Selective breeding is the mating of birds chosen because they exhibit the genetic characteristics or traits most desirable in the generation eventually reared for meat production.
More than 40 different traits are selected for robust heart, lungs and other organs. Good leg strength and resistance to disease are as important as body conformation, feed performance and growth rate in the selection process.
In turkey breeding it’s usual for a significantly smaller hen from one strain to be crossed with a large male, or stag, from a different strain to achieve the optimum production characteristics.
Although turkey breeding stags are able to mate naturally, artificial insemination of turkey breeding hens is carried out to prevent injury to the hen by the stag and to ensure more consistent fertilisation occurs.
Selective breeding produces the pedigree, or elite flocks, whose offspring form the great grandparents and grandparents of the birds eventually reared for their meat. But the grandparent birds must also have genetic characteristics required for the parent flocks to produce the fertilised eggs from which chicks are hatched and reared for meat production.
Maintaining sound and healthy birds with the proper genetic balance between reproduction in the parent flocks and meat production in the broiler flocks is the key to modern selective breeding programmes.
It is highly scientific and requires huge amounts of data on every single bird and its extended family to be collected and analysed.
Today, selective breeding of commercial poultry strains is carried out by only a few specialist primary breeding companies who operate throughout the world.
Parent Breeder flocks produce the fertilised eggs from which the chicks grown as meat chickens are hatched.
In the UK, parent flocks are kept in poultry houses on floor litter of chopped straw or wood shavings and provided with nesting boxes. Battery cages are not used in any stage of the breeding or rearing of birds for meat production.
There are around ten hens to each cockerel in the parent flock. The hens and cockerels reach sexual maturity aged around 20 weeks and soon after the hens begin laying fertilised eggs in the nest boxes provided. Each hen lays around 130 fertilised eggs during its productive life of around 60 weeks. The eggs are collected from the nest boxes several times each day and sent to the hatchery.
Many modern houses have automatic egg collection using conveyers located unobtrusively below the nesting boxes. Eggs are recorded by laying flock and can be matched against other records of the flock concerned and this record accompanies each batch of eggs to the hatchery.
At any one time there are approximately seven million broiler chicken breeder hens in the UK laying fertilised eggs for hatching.