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Poultry Farming and Industry

A view of the laying cages of the Zenith Poultry Farm, located four miles east of Regina, May 1957.
Ralph Vawter (Saskatchewan Archives Board) R-B5312, Government Photographic Services 57-072-01

The definition of poultry can be far-reaching if one accepts it as “avian species that readily reproduce under human care (domesticated) and provide an economic return to caregivers.” However, the major farming contribution of poultry is from chickens and turkeys; a small number of farms have ducks and geese. The poultry that arrived in Saskatchewan with European pioneers included chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. Birds were reared extensively and were frequently scavengers in the farmyard; for most, reproduction was via brood females and natural incubation. These birds were an important source of meat and eggs for farmers; the extra product was marketed locally. As time passed, chicken and turkey production evolved into a more sophisticated industry, some farmers raising more birds to provide a larger component of farm income. Poultry extension demonstrated the potential to make money feeding poultry rather than exclusively marketing the grain. Poultry breeders developed “Record of Performance” testing to assist in selection of superior birds and prove the value of their stocks, which they marketed to other producers. In the case of chickens, early production focused to a large degree on dual-purposed strains that provided reasonable amounts of both meat and eggs.

Poultry farming has changed dramatically since then. The number of farms keeping poultry has decreased, but the number of birds has increased. Although many farmers still maintain small poultry flocks, farming has changed from a backyard source of food and minor income to a sophisticated and intensive business. Marketing has also shifted from an open market system to marketing boards that control production in Canada to increase bargaining power regarding the value of meat and eggs. There are four marketing boards in the poultry area in Saskatchewan: Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Broiler Hatching Egg Producers Marketing Board, Saskatchewan Commercial Egg Producers Marketing Board, and Saskatchewan Turkey Producers Marketing Board. They were established in the 1970s to stabilize supply and to ensure profit. Saskatchewan poultry farming has also become specialized and can be divided into four major components: farms devoted to egg production for human consumption; farms that keep multiplier breeder flocks to provide broiler hatching eggs (broiler breeder farms) for local hatcheries; broiler producers (chicken meat); and turkey producers. The source of birds for meat and egg production has also changed: a small number of multinational companies have supplanted local breeders and supply the same genetically superior animals as found elsewhere in the world. Local breeders no longer exist because competition and the high cost of sophisticated breeding programs have resulted in extreme consolidation of the breeding industry.

Although feeding varies according to the class of poultry because of different nutrient requirements, key ingredients are similar for all types of production. Feeds are either manufactured on farm or, more frequently, purchased from commercial feed manufacturers. Nutrient-balanced diets are composed of cereal grains (primarily wheat), protein concentrates (soybean meal, canola meal), supplemental fat (vegetable oil, tallow), and vitamins and minerals. Mash diets (ingredients ground and mixed together) are fed to laying hens and breeding birds, but meat chickens and turkeys are usually fed crumbles and pellets (heat- and pressure- processed) to obtain maximum productivity.

In 2003 there were sixty-six egg producers in Saskatchewan, producing approximately 24 million dozen eggs from 832,000 laying hens. At the current price of $1.60 per dozen, the value of egg production approximates $32 million. After hatch, pullets are reared to nineteen weeks of age before starting the egg production cycle, which typically lasts one year. Both pullets and hens are primarily housed in cages located in environmentally controlled barns. Automated feeding, watering and egg collection are standard in most egg production barns. Day-old pullets are purchased from hatcheries that specialize in hatching egg-production pullets. The vast majority of hens lay white-shelled eggs that are derived from crosses of White Leghorn strains. Pullets can be raised by egg producers or by specialized farms until they are ready to lay. Egg production has increased dramatically as a result of genetic selection, from 175 to over 300 eggs per hen per year between 1925 and 2000. Most eggs are marketed to a commercial processor in Saskatoon, where they are graded and then distributed to customers in Saskatchewan and western Canada.

Chicken meat production involves two types of farms: broiler breeder farms, which produce hatching eggs; and broiler producers, which raise chickens to be marketed for meat production. In 2003, Saskatchewan had nineteen broiler breeder producers, with 200,000 breeders producing an income of approximately $8.5 million. Broiler breeder males and females are purchased from one of a small number of multinational primary breeding companies, each derived from specific two-way crosses. As a consequence, the commercial broiler that is raised for meat is a four-way cross. Each of the original pure-line strains used in the four-way cross is selected by the primary breeder for a wide range of production and health parameters. Breeders are raised on litter floors (e.g., straw) in environmentally controlled barns, and reach sexual maturity at about twenty-four weeks of age. During the breeding period males and females are primarily kept in barns with combination slat and litter floors. Again, feeding, watering, and usually egg collection are automated. Most modern barns have roll-away nests, where eggs roll to a collection belt after being laid. Generally ten males are kept per 100 females in natural mating flocks. Each hen is capable of laying 175 eggs in a forty-week egg production cycle; 85% of the eggs produce broiler chicks for a total of 148 chicks. Hatching eggs are picked up from breeder farms by the broiler hatchery in Wynyard (Lilydale Foods) on a biweekly or weekly basis. The eggs are placed in setters for eighteen days and then transferred to hatchers for the last three to four days of incubation. Broiler chicks are distributed from the hatchery to broiler producers in the province.

In 2003, ninety-eight Saskatchewan broiler chicken producers marketed 41.4 million kg of live chicken worth approximately $51 million. As with other classes of poultry, broiler production has become much more intensive, with barns holding 20,000 to 30,000 birds and farms often having multiple barns. Birds are housed on litter floors with automated equipment for feeding and watering. As with most types of poultry production, farms are run on an all-in all-out basis for disease control reasons. In this type of production, all chicks for the farm are placed together at hatch and marketed to the processor in Lilydale Foods on the same day. Between broiler production cycles, the barns are cleaned and disinfected prior to the arrival of the next flock of chicks. Male and female broilers are raised together; the market weights depend on specific markets: across Canada, broiler market weights vary from 1.7 to 3.0 kg; but the current Saskatchewan market is for birds in the 1.70 to 1.75 kg weight range. Broilers are usually marketed between thirty-two and thirty-nine days of age, and producers will place 6.7 broiler flocks per year. As with egg production, broiler productivity has increased markedly over the years: birds took 120 days to reach 1.8 kg in 1925, but take only thirty-three days to reach the same weight now. The Canadian industry has increased in size to support a growth in per capita consumption of chicken from 9.5 kg in 1960 to 30.5 kg in 2003. This represents a major change from previous times, when chicken was a meat for special occasions.

Saskatchewan has a small but well-managed turkey industry: twenty producers marketed 5.8 million kg of live turkey in 2003, valued at approximately $8.8 million. Although a specialized turkey hatchery was at one time present in Saskatchewan, day-old turkey poults are now purchased from hatcheries in neighbouring provinces. As with other classes of poultry, turkeys are the result of strain crosses derived from a small number of multinational primary breeders. Birds have white feathering, in contrast to the bronze turkey that was common in Saskatchewan years ago. Selection of turkeys has resulted in much improved growth rate and breast muscling: modern birds have far more breast meat compared to the “broad breasted” strains of yesteryear. Turkeys are reared sex-separate, and most of the current Saskatchewan production consists in hens marketed at relatively small body weights (5 to 7 kg) for the whole-bird market. Males (toms) are usually kept to larger weights and used for further processing into a wide range of meat products. Turkey production in Saskatchewan has shifted from seasonal to year-round, and at the same time the industry has changed from outdoor or range rearing to environmentally controlled barns with litter floors.

Henry L. Classen

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