Overall Rating Gold - expired
Overall Score 71.76
Liaison Mike Versteege
Submission Date Oct. 10, 2014
Executive Letter Download

STARS v1.2

University of Alberta
IN-1: Innovation 1

Status Score Responsible Party
Complete 1.00 / 1.00 Agnes Kulinski
Business Director
Poultry Research Centre, Department of Agriculture, Food & Nutritional Science
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A brief description of the innovative policy, practice, program, or outcome :

The Poultry Research Centre has launched a pilot program — “Adopt a Heritage Chicken”, where the PRC raises a sponsor’s chicken and provides a dozen of heritage eggs to the sponsor every 2 weeks. The goal is to raise enough money through egg and meat sales to cover the costs of maintaining the heritage breeds. The PRC has received overwhelming response from the public and media wanting to support the genetic preservation and our heritage breeds. Over 200 sponsors joined the program in March 2013. In the pilot program, we raised over $15,000 to contribute to the preservation of heritage breeds. The pilot program has demonstrated that there is a market for heritage chicken eggs and meat. The second round of the Adopt a Heritage Chicken Program started in Nov 2013 with an end date of Sep 2014. Over 400 heritage chicken supporters joined the program. The current program raises enough funds to maintain these breeds at the PRC. It costs approximately $60,000 annually to maintain the heritage chickens at the PRC and to run the Adopt a Heritage Chicken Program. For more info about the program please visit www.heritagechickens.ca.

Genetic Preservation:
Today approximately 50% of the genetics in heritage breeds are absent in commercial pure lines. Currently in the industry, producers use hybrid lines of poultry that are developed by one of only a handful of poultry genetic companies. With these poultry lines dominating the market, there is little economic incentive for industry members to maintain heritage flocks. While the hybrid lines currently serve our population through fast growth, high productivity, and efficiency, we may in the future look to old, heritage genetics for traits that have been lost while selecting for the modern hybrid lines. For example, recent concerns over avian flu point to the need to ensure that traits associated with disease resistance are preserved. Commercially, selecting birds that grow or produce efficiently has had the unintended consequence of selecting birds that spend less energy on their immune response. In Canada, there are still some purebred flocks that carry the base genetics of today’s commercial poultry. There is however a growing concern that these flocks are at risk and there is no plan or sustainable model to ensure their viability.

For the last 20 years, the PRC has maintained small random bred populations of 5 heritage chicken breeds which include Light Sussex, Barred Plymouth Rock, White leghorns, New Hampshire, and Brown leghorns. Some of these heritage breeds were introduced to Canada over a hundred years ago. Prior to arrival the PRC they had been maintained at the University of Saskatchewan as an unselected population since 1967. When Dr. Crawford retired, a new home was found for these breeds at the Poultry Research Centre in Edmonton. Their body conformation and production performance characteristics have been unselected over the years; therefore these birds contain genes that have been lost in modern poultry meat and egg breeds as an indirect consequence of selection for efficiency and productivity.

For the last 20 years the heritage birds at the PRC were of limited financial return to the Centre. The cost of maintaining these heritage chickens is currently covered by the University of Alberta through the PRC however due to recent budget cuts, the PRC was tasked with finding a way to bring revenues from the heritage breeds or consider termination of the program of preserving the heritage chicken lines.

A detailed market research was performed in Nov 2012, before the Adopt a Heritage Chicken Program was launched. The research drew attention to the decline of genetic resources and the fact that there is no reliable method for genetic preservation other than live population. Cryopreservation of semen, primordial germ cells and ovarian tissue transplantation is a very valuable tool for the preservation of remaining poultry genetic resources, however the current state of these technologies is inadequate for use by the industry. Further research revealed that the reliable stocks of live poultry genetic resources have largely disappeared. The industry cannot rely on the backyard operations or Poultry Fanciers stocks. The reasons include considerable flux as people move in and out of the hobby, disease control is minimal, not all breeds are well represented and many breeds are in constant danger of being lost. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada maintained a large collection of genetic lines of poultry until 1995. Similarly the number of universities keeping these breeds and the number of lines kept by each has declined. Approximately 60 genetic stocks kept as live birds were lost in Canada since 1984 and only 9 remain. The considerable cost of maintaining heritage chickens coupled with budget cuts are the main reasons for eliminating university stocks. It costs approximately $65,000 annually to maintain the heritage chickens at the PRC.

Further market research revealed that until recently, animal products have been marketed as commodities with little distinction between products by either producer or consumer. The commodity approach has encouraged a decrease in genetic diversity because the most efficient animals in a standard environment are used to produce a uniform product. There is currently a market differentiation to identify beef and milk from specific breeds, animal products from sustainable alternative systems of production, and speciality products. These marketing strategies may encourage the use of genetic variation in livestock populations because they market diverse rather than uniform product. In a growing trend, animal products are being sold under commercial brand names. Some of this marketing refers to post-slaughter treatment such as Air-chilled chicken, Sterling beef, some of them refer to method of production such as Canada Organic, and some refer to specific breeds such as Certified Canadian Angus. Niche market development can permit and even encourage the use of non-standard breeds that have specific market characteristics and allow them to support themselves.

