The Poultry Bulletin - - INTERNATIONAL NEWS - By Gineke Mons

In Ovo it will be

If all goes as planned, the world­wide killing of 3.2 bil­lion male chick­ens each year may come to an end from 2018. A Dutch biotech com­pany, In Ovo, is ex­pect­ing that within two years it can in­tro­duce a ma­chine that is able to de­tect the sex of a fer­tilised egg, inside the egg, be­fore hatch­ing. Ger­many has al­ready an­nounced that it is go­ing to im­pose this method of in-ovo sex de­tec­tion for all hatch­eries.

Cur­rently, the bil­lions of male lay­ing chick­ens are dis­carded ev­ery year, some through shred­ding, but most by Co2-gassing, be­cause they don’t have any sig­nif­i­cant value in the food chain. In The Nether­lands, around 45 mil­lion cock­erels are killed. The dead chicks are sold as an­i­mal feed to zoos and to folks that keep rep­tiles, snakes or birds of prey. The total num­ber of culled cock­erels in the Euro­pean Union amounts to 330 mil­lion. An­i­mal rights or­gan­i­sa­tions have been protest­ing against this prac­tice for years, and also among the gen­eral pub­lic, the re­sis­tance has in­creased.

Two bright stu­dents from the Univer­sity of Lei­den, Wouter Bru­ins and Wil Stut­ter­heim, agreed that this prac­tice was shame­ful. In 2011 they teamed up in In Ovo, a new biotech com­pany that was ded­i­cated to find a so­lu­tion to this prob­lem. Backed up by the Lei­den Univer­sity and the Dutch Min­istry of Eco­nomic Af­fairs, ‘eggsperts’ Bru­ins and Stut­ter­heim have de­vel­oped ways to an­a­lyse cer­tain sub­stances in the fer­tilised egg that de­ter­mine the sex of the chick. On day 8 of the hatch­ing process, a nee­dle is in­serted in the egg and ex­tracts a lit­tle liq­uid from the egg (not from the em­bryo). Af­ter quick iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, male eggs can be dis­carded and fe­male eggs can con­tinue the hatch­ing process nor­mally.

In Ovo is work­ing to­gether with a Dutch en­gi­neer­ing com­pany, Sanovo, to de­velop the screen­ing ma­chine. Their aim is a ca­pac­ity of 40,000 screened eggs per hour. Both com­pa­nies ex­pect that it will take two more years to get the sys­tem mar­ket-ready.

In Ger­many, 48 mil­lion male chicks were killed last year. As far back as 2013, the Agri­cul­tural De­part­ment of the state of North RhineWest­phalia al­ready is­sued a de­cree that banned the culling of cock­erels. Lo­cal hatch­eries com­plained about this, and went to court. Now, the Ger­man min­is­ter of agriculture Chris­tian Sch­midt says he wants to end the culling prac­tice na­tion­wide as soon as pos­si­ble, us­ing this new tech­nique.

Whether Euro­pean hatch­eries will em­brace this devel­op­ment is wait and see. But con­sid­er­ing the other al­ter­na­tives, it’s very likely that they will. One stud­ied al­ter­na­tive is the devel­op­ment of a dual-pur­pose layer, so that male lay­ers can be reared for poul­try meat con­sump­tion. So far, this has not yet lead to a fea­si­ble new type of chicken. An­other op­tion is us­ing ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion to breed fe­male chicks only, or to make sure that male chicks won’t sur­vive af­ter hatch­ing. But we Euro­peans don’t like tin­ker­ing and tam­per­ing with genes.

So in-egg de­ter­mi­na­tion seems the most fea­si­ble. De­stroy­ing the male eggs on day 8 is an­i­mal friendly, be­cause the chick’s brain is not fully de­vel­oped yet so it won’t feel any pain. And dis­card­ing half of the eggs on day 8 means that hatch­eries can ei­ther cut down elec­tric­ity costs or op­ti­mise their hatch­ing ca­pac­ity. And as sex­ing of chick­ens is now done man­u­ally by em­ploy­ees at a con­veyor belt, In Ovo se­lec­tion will cut down labour costs as well. So my pre­dic­tion? In Ovo se­lec­tion it will be.¡

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