Dec. 26, 2006 Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the University of Alberta for a bone scan.
Dr. Douglas Korver, a professor of poultry nutrition in the U of A Department of Agricultural, Food, and Nutritional Science, has been using some innovative technology to save cash for the poultry industry, and save the chickens from excess pain and suffering. The department's Quantitative Computed Tomography (QCT) scanner is being used to measure and calculate the bone density in laying chickens, in order to find ways to prevent osteoporosis and bone breaks in the birds.
"Laying hens put out an awful lot of calcium in the form of egg shells," said Korver. That output of their bodies' calcium can make their own bones as fragile as, well, egg shells, he said.
So far, Korver's research points to a form of vitamin D that helps the chickens absorb more calcium, and demonstrating that allowing the birds to reach sexual maturity and start laying eggs later in life reduces the liklihood that bones will become fragile as the chickens age.
"The economic advantage is going to be to the industry. Our research is about improving bird welfare, but the more birds that are healthy, the more they're laying, and that's better for the producers as well," he said.
"If we can reduce the incidence of osteoporosis, for example, from 10 per cent of the flock to eight per cent of the flock, we've calculated that would save the Alberta industry about $160,000 a year, and the Alberta industry is only about 10 per cent of the Canadian industry."
But the benefits do extend beyond financial considerations. In the past, the only way to take a look at bone development in chickens involved killing the birds. For a QCT scan, however, the hen is simply anesthetised so it remains motionless for the 20-minute scan, then gradually regains consciousness.
"The biggest implication is that we don't have to sacrifice birds at multiple times in order to take their measurements. So, we are reducing the number of birds we have to put in an experiment at all, and we're just getting a whole lot more data out of each bird," said Korver. "I think they deal with it well. They're fairly sensitive. If they don't like something, they'll stop laying."
Keeping the chickens alive for the scanning process also means having a constant data source and fewer variables when it comes to collecting information.
"The biggest thing that we've been able to do is follow the progression of a single bird throughout its life cycle," said Korver. "We can relate feed intake to that particular point in its life and we can relate egg production to that particular bird."
The scanner was provided to the U of A and is owned by DSM Nutritional Products. It's worth nearly $100,000, and has attracted more than $700,000 in research funding over the years.
Korver and his team are the only researchers in the world using this kind of technology on chickens. The smaller scanning machine has been on campus since 2000, but because it was initially designed for research on mice and rats, U of A scientists had to spend a lot of time recalibrating the software to recognize the qualities of fowl bone structure. "We had to ensure that our measurements are valid before we start publishing."
Korver recently received the Louis D. Hyndman Sr. Award for significant contributions to the welfare of animals used in research and teaching at the U of A.
"I think it shows that the research that we do here isn't simply growing more chicken or producing more eggs, it's also about how we can improve the welfare of the birds," he said.
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