Hope for Male Chicks?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Sue Norris – As farmers and homesteaders, we know that no matter how much we love our chickens, the bottom line is they are a food source. They lay wonderfully nutritious eggs, and if we are raising them for meat purposes, they will feed our family for a couple of days.
If our hatch goes well, we have another batch of pullets to continue raising eggs, but if we get a lot of roosters, we have to decide what to do with them. Some get re-homed, but many are kept until large enough to supply us with a protein-rich meal. Such is the life of a rooster.
250 million. That is the number of male chicks killed each year by the poultry industry in the U.S. alone. In people equivalent, that is roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population killed in one year. It also amounts to a waste of around $440 million per year to the egg industry.
If you don’t get worked up over how these male day-old chicks are killed — macerated, gassed, or buried alive, you may get upset over the enormous waste of potential food source.
The general public is mostly unaware of this side of the industry, although it has become a significant issue with animal rights groups worldwide. Even the egg industry itself wants to change — the current situation is costly and unthrifty.
Our ancestors would be horrified to see how wasteful we have become. Once upon a time, farmers would have raised these birds along with the hens, perhaps caponized to make fat and tasty dinner, or just culled when large enough to make it worthwhile. Caponizing has slowly died away since the 1970s, leaving no more than a handful of qualified people to caponize birds. These folks were highly skilled and could process around 300 birds per hour! Capons grew to a much larger size, and because people had removed the male hormones, they made great broody “hens.” Unfortunately, the skill is unlikely to make a comeback in the poultry industry — it would cut into the profit margin, which is always the bottom line.
So, is there some hope on the horizon for male chicks? In short, yes. Six separate groups have been working on how to sex an egg long before it hatches, which would drastically cut down the number of chicks that are killed and wasted each year.
In 2017 in Germany, Seleggt was founded. It is a joint venture between Rewe supermarkets, the Dutch Hatchtech technology innovators, and Leipzig University researchers. The eggs have been sold in European supermarkets for over one year now. Researchers first test for fertility using a spectroscopic analysis of fluid obtained via a non-invasive procedure performed on the egg around days eight to 10. If fertile, eggs are then tested for sex. The analysis looks for specific hormonal signatures; female eggs hatch while the male eggs become high-quality animal feed. The success rate of the testing is around 97%. This shows great promise, and researchers work to increase the speed at which the eggs are processed and improve the success rate.
In the Netherlands, a company called In Ovo expects to launch a similar testing procedure within the year. When contacted, they declined to add any further information.
Israel has a program called EggXYt, which can be performed on the egg at day one with 100% accuracy. The company is very secretive about the process, but it is known that gene editing is involved using the CRISPR technology.
Scientists in Australia at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) are doing a similar thing using CRISPR technology. They splice genes from a sea anemone to the male-only chromosomes in the chicken genome. This causes male eggs to be bioluminescent under laser light.
In the U.S., a company called Ovabrite, in conjunction with an Israeli company called Novatrans, has come up with the TeraEgg. This process analyzes the gases escaping from the egg’s pores by spectroscopy and can determine the sex of the egg.
Lastly, Canada has Hypereye. This process uses hyper-spectroscopy in combination with some complicated mathematical equations on day one to sex the eggs. The success rate is between 95-99%, and they can process 50,000 eggs per minute.
The hope is that the male eggs destined for destruction can used as table eggs, for vaccine production, or for several other applications where egg proteins are used.
So it seems that advanced technology will reduce the cost and waste associated with male embryos and eventually stamp out the practice of mass cullings. Of course, this will rewrite many ways in which the egg industry functions.
How will this affect you? If you like to raise your own birds like me, we will be raising roosters for the foreseeable future. This technology is not likely to be widely employed for some time, but eventually, it may be feasible to buy only female chicks at the farm store or special order males.
If you buy your eggs from a supermarket, these “cruelty-free” eggs will likely be more expensive than a regular egg. In Europe, they say the eggs will cost one to three euro cents more than regular eggs, in Canada possibly five Canadian cents. It remains to be seen what the eventual cost to consumers will be in the U.S. — if the U.S. moves forward with the technology.
Concerning the Israeli and Australian research, perhaps the biggest question of all will be: Are you prepared to accept gene-edited chickens and eggs in return for sparing the lives of over six billion male chickens each year?
Originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.