broiler chickens Baris KARADENIZ/iStock/Thinkstock

Grants to explore poultry yield, heat stress resistance

University of Maryland professor receives $1m in two grants to examine ways to increase poultry yield and advance animal well-being.

University of Maryland College of Agriculture & Natural Resources professor Tom Porter has been awarded two grants, totaling $1 million, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) to explore ways to increase poultry yield and meat production while improving the lives of the animals.

Additionally, Porter will examine the natural growth hormone processes and resistance to heat stress caused by severe weather patterns.

“By 2050, the world will be in the wake of a large food shortage,” explained Porter, professor in the department of animal and avian sciences. “To meet the demand of a growing population and combat hunger, it is anticipated that meat production alone will have to increase 43-47% across the board, with little to no new land or space for meat production. This presents a major food crisis.”

Porter has been studying the mechanisms behind natural growth hormone production in poultry for 27 years and has received consistent federal funding for his work. His research has explored what controls production of the bird’s own growth hormone, when it begins, how to target the DNA to control growth hormone production and what cellular mechanisms are involved. Porter will use the grant from NIFA’s Animal Nutrition, Growth & Lactation Program to continue this research.

“If there is no new land for meat production, the best way to meet our agricultural and food supply needs is through more efficient and effective growth,” Porter said.

By inducing the natural growth hormone production process a little earlier in chick development, critical parameters like bodyweight, yield, composition and feed efficiency (or the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of meat) may be improved, providing more insight into these mechanisms.

In addition, funding from NIFA’s Animal Well-Being Program will support a new research project. To improve animal welfare, well-being and overall poultry production, Porter will use the grant to develop a protocol to easily condition chicks to better handle heat waves as adult birds.

Chickens begin to exhibit significant heat stress at sustained temperatures of 95°F or higher. With ever-increasing extremes in the global climate, heat waves with prolonged temperatures over 95°F are becoming increasingly common. Significant heat stress not only causes the birds to suffer but often leads to premature death on a large scale.

Eggs are normally incubated at 99.5°F, and chicks are kept at 92°F thereafter. Exposing chicks to 100°F heat for an additional day when they are young reduces heat stress and mortality rates by 50%, Porter said. What is not understood is how this mechanism works, how this affects poultry production and overall yield and if the protocol can be optimized with more or less conditioning.

“I am a physiologist and, really, an endocrinologist, so understanding the mechanisms that regulate hormones and stress is what I enjoy,” Porter said. “Everything we do is to improve the well-being and lives of the animals themselves and to ultimately improve poultry production. That is the key to this work.”

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