Lack of Genetic Diversity Threat to Livestock

Winnipeg Free Press, July 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Lack of Genetic Diversity Threat to Livestock


Anyone who has lived on or near a farmyard with chickens is well-aware of the rooster's ability to trumpet the arrival of morning long before the sun peeks over the horizon.

But roosters have been delivering a wake-up call of a different sort lately -- sounding the alarm over the risks inherent with the increasingly narrow gene pool used in commercial agricultural production.

Reuters reports the U.S. broiler industry recently discovered the Ross breed of rooster, which sires as much as 25 per cent of the U.S. broiler chicken supply, had developed a fertility problem.

After investigating why up to 17 per cent of the eggs these roosters fertilized failed to hatch, the breeder, German-based Aviagen, acknowledged an unspecified change made to its genetics boosted growth rates at the expense of fertility.

The problem of roosters too fat to mate was quickly fixed through more genetic tweaking, but this seemingly temporary glitch is having costly effects.

The USDA's chicken production forecast for 2014 released last month predicted only a one per cent increase in poundage from 2013, well below the long-run annual average of four per cent. The agency predicted 2015 production would be up only 2.6 per cent. That's cutting into the country's export potential at a time foreign demand is growing.

The fertility problem exacerbated an already-existing shortage of breeder birds.

According to Reuters, breeders reduced their flocks when a spike in feed prices in 2011 squeezed their profit margins. They have been trying to rebuild their flocks since and are now looking for other options, such as attempting to hatch eggs that would otherwise have been discarded and keeping their laying hens longer.

The shortages are pushing up U.S. chicken prices at a time beef and pork prices are already at record highs.

Canada sources all of its breeding stock from the U.S. and relies solely on the Ross rooster. But industry officials say it has been unaffected -- at least so far. Because of supply management, Canadian hatcheries are able to contract for their hatching eggs up to two years in advance. The industry reports those contracts are being honoured to date. …

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