Cutting-edge biotech leads to welfare breakthrough

Pioneering biotechnology will allow the Australian egg industry to save otherwise discarded male chicks. Nearly half of all chicks hatched for the layer industry hatch as males and need to be culled. The Australian Poultry CRC, in collaboration with CSIRO Livestock Industries, is patenting a method to control sex determination in birds. This means that, when the technology is applied, the majority of chicks hatched will be females – with clear welfare and economic benefits.

According to Professor Mingan Choct, CEO of the Poultry CRC, “From a welfare perspective, it’s extremely positive because there’ll be far fewer male chicks to cull. From an economic perspective, there’ll be savings because half of the vaccinated eggs will no longer be wasted simply because they hatch as males. This becomes a terribly important point when you realise that all of those vaccinations carry a significant cost and are crucial for flock health.”

The technology uses an existing vaccination method which injects vaccines directly into the fertilised egg at the hatchery. By piggy-backing on existing practices, the technology would be easy to implement and cost-effective. The heart of the system is a method to silence the expression of genes that tell the growing embryo to become female or male, without having to genetically modify the chicken itself.

“We’ll be able to use existing processes in the developing embryo to produce more female than male birds,” explained Lloyd Thomson, the Poultry CRC’s Commercialisation and Technology Transfer Manager. “The approach is non-GM. Hatcheries, farmers and, most importantly, ethically-minded consumers will all benefit.”

Australians eat 175 eggs each year, up from 150 in 1999 (from more than 15 million hens or nearly 240 million dozen eggs per annum representing $400m gross value at the farm gate). Given that the Australian population will almost double by 2050, sustainable sources of high-quality protein will be crucial for maintaining food security. This CRC innovation will help the Australian egg industry continue to provide this vital staple food.

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