What Can be Done About the Broiler Breeder Hatchability Challenge – INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVES


In recent years, the broiler industry in the U.S. has seen some of the worst hatchability numbers since the late 1980s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in January 2024 reported average hatchability at 79.6%, and February is on track to come in slightly lower; by comparison, the average for January 2018 was 81.75%, while January 2012 was 85%.

Some blame poor fertility and embryo mortality, but the cause of this phenomenon is unclear. Moreover, according to animal nutrition experts Novus International, Inc., while hatchability is always a concern, this challenge seems to be impacting poultry producers in the U.S. more so than elsewhere in the world.

Today, we hear from Dr. Hugo Romero-Sanchez, Executive Manager, Global Poultry Technology Lead at NOVUS, to better understand what is happening and whether there is anything producers can do to increase hatchability and ensure those chicks grow into broilers that will become dinner.

[Feedinfo] What are the theories surrounding a decrease in hatchability in the U.S.?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] There are many moving parts in broiler production. Since we don’t have a precise cause, we need to look at every step from egg production, fertility, and hatchability from fertile eggs in an effort to identify if the problem is at the farm and concerns female and/or male birds; at the hatchery and it’s an issue with disinfection, egg storage, ventilation, or temperature; or elsewhere, such as in the genetics or breed.

There’s a theory that this challenge began with the pandemic when chicken meat demand decreased. Integrated broiler producers were forced to cut back to accommodate the reduced demand and much of this was achieved by reducing broiler breeder placements and selling breeder flocks in production early. When demand rose, the breeding stock was not adequate to meet the demand for hatching eggs and subsequent broilers. The theory is that because of the rush to get more birds to market, all breeders – both male and female – may have been pushed to their limit, resulting in hatching eggs being sent up the chain which wouldn’t have been used otherwise.

Dr. Hugo Romero, Novus

Dr. Hugo Romero-Sanchez
Executive Manager, Global Poultry Technology Lead

At the same time, genetics companies were pressured to select lines with higher yields, which may have resulted in reduced breeder performance as a trade-off.

[Feedinfo] How is the phenomenon of decreased hatchability impacting the global broiler industry? To what extent is this a U.S. versus an international issue?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] Hatchability, in practical terms, represents the final number of chicks that we have available to grow into broilers for the poultry meat market.

There are so many factors at play in broiler production, which makes it difficult to find the source of the problem and the cure for it. For instance, in India where they haven’t seen this problem, they typically use artificial insemination in broiler production. Does that mean male broiler performance is the issue? Hatchability doesn’t appear to be as problematic in the EU and Brazil, where nutrition recommendations are different. Does that mean inclusion levels of additives are a contributing factor?

While we don’t see the same level of challenge in other areas, because of our highly integrated industry and global food supply chain, challenges that affect the U.S. affect the world to one extent or another. Also, there aren’t that many genetics firms that supply the broiler industry worldwide. So, if genetics is a factor, other areas may be expected to see similar issues.

[Feedinfo] Is there any indication that environment (water quality/quantity, air quality, heat stress, litter, etc.) could be a cause?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] Water is a main nutrient, and the environment plays a critical role in breeder productivity. However, I do not see a change in either in recent years that would explain this situation.

[Feedinfo] What is the genetics industry doing to address this challenge?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] Genetic companies are always looking for ways to improve performance and have trade-offs between breeder and broiler performance. They work intensively with nutritionists, veterinarians and farm experts to support customers managing their new products. The new strains might require more attention and implementation of breeder management and housing systems and they do provide guidance.

[Feedinfo] What can producers do from a management perspective to support fertility and hatchability?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] There are always steps that can be taken to optimize production. This can include monitoring pullet and cockerel development, and routine in-house management practices like evaluating male and female body conditions and monitoring bird body weight.

These have always been important but are even more critical when there are issues with production and hatchability, particularly with challenges like stocking density or in times of heat stress.

There’s also the possibility of creating separate feeding programs for male and female birds during rearing and production. Males require a much lower feed intake and lower crude protein than females to maintain body composition and fertility. And male feed intake has been shown to have an important effect on fertility.

We’ve seen in countries where artificial insemination is used and different housing layouts implemented that fertility and hatchability issues are not as prevalent. It is worth investigating areas where hatchability success is high to see where producers in the U.S. can make adjustments.

[Feedinfo] Are there nutrition interventions that help?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] Unfortunately, there is limited research on breeder nutrition. Much of the work done in recent years has focused on broiler development and performance. One of the goals of the book NOVUS recently published (Breeder Management and Nutrition: Moving the industry forward) was to give more attention to this research blind spot, particularly where high-yield, high-performance birds are concerned.

In nutrition, we’re seeing more people questioning the new feeding recommendations for broiler breeders, particularly for amino acids and vitamins. There was a big change in the amino acid recommendations and all the recommendations for vitamins increased considerably. We know vitamins like C and E and trace minerals have shown benefits in maintaining sperm quality at the end of the production phase (Attia et al., 2020; Romero-Sanchez et al., 2020).

The recommendations for trace minerals increased to a lesser extent but it’s important to note that a more bioavailable mineral source will have a lower inclusion rate than inorganic trace minerals.

Research from NOVUS has shown that the inclusion of highly bioavailable zinc, manganese, and copper as MINTREX® Bis-Chelated Trace Minerals in the diets of breeder hens results in improved production and hatchability (see, for example, Chen et al., 2022). In both controlled pen trials and more extensive field-scale trials over the full production cycle, trials repeatedly showed egg production improvements of at least 1%, improvements in hatchability of greater than 1.5%, and a subsequent increase in hatched chicks per hen. We believe these improvements are due to the unique 2:1 chelated structure with methionine source HMTBa in MINTREX® Trace Minerals. The unique structure means the minerals are protected, reducing the interaction with antagonists in the bird’s gut and ultimately delivering more minerals to the absorption site where the bird can use them (see, for example, Predieri et al., 2005).

Because there is ongoing discussion about the latest nutrition recommendations, it’s important that producers and nutritionists work closely with their feed additive suppliers to create a program that works for their operation.

[Feedinfo] Are there raw feed materials that are considered better or worse for hatchability?

[Dr. Hugo Romero] Breeder diets should include alternative feedstuffs to reduce the energy of a traditional corn and soybean diet. This lower energy brings good benefits by increasing the feeder cleaning time and maintaining good uniformity. The use of wheat middlings, palm kernel meal, soy hulls, and other diluents helps to maintain low cost while decreasing nutrient content. However, we need to be careful in balancing the amino acid composition. Particular attention should be paid to corn gluten meal, which contains excessive isoleucine and might affect the lysine/Isoleucine ratio. Together, these amino acids can improve egg production, but a high ratio will increase the pH in the oviduct affecting fertility (Ekmay et al., 2013), therefore a perfect balance is key.

Published in association with NOVUS