Three billion dollar birds, and why their sleep cycles matter

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Australia’s economy benefited from poultry farm production last year by $3.149 billion. Needless to say, AgriFutures Australia is doing all it can to propel this value in the future – through significant investments in research, development and extension (RD&E).

These investments, outlined in our AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program RD&E Plan (2022-2027) are currently being championed by stakeholders who share a vision to improve the chicken meat industry’s long term sustainability, productivity and viability.

One such champion is Caleb Wellard, a Deakin University PhD student who was recently awarded the Gary Sansom Scholarship for 2023 to support his research into chicken embryo development.

Caleb’s research is focused on discovering the impact and effect of circadian rhythm – the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle – on avian (bird) embryo development. Early embryonic life is a sensitive period for a developing chick, and Caleb says during this time the embryo can be influenced by external cues which can have a harmful impact on their development.

An important outcome of the research will be to see if the welfare of chicks can be improved by replicating natural environmental cues to shorten the hatching window.

“Hatch windows can last anywhere from 24 to 48 hours, so reducing the time that those chicks have to wait to be taken out of the incubator and then move to an area where there’s food and water is quite important,” said Caleb.

Caleb understands that light, dark and temperature cycles are crucial environmental factors (zeitgebers) that could influence the circadian rhythm of chicken embryos, influencing their pre and post hatch development. He says that diurnal changes in light and temperature are used by avian embryos to synchronise hatching and development.

“Naturally, birds would time their hatching with those natural environmental cues so we’re hoping to replicate that in the lab,” he said.

“We are hoping that adding lighting cues to the incubators will not only have a positive affect on the hatch window, but also impact the chicks after they hatch, so there could be some benefits in terms of how they grow or how they behave.”

Caleb’s research is three-phased and will be used to form a fundamental test of the role of light, dark and temperature cycles for avian embryonic development and development after it hatches.

“Honestly, I would never have thought to have an industry focus, just because my undergrad was all science, science, science. I’m now really starting to learn the benefits of having an industry focus and how science can be applied to an industry in a meaningful way,” said Caleb.

As part of the Gary Sansom Scholarship, Caleb has been provided an industry mentor to guide him through his research and help him establish a career path within the industry.

Matthew Hilliar, a poultry researcher at Turosi Food Solutions, is Caleb’s industry mentor. He says that the biggest threats to the poultry industry are currently economic, environmental, health and welfare related concerns, and that Caleb’s research will be an important stepping stone for the industry to build a more sustainable and viable future.

“The fact that this project is using environmental stimuli to try and sync up the hatch window is something that is very easy to implement, and it could have a profound outcome,” said Matthew.

Established in honour of the late Gary Sansom, a prominent leader in the industry and a strong advocate for encouraging new talent, the Gary Sansom Scholarship seeks to identify and nurture high-quality students who have a passion for the chicken meat industry.

“I have given my full support to Caleb because he has something that you can’t teach, which is ambition, drive and a genuine interest in all things poultry,” said Matthew.

“I’m very happy to work with him and I was pleased to hear that he was successful because he is a very worthy recipient,” he said.

The scholarship will provide Caleb with up to $35,000 in funding to support his research project and the opportunity to attend poultry industry conferences and participate in poultry industry activities.

After completing his studies, the AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program will also assist Caleb to build contacts with industry stakeholders and will provide networking opportunities to help him forge a successful career.

By supporting the next generation of chicken meat industry leaders, the Gary Sansom Scholarship aims to uphold Mr. Sansom’s vision of a respected and valued industry that contributes to the Australian community. In turn, the leadership skills and innovative research that arises will benefit the industry for years to come.

For more information on the AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program

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