According to Dr. Joey Bray, assistant professor and director of poultry science at Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, poultry appears to be well on its way to overtake pork’s status as the most widely consumed meat in the world. Based on 2014 data published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pork accounts for more than 36 percent of the planet’s meat intake, followed closely by poultry at 35 percent.
“With this trend moving the way it is we’ve got to figure out how we can get more birds to the market quicker, but we also don’t want to sacrifice the health and the care of the bird,” Bray said.
Consumption trends are not the only factors producers must adapt to. Traditionally, broiler and egg producers relied on the use of incandescent bulbs in their chicken rearing facilities. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, however, called for the gradual phasing out of these bulbs due to their energy inefficiency. In response, producers began using compact fluorescent light bulbs in their chicken houses. Though CFLs initially seemed to provide an energy efficient alternative, issues soon arose.
“They [CFLs] weren’t and still aren’t built for the environment of a chicken facility that contains dust, humidity and those kinds of things,” he said. “So that’s when LED bulbs started gaining popularity.”
Bray said there are currently four to five companies that produce LED bulbs specifically for poultry production. While LEDs are known to be energy efficient, their savings and possible effect on poultry development had never been formally measured in a commercial facility. Bray saw this as a research opportunity.
“When we started this project, our first goal was to figure out if [the change in light source] is going to effect performance at all. That’s the biggest concern for growers,” he said. “So we did that, and at the same time, I wanted quantify the amount of energy producers could save.”
Thus, the four commercial poultry houses that compose SFA’s Broiler Research Center, located at SFA’s Walter C. Todd Agricultural Research Center, were fitted with data loggers to monitor the energy consumption of the lights in use. Two chicken houses utilized the traditional 100-watt incandescent and brooding light regime, while two were fitted only with LEDs. After growing five consecutive flocks in each of the houses, Bray said he was surprised by the results. The use of LEDs resulted in an energy cost reduction of 91.07 percent over the five-flock period.
“That’s what was astronomical to me,” he said. “I thought ‘wow, this is amazing’.”
Not only were the energy savings promising, but the birds in the houses fitted with LED lights developed at the same rate as those under traditional lighting.
Bray said the feed conversion ratio, a measure of the pounds of feed required to produce one pound of growth in livestock, was the same under both treatments.
With this knowledge in tow, Bray entered the second phase of research in which he investigated the potential calming effects of LED lighting and lighting regimes on chickens. He explained that this analysis was prompted by anecdotal evidence provided by other producers using LED lighting in their facilities.
“Other people who were using LEDs said that they felt like the lights had a calming effect on the birds, and we wanted to hone in on that,” Bray said. “One of the important things in the poultry industry, and it has been for several years, is animal welfare.”
For this portion of research, all four chicken houses at SFA’s Broiler Research Center were equipped with LED lights. Then, each facility was placed on a lighting regime of varying light intensity and duration.
To quantify the potential effects of these lighting regimens, Bray and his student assistants, along with Dr. Greg Archer, visiting researcher from Texas A&M University, regularly weighed birds, conducted welfare assessments and collected blood samples. Bray explained that the blood samples monitored heterophil-lymphocyte ratios, providing insight into immune response, as well as levels of corticosterone, a hormone released as a result of stress.
Their findings indicate that a gradual reduction in light intensity from 100 percent to 45 percent over a two-week period, rather than a drastic drop in light intensity following the standard seven-day brooding period, resulted in a slightly larger bird. Moreover, the lighting regime lowered heterophil-lymphocyte ratios and corticosterone levels.
“What we’re seeing right now is showing promise that producers can have better welfare and husbandry of the bird and feel confident that their birds are going to do better because they’re less stressed,” Bray said.
Now in the third phase of his research, Bray is investigating whether different hues of lighting can further promote performance and reduce stress.
Bray said that he hopes these findings set producers’ minds at ease regarding the transition to LEDs. He also emphasized that the initial cost of transitioning to these bulbs is quickly recouped through robust energy savings.