How does the heritage chicken program relates to the issue of sustainability:
The adopt a heritage chicken program and genetic preservation of poultry is an “insurance policy” of sorts. Loss of genetic diversity makes poultry less adaptable, and threatens food security not only for the Edmonton area but for Canada as a whole. The purpose of the adopt a heritage chicken program was to develop a business plan to preserve the PRC’s heritage poultry breeds that harbour a large amount of genetic diversity and create a risk management plan in the event of strain breakdown or annihilation of commercial poultry lines through disease. Climate change, feed availability and failing food security could all lead to shortages of current optimal dietary ingredients for feeding livestock. Also, changing demographics and growth of the ethnic food markets could change product preference and demand. Having access to a wider poultry genetic resource will help the industry in Alberta and Canada to adapt to demographic changes and stay more competitive. Poultry with more genetic diversity are likely to be more adaptable to lesser quality feed ingredients, water shortages or climate issues in the future and diversity in selection for hardiness, heat tolerance, and resistance to disease will be essential. For example, the PRC has been approached by the Natures Farm, Manitoba, to help them with the development of a new outdoor poultry breed with improved immunity, hardiness, maturity weight and higher efficiency on low density diets. Our heritage breeds could play an integral role in developing such a bird as it has in developing the genetics for the commercial strains. Thus, ensuring we have access to genetic diversity in the future will allow for selection from a wide gene pool for characteristics that improve robustness as modern poultry continues to evolve and adapt.

Benefits to the poultry industry in Alberta and Canada:
• Created niche market: Until recently, the heritage breed products have been marketed as commodities with little distinction between products by either producer or consumer. The commodity approach has encouraged a decrease in genetic diversity because the most efficient animals in a standard environment are used to produce a uniform product. In a growing trend, animal products are being sold at a premium with labels that refer to value-added traits that appeal to consumers. Some examples include post-slaughter treatments (air chilled chicken; Sterling beef), some are differentiated by production method (Canada Organic; welfare certified), and some refer to specific breeds (Certified Canadian Angus). Niche market development can permit and even encourage the use of non-standard heritage breeds that have specific desired characteristics that allow them to be self-sustaining.
• Created “Heritage Chicken” Brand: We believe that we established a strong “heritage chicken” brand (similar to Alberta Angus Beef) which allows the sale of heritage eggs and meat. The Heritage Chicken brand is associated with a premium product. For example, we have collaborated with local businesses that are very eager to work with us to create products featuring heritage chickens such us Heritage Chicken Pot Pies or Pickled Heritage Eggs. We have been approached by local farms that are interested in raising heritage chickens and farmer’s markets that want to sell our eggs. The possibility of returns from heritage breeds makes it attractive to farmers to maintain/sell these heritage breeds and in turn contribute to genetic preservation.
• Genetic Diversity: Through the adopt a heritage chicken program the PRC contributes to the preservation of heritage breeds harbouring a large amount of genetic diversity and creation of an insurance policy for the potential failure of commercial poultry strains in the event of disease. In the future, genetic diversity will allow us to be able to select from a wider gene pool for characteristics that improve robustness as modern poultry continues to evolve and adapt. Having the ability to market a wider selection of poultry products as a result of wider genetic diversity could help the industry to be more competitive and respond to changing demographics.
• Educate consumers about agriculture, the poultry industry, and where their food comes from: The PRC has the opportunity to directly communicate with the consumer. The program proved to be a great vehicle to educate “Adopt a Heritage Chicken” supporters about where the food comes from, the life of the chickens, and egg production. All our communications (e-newsletters, blog and Facebook) with the adopters include accurate messaging about the poultry industry and whenever possible eliminate myths about the industry, such as the use of hormones or antibiotics in chicken production etc. We also train highly qualified personnel who become leaders in the broader community.

Until recently, there were no poultry products featuring heritage breeds. The Adopt a Heritage Chicken program is a unique business model capitalizing on the heritage/historical attributes and genetic preservation issues. There are no similar programs anywhere in Canada. The PRC Heritage Chicken Program has been observed by many organizations and farms and soon may be adopted by other institutions.

Recently, the Poultry Industry Council has put forth an initiative to develop a nation-wide business plan that clearly sets out the way (or ways) in which avian genetic material can be sustainably preserved in Canada. The business plan will identify the various partners with an interest in preserving genetic material and particularly those who will stand to benefit from such preservation. For more information on the nation-wide genetic preservation initiative please see vide http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzamRk2p8R8&feature=youtu.be

Today the heritage chicken program becomes bigger than the egg program:
The heritage chickens are now used in teaching and research. The Animal Science students at the University of Alberta were instrumental in market research and customer surveys. They also created communications with the program supporters such as videos and newsletter allowing people to experience a unique insight into the lives of the heritage chickens they help support and providing more information about our heritage birds. We are designing a course where students will learn how to raise chickens. The class will provide students with hands on experience and prepare them for industry. Furtheremore, the PRC has been working with Peavey Mart to sell heritage chicks to small farms that want to support the efforts of genetic preservation.

A letter of affirmation from an individual with relevant expertise:
The website URL where information about the innovation is available :
Data source(s) and notes about the submission:

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