“We’re a white chicken meat society and so his job involves trying to do creative things with dark meat”
Poultry research has changed drastically over the past 20 years and Alberta has been a major player, says Frank Robinson, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Poultry Research Centre.
The centre is a joint project between the University of Alberta, Alberta Agriculture and the four poultry marketing boards, which include Alberta Turkey Producers, Alberta Chicken Producers, Alberta Egg Producers and the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers. These groups funded the project and hired three poultry researchers, including Robinson, in 1986. “At that point, we were the second-biggest poultry research group in Canada,” says Robinson.
Today, the group is now the largest Canadian poultry research group and probably in the top six in North America. The centre employs seven faculty members whose activities continue to be supported by the Alberta
Agriculture Research Institute and the Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund (now managed by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency). Producer groups have always been involved with the activities of the Poultry Research Centre and have a direct impact on what areas should be researched.
The centre contains a federally inspected poultry slaughter/ processing plant, a refrigerated lab space, a storage freezer and a lab for product testing. The hatchery includes egg storage facilities and incubators as well as a chick processing area. There are also facilities for raising broiler and breeder birds, pens and environmental chambers which can be adjusted to allow for different ventilations, temperature, light intensities and feed and water intact.
BOTH LAYERS AND BROILERS
Poultry research at the centre has two main areas. The first encompasses research done on chickens that lay eggs for
consumption while the second involves researching birds for meat.
“It’s like comparing a dairy cow to a beef cow,” says Robinson.
Broiler chickens have become genetically selected to become bigger every year, he said. As a result, it becomes more difficult for producers to manage the reproduction of broiler chickens.
“What we did, over the years, was look at the level of the ovaries and what was really going wrong with these birds,” says Robinson. Researchers found that broiler chickens had highly active ovaries and were more prone to producing double-yolked eggs or laying two or three eggs in a day. None of these eggs could hatch into chickens.
Robinson and his researchers tried to determine what hatching egg producers in the province could do to make broilers lay eggs that would hatch into chickens. Their experiments involved measuring feed to see how feed allocation affected chicken production. Another experiment involved changing lengths of lighting to see how it impacted the sexual maturity of the hens.
When the centre opened, the focus was mainly on primary production, even though there was some focus on value-added foods. But in the 1990s, the centre released Dr. Sim’s Canadian Designer egg, the first egg enriched with omega-3.
The centre has always maintained a focus on integrating research with education and undergraduate students have always been involved in research. “I’m a fan of student engagement,” said Robinson. “If students are engaged and involved, they will rise to the challenge a lot more than they will if they’re sitting in a classroom.”
About four years ago, the research centre was moved into another direction. Production efficiency was still a focus, but there was increased interest in nutraceuticals and full value-added foods. The centre hired two new researchers, Dr. Mirko Betti and Dr. Jiangping Wu.
Betti was hired from Italy to research new ways to use chicken products that are not regularly consumed. “We’re a white chicken meat society and so his job involves trying to do creative things with dark meat,” says Robinson.
Wu specializes in researching egg proteins and how to understand links between eggs and health and processing eggs in value-added and functional foods.
There are several challenges involved with poultry research. “The companies put out a new model of chickens every year. It’s kind of like the car companies putting out a new model of cars. You have to be careful because if the research you’re doing takes two or three years, the principles still need to be valid in the new model of chicken,” said Robinson.
Poultry research also involves a lot of precise work, but research procedures are less costly than work done on larger livestock such as cattle and are generally easier to replicate.