To the untrained eye, the chicken breasts arrayed on the tray don’t look any different from any others.
But for Casey Owens, they reflect a growing problem in the poultry industry: “woody breast,” which leaves breast meat with a harder texture and often a paler color.
Owens, a poultry science professor with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, is researching ways to prevent or alleviate the defect, which has become more prevalent since 2014.
As one of many researchers at the UA System’s Division of Agriculture’s research arm, the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, Owens is trying to find ways to make poultry more sustainable, more efficient and more tasty. Researchers are also working to improve chick mortality and cooling systems in chicken houses.
“We are addressing the problems that are high demand,” said Billy Hargis, who runs the division’s Poultry Science Lab.
It’s no wonder that some of the most important poultry research is happening in northwest Arkansas.
The region is home to the nation’s largest poultry producer — publicly traded Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale — and other poultry companies including privately held Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs and George’s Inc. of Springdale.
The poultry industry is one of the state’s most important.
Arkansas ranks No. 3 nationally in broiler production — chickens raised for consumption — with 734 billion pounds of meat worth nearly $2.7 billion in 2020, according to the Poultry Federation. Poultry is responsible directly or indirectly for 151,000 state jobs and created more than $35 billion in economic activity in the state, according to the federation.
The growing demands on the industry have put enormous pressure on the system and the environment. Raising poultry to meet mounting global food demands requires mass production methods, and they’re on ample display in Arkansas.
A typical chicken house designed to raise broilers will have as many as 22,000 chickens inside. That requires meticulous feeding, watering, cooling and health care to ensure that as many of those reach their harvest weight in six to eight weeks.
Woody breast popped up in the past decade as growers became more efficient at growing larger chickens faster. A hundred years ago, a chicken would take nearly four months to reach 2½ pounds; now a 7-week-old broiler chicken will weigh 6 or 7 pounds if not more, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
Woody breast doesn’t pose a health threat to humans; the breasts are fine for consumption, but the meat quality suffers. “When you cook it and eat it in the most severe cases, it can create a texture that some people call chewy or gristle,” Owens said. “If it looks bad, people won’t buy it, so it wastes food.”
Part of Owens’ research is devising a system to identify woody-breasted chicken early in processing so it can be diverted to alternative food production, such as nuggets, where woody breast isn’t such a detriment. Another research avenue is slowing the chicken’s growth to reduce the chances of woody breast, but slower production time can cost money in the poultry world.
“We have looked at some detection methods in the plant to help us sort products,” Owens said. “Sometimes [slowing growth] is beneficial and sometimes it is not. There is not a one size fits all. If you slow a bird down and get a smaller bird, that is going to affect the pounds you get. It’s a balance.”
Perhaps the most important sustainability issue in the poultry world is water use. UA Division researchers received a $10 million grant two years ago to find a better way to use water to cool chicken houses during the summer.
Engineering Professor Yi Liang is researching a sprinkler system for the grant project, which is overseen by Director Walter Bottje. Bottje, a poultry physiology professor, said the traditional cooling method for chicken houses is blowing fans over a water cooling pad. The sprinkler system uses occasional misting coupled with fans to lower the temperature, something that proved to reduce water usage by as much as 70%, or about 30,000 gallons per flock-house cycle.
The “tricky part,” Bottje said, is that the sprinkler system works better the hotter and drier a house is. A humid house restricts a chicken’s ability to cool itself, but convincing chicken growers to let the houses get hotter can be a hard sell.
“The integrators are somewhat reluctant because it goes against convention,” Bottje said. “There is still a gray area where it gets up to a certain temperature and they say, ‘We’re not going to go past that.’ They’re getting a reduction but they could get more; that’s the bottom line.
“It’s not a system or a technique that you can push a button and walk away. It has to be carefully monitored for it to work. It is right on the fine line of ‘Yeah, this is working really well,’ and ‘Yeah, we’ve gone too far.’”
Using less water to cool houses will also allow for more chicken litter to be repurposed. Another division researcher, Sara Orlowski, is researching how to identify broilers who are more water efficient, which would result in less water usage by growing birds.
Hargis said reducing water by even a minuscule amount per bird would be a huge advance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Arkansas has raised more than 433 million broiler chickens so far this year.
“You don’t have to do a whole lot of calculator work to figure out what 10 milliters [about two teaspoons] saved per bird would mean,” Hargis said. “That is a lot of water. We’re not talking 10 milliliters; we’re talking massive amounts of water for evaporative cooling. Wasting water is not the solution. Well water won’t sustain that type of consumption. To conserve that is critical.”
Every bird that fails to reach the dinner table means the resources used to raise the bird — water, feed, medicine — have been wasted, Hargis said. His area of expertise for the past three decades has been in preventing illnesses through development of vaccines and probiotics.
Hargis said keeping birds alive and healthy helps the food supply chain, and even though birds are being raised for humans to eat them, they still need to be treated well.
“The last decade food insecurity is a big problem, not just in the United States but globally,” Hargis said. “There are a lot of people who are food insecure. There is a lot of malnutrition and starvation in the world. When you are wasting food that is a big deal.
“It’s a horrible cost for the industry, it’s a horrible cost for the environment, it’s a horrible cost for the world’s grain supply. There are all kinds of reasons for me to get up in the morning and go attack these things again. It motivates the hell out of me.”