By Tom Woolman

THE Centre for Innovation Excellence In Livestock (CIEL) works to support the research and application of efficient and sustainable livestock production. 

In this article, Dr Fiona Short and Dr Mark Young share five things the poultry sector could do to become more sustainable.

Understand the whole system 

According to Dr Young it’s important to appreciate all the inputs and outputs of a production supply chain before rushing to judge its sustainability credentials.

“What are the net carbon emissions that go into a poultry product, including the fertiliser and diesel that go into producing the grain and transporting it to the farm?” he says. 

When understood, a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can be generated, accounting for the whole system.

Different parts of agriculture are interlinked, and there is a good reason for that. 

“There’s an advantage to having multiple systems over one. Even if chickens were the most efficient way to produce protein, I wouldn’t say the best farming system for Britain is all chickens; it doesn’t work like that,” explains Dr Young.

“The way poultry and pigs win from a sustainability point over other proteins is they get multiple production cycles through in a year. 

If you compare that to ruminants, they only get one or less,” he says, although notes that ruminants can exploit farmland not suited to growing the feeds that pigs and poultry consume.

Improve bird health and layer longevity

The interaction between health and longevity directly impacts the efficient use of resources, particularly when it comes to laying hens, says Dr Short.

Increasing longevity reduces the proportion of time the bird is in rear and not producing, as well as cutting the total number of birds required to be reared to meet the same output. 

The utilisation of different breeds, particularly those that lay white eggs, can be useful in this respect.   

Maximise FCR

Slower growing broilers will have a disadvantage in resource utilisation because they will require a higher amount of feed to reach the same target weight.

“They have to grow the same amount of protein, but they do it over more days, and one of the biggest maintenance costs for an animal is protein turnover,” says Dr Young.

Lower stocking and increased cycle lengths have a further detrimental impact. 

“The diet may be lower specification, but you have to feed more. That’s basically what kills the LCA for them,” he points out.   

Dr Young highlights a conundrum between efficient poultry production and animal welfare.

“A significant amount of work is looking at how we can maintain animal welfare whilst rearing birds efficiently,” he says.

Properly value poultry manure as a fertiliser

The poultry sector could gain from transforming poultry manure into different types of fertiliser.

“There is a lot of work going into that area at the minute” says Dr Short. 

“There are various additives you can add or further processing of manure which could reduce the emissions of manure and make it more suitable as a fertiliser.” However, more work is required.

Both Dr Short and Dr Young agree that poultry is very efficient at turning nutrients into protein, but also emphasise the importance of getting those nutrients back into the food system as effectively as possible for increased nutrient circularity.

Explore homegrown alternative protein sources

Dr Short says there is a strong focus on evaluating soya alternatives. She says to get the greatest benefit they need to be homegrown and have minimal negative nutritional effects on the birds.

Plant breeding programmes and processing can reduce the anti-nutritional factors present in some crops such as beans and peas, but these need the right economic incentives and take time.

“The pea is a great protein, but the trouble is there isn’t enough money in it to invest in breeding for some improvements – hence, it tends to be a crop fed to monogastrics when quality is not good enough for other markets rather than a crop grown specifically for them,” she explains.

“What other novel plant crops can grow in the UK climate?” says Dr Young, “Can we produce a more temperate soya plant?”

They question whether processed animal protein (PAP) will be a mainstream solution, given recent experience in European markets.

“It’s not just challenges with legislation,” says Dr Short. 

“It’s also the practicalities.” There can be difficulties keeping PAP separate from other feedstocks in storage, transportation, and milling.

Similarly, insect protein is showing promise but faces significant challenges when it comes to scaling up technology for the volumes needed for the poultry sector. 

Issues such as rearing substrate, processing, and insect welfare require further research.


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CIEL is a partner of the Poultry.Network Sustainability Hub.

The Poultry.Network Sustainability Hub is a project showcasing and supporting the UK’s poultry sector as it moves to a more sustainable future. Find out more here.

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