Multi-Faceted Approach has Researchers Nearing Woody Breast Solutions

Editor’s Note: Get more background on Woody Breast Condition and its implications for the poultry industry in part one of our series, Genetics, Environment Contribute to Woody Breast Condition.

Though it’s only been known in the chicken industry for around a decade, woody breast condition (WBC) has already proven to be a potentially costly issue for an industry tasked with feeding a growing global human population. Though the primary triggers of the condition are well-known, solutions are difficult to reach for an industry facing high production demand.

WBC is a complicated convergence of circumstances that makes it difficult to find a practical, cost-effective treatment. It’s a condition whose exact cause is unknown. Conditions favorable to woody breast are well-known, as are the physiological symptoms those conditions trigger. It puts the research community close to zeroing in on the causes and resulting successful treatments for the condition. Though work remains to be done, a solution is within reach, as researchers take on the issue from different angles.

“This woody breast issue has a lot of weight to it,” says Kemin Associate Research Scientist Farrah Phillips. “There is a lot of research going on simultaneously.”

University and Kemin researchers are working to find practical solutions to the woody breast problem, which has the potential to cut both world chicken output and make it tougher for producers to operate at profitable levels. The reason is fairly simple: chicken demand has risen sharply in recent years. Considering both growing consumer preferences and a human population that continues to rocket higher, the industry can’t afford something that might slow production or make it less economical, whether that comes from the WBC problem or its solution.

“The industry is excited to find answers to help continue to be able to grow the big birds,” says Kemin Technical Service Manager Karen Pollock. “We have to find something to help them maintain profitability.”

Woody Breast Causes and Costs

Since its discovery a few years ago, WBC research has focused on oxidative stress in affected birds. To date, synthetic antioxidants have been used to treat with varying levels of efficacy. Oxidative stress is also caused by some of the environmental conditions surrounding modern chicken production, however simply changing these conditions is not economically viable and would result in decreased production. With inconsistent treatment options and outcomes for WBC today, there is a cost to the producer whether they decide to treat or leave their flock untreated. That’s why new research and potential remedies are so crucial at this point.

“Even if you know when the chicken is alive that it has woody breast, you’ve already taken a loss,” says Kemin Associate Research Scientist Farrah Phillips. “You’ve been feeding that bird the last 40 days and it’s fully-grown, but you can’t get full value out of it. You have to have it processed or used in a different market.”

“If you have 10 percent woody breast incidence in the U.S., that’s going to cost U.S. producers $200 million a year,” continues Phillips. “Even a small penetrance of the disease in a severe form is really going to cost the poultry business big money. If we can reduce that by five percent, we can save $100 million in the U.S.”

Two Tracks of Research

Research underway today is targeting both the underlying causes and symptoms of WBC. Though the desired end result is the same, these two tracks of research are looking at different parts of the pathological process that leads to the condition.

The first pertains more to the conditions that are favorable to the development of the condition. Studies like one conducted recently at Auburn University show management changes, like feeding a different ration or at a slower rate, prevent “pushing birds too hard” and trigger less oxidative stress that contributes to the development of WBC.

Another study at the University of Arkansas in 2016 showed butyric acid and zinc – both included in Kemin’s ButiPEARL Z product – helped animals have a healthier gut when facing challenges such as heat stress. Though in both studies, the specific cause of the condition isn’t revealed, researchers are confident the research is moving the industry closer to that goal.

“We saw that we were able to reduce the woody breast score,” Pollock says of the Arkansas study. “Granted, the score of these birds wasn’t as high because they were under heat stress, so they weren’t growing as fast. We concluded that with a healthier gut, provided by ButiPEARL™ Z, the bird was able to absorb more nutrients and antioxidants. That can minimize the oxidative stress the bird is experiencing.”

The findings of a recent trial conducted at Texas A&M University show that adding butyric acid, zinc and chromium – like the chromium found in KemTRACE® Chromium by Kemin – might reduce WBC. Though it doesn’t altogether eliminate cases of woody breast, it lowers severity enough to avoid sharp quality declines.

“We saw significant interactions combining butyric acid, zinc and chromium, cutting the incidence of woody breast compared to the control group,” Pollock says of the recent research, adding birds with mild scores of woody breast can often still enter the human food chain as unaffected birds. “When we looked at butyric acid and zinc only, we saw that it significantly decreased the percentage of severe and moderate woody breast scores and significantly increased the percentage of mild woody breast scores.”

At the same time, Phillips works in a different research environment, but with the same target. She looks more at the basic physiology of chickens and how different systems within an animal’s body – rather than the stimuli they face – can influence incidence and severity of WBC.

“Part of my research has been to look at how the chickens grow in general,” Phillips says. “One argument is that because chickens are bred to grow muscle tissue rapidly, but aren’t selected for cardiovascular health, there’s a lack of blood flow to the tissues in birds fed high amounts of protein and energy. In any environment where there is cell death and when conditions are not well-oxygenated, it causes radical oxygen species production and inflammation. It’s imbalance, not homeostasis.”

Finding the Cause of Woody Breast Condition

Though there are different tracks for current research on woody breast, they have the same outcome: Finding the cause of the condition and options to control it. The conditions favorable for and symptoms of WBC are known, but the two-pronged research methodology will ultimately reach the same finish line, the unknown cause of the condition.

“It doesn’t take many probes into scholarly articles to realize that nobody knows what’s causing it,” Phillips says. “And that’s what I’ve been doing, trying to find those causes.”

An immunologist by training, Phillips says her research work starts with an objective point of view, then takes previous work on the condition and “puts it through a filter” to find the basic tenets both genetically and physiologically. This process can first expose how WBC happens, then find a solution. Starting with the knowledge that the presence of higher levels of collagen are typical of woody breast afflictions, for example, laboratory work focuses in on the specific structure, its relationship with things like oxidative stress and how different stimuli can prevent it from building up.

“I’m trying to get down to the ultra-basics. What goes on inside a cell to cause it to produce collagen? I start with one cell,” Phillips says. “Kemin has taken an objective, scientific approach to finding the cause and applying a treatment to prevent WBC. We are not going to throw just any treatment option out there without testing it and fully understanding it first.”

Looking Ahead to a Solution

What will that solution look like? It will likely be a feed additive, since that’s the only practical solution for a condition that can potentially affect millions of chickens around the world.

“A feed additive is the best way for producers to administer treatment for woody breast,” Phillips says. “There are limitations to what I do in the lab, and I have to be able to serve my customers in a practical, cost-effective way. Producers can’t inject a million chickens a week with something to prevent woody breast. It’s just not practical. At this point, however, I try not to limit my research to what will work in different treatment methods.”

Further down the road, genetics will likely play a role in managing WBC in addition to solutions like these. Though work remains before the industry fully understands WBC, its causes and how to best treat it, researchers are confident those answers are close at hand.

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