The use of antibiotics is banned in some countries, and Prof. Ravindran says that could happen in New Zealand, so he is researching alternatives, such as essential oils, spices and probiotics.

“We know no individual tool can replace antibiotics, so we are planning to test combinations.”

He says he is the only poultry nutrition researcher in New Zealand, and it is a small group worldwide.

“The industry is hungry for information. We have conferences, where I talk about our latest research. The local industry is very progressive. They will have heard of some new information at a conference or publication, and a month later, they will be implementing it.”

He advises everyone of findings from the Massey Poultry Research Group, but says he has good industry and university support.

Prof. Ravindran says that in China, ducks are important, and they need less protein than meat chickens. In North America, turkey is important, and they need higher levels of protein than chickens.

“Poultry is the fastest-growing meat being consumed in the world. Hindus cannot eat beef, Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork, but everyone can eat chicken meat. There is no religious or cultural constraint on chicken, and it is a white meat, considered healthy, and fits into all sorts of cuisines.”

Meat chickens are big business, and getting it right – and as cheap as possible – is what industry players are all about.

“Birds do grow faster in New Zealand, so all the world is looking and would like to match the industry here, but they can’t,” Prof. Ravindran says.

He says there is no limit to the amount of chicken as person can eat. Another fallacy is that pregnant women should not eat chicken. This is based on the “hormone myth”, he says.

Food safety, especially campylobacter poisoning, is one of the recent issues about chicken meat.

“The industry has been very proactive about this issue. It has cut the amount of this bacteria in chicken meat by several-fold over the past four years. But it is a bacteria, so it is killed at 65 degrees. If chicken is well cooked, there will be no problem.”

Prof. Ravindran says the poultry industry had a tough year in 2008, with the price of grain feeds shooting up.

“Oil prices went up, so governments provided subsidies for ethanol production. It is a competitor for grains, so a lot of it was diverted for ethanol. It made grain more expensive.”

And that hit poultry producers.

“Since then, it has been a major battle to source cheaper feed materials. So it is about making the most efficient use of that they have.”

That’s where he comes in.

“We have been testing the value of non-traditional feeds such as peas, fava beans, canola meal and barley, which was traditionally sold as pig feed. We are looking at supply and cost issues.”

The welfare of meat chickens is an issue Prof. Ravindran considers.

“In meat chickens, the only welfare issue is stocking density. The birds are raised on litter, not in cages, as some people think.

“Having the correct number of birds per unit means less excreta and less moisture on the ground. Too much moisture can mean the birds’ undersides and legs are prone to bacterial infection.

“The more efficient birds are, the less excreta.”

Also, the less excreta, the less nitrate and phosphate to dispose of.

“It is all about having a place that is better for the environment and is more sustainable. So we can kill two birds with one stone,” Prof. Ravindran laughs.

He acknowledges that many people say it is wasteful to turn vegetable matter into animal protein.

“There is a direct competition of man and animals. But in most instances in New Zealand, the grain we use for feed is not human-consumption quality.”

Prof. Ravindran says this is not the case in all countries, where some maize that could be used to feed humans is put in the chicken feed mix.

“The use of grains for animal protein is a debate we’ll always have.”

* This article first appeared in the Manawatu Standard on 22 November, 2011.