In a world where egg-type chickens such as White Leghorns are valued only for their egg production, and there are very few people who want a White Leghorn cockerel for Sunday dinner, what happens to all the male baby chicks? An article in The New Food Economy called The Cure for Culling explains both the problem and a promising new cure: in-shell sexing.
One of the authors, Harry DiPrinzio, contacted me for my take on the issues here, and in particular a spiffy new technology that can tell the gender of a chicken embryo fairly early in its development.
I won’t recap the details here, since the article does a fine job of this. I want to talk about why this is revolutionary in other ways.
Increased Hatchery Capacity
Today, all eggs in the incubator are hatched, unless candling shows them to be infertile or otherwise bad. The in-shell chick-sexing technology is kinda-sorta like candling on steroids, allowing the egg to be analyzed more than ever before. You can tell whether it’s developing at all, and, if so, what gender it is, and perhaps more things besides. If any of these aren’t up to standard, the egg is removed.
This opens up space that you can fill with … more eggs. Since the incubation period is 21 days, and about half the eggs will be removed after nine days, you can hatch about 40% more eggs with the same facilities as before.
In terms of production efficiency, this may be the biggest single advance in hatchery technology since the introduction of controlled-humidity, controlled-temperature, room-sized incubators almost 100 years ago!
A big push behind this effort is that no one likes culling the male chicks, but hardly anyone is willing to buy them. Egg-type chickens (and dual-purpose chickens, for that matter) grow slowly, never get very meaty, and look exactly like a rubber chicken when butchered.
Our own experience is that such fryers have, at best, a sharply limited demand. We’ve tried it, and we figure we’d be lucky to sell one such cockerel for every fifty hybrid broilers. Customers don’t like them. The ones who give them a try don’t come back for more. And there are six billion laying hens in the world, meaning that we’re talking about similar numbers of cockerels.
Yes, there’s a certain ethnic demand and a certain gourmet demand. It doesn’t add up to billions of chickens, though.
How Did All This Happen?
In the old days, eggs were the most important poultry product: a highly nutritious protein source with good keeping qualities and surrounded by a tamper-proof shell. They were expensive, though. Poultry meat was essentially a byproduct of the egg industry, and was also expensive, and the demand was always greater than the supply. Young male chickens? These cockerels are “spring chickens” and sold for high prices. Hens past their egg-producing prime? Stewing hens for Sunday dinner. Old roosters? Somebody will pay even for those. Most of the money was in the eggs, but the meat was profitable, too.
Advances in agricultural science brought the volume and quality up (and prices down). The market was flooded with high-grade product, so the lower grades had no takers anymore. Chicken and eggs went from luxury products to everyday fare, even for the poor. This process was essentially complete by 1960.
As I said, the low-grade products vanished. Grade “B” eggs used to be considered worth buying for home use: no one will touch them anymore. There was even a grade “C” that was considered vaguely suitable for human consumption. Today? Not a chance. And it’s just the same for the male chicks and the old chickens.
Public Relations and Humane Considerations
So what happens to the male chicks? As you probably feared all along, they’re killed as soon at they’re identified, right after hatching. No one is happy about this. At all. Everyone hates it.
Some activists, who seem to imagine that every problem has a political solution, want to make culling illegal. If successful, egg-type chickens will vanish from the marketplace. All that will be left commercially are broiler chickens, which don’t lay very well and would (by my guess) result in egg prices tripling or even more. (So much for eggs as a nutritious food that even poor people can afford.) Or maybe eggs will become illegal. I don’t know. Not in the US, though: it’s a Europe thing.
Farmer’s organizations, who imagine that every problem has an engineering solution, are working on in-shell sexing. By identifying and discarding the male embryos before they have developed enough of a nervous system to feel more distress than, say, a stalk of celery, the problem will be solved by just about anyone’s standards.