5 Questions with Terry Wing, Geneticist & Consultant

Terry Wing began his career with Cobb in 1980 after receiving his Ph.D. in Animal Breeding from Iowa State University. After 35 years as a geneticist, Terry is acting as a consultant for Cobb, helping them continually improve their processes and products. We asked Terry to share a bit about his changing role within Cobb over the past three decades and what that means for the poultry industry moving forward.

For nearly 35 years, you were a geneticist at Cobb. What did your role entail and how did it change during your career?

As a research geneticist, I focused mainly on statistical analysis. Early in my time at Cobb, I developed a feed conversion selection procedure that is still used at Cobb today. Cobb has a reputation for having a very efficient broiler. That’s due, in part, to knowing exactly what traits to look for at each level – from grandparent to pedigree.

During my tenure, I’ve worked to fine-tune the breeding procedure for the Cobb 500. I led the male breeding program from 1995 – 2000 and was the Director of Genetics at the corporate level until 2003. From 2003 – 2013 I was responsible for R&D product testing and genetic statistics. Since then, I have continued to work in quantitative genetics and statistics as a consultant for Cobb.

Why is multiple regression so important in poultry breeding? 

Multiple regression is used to determine the relationship between the amount of feed a bird consumes and the amount of weight it gains during any time period. In other words, it’s a way to calculate feed efficiency without relying on ratios. When you manipulate a ratio, you can’t control all the effects it may have on the birds. However, with the multiple regression approach, you eliminate those. It gives you more control and so you can accurately identify the most efficient birds.

I presented my multiple regression model to our leadership team and other industry professionals early on during my time at Cobb. Afterward, world-renown poultry academic Dr. Paul Siegel said, “That’s incredibly clever. You need to listen to this guy and do what he says.” That was a turning point in my career.

You created a whole new statistical tool call BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Predictor). What does it do?

BLUP pulls all the information about an individual chicken and it’s lineage to provide an estimate of the overall genetic performance. Before, it was too difficult to separate the genetic potential of a bird from the environmental effects of its housing. However, with BLUP, we tracked the familial relationships between parents and their progeny to enhance the accuracy at which breeding values are estimated. This effectively separates a bird’s genetic merit from any environmental factors. 

What are the biggest advancements you’ve experienced during your career?

There are three main advancements I’ve seen during my career – the technology we use, how we analyze the birds, and of course, the birds themselves.

When I first started in the early 80s, Upjohn had “state of the art computers” available for us. That meant a dumb terminal, which came complete with keyboard, screen and modem. We entered data manually and then sent it to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where it was processed and sent back. It was a huge improvement when dumb terminals had the capacity to store information. We could take these out into the chicken house to capture information, which helped us to avoid human error when we recorded or transported data and greatly improved the speed and accuracy of information.

Today, our statistical tools and analyses are largely automated. Current technology allows us to query and sort information to get the answers we seek right away.

Over the years, we also started observing and recording many more traits. When I started we looked at approximately 15 different measurements. Today, we look at closer to 40 traits. It’s gotten a lot more complicated. We even had to hire an engineer in our R&D department to manage the technology we use.

And lastly, the birds themselves have changed quite a bit since I first started. They can reach roughly the same weight two weeks faster. Meat yield has increased by six to seven percent. And feed conversion ratio improves on average two to three points per year. (i.e. from 1.5 to 1.47).

How does Cobb differentiate itself in the poultry business?

We’ve always been at the forefront to make information faster and more accurate. 

Cobb always focuses on a balanced breeding program. Rather than focus on just hens or just roosters, we give equal attention to both to make sure hens lay an acceptable number of eggs and roosters actually convert eggs into baby chicks.

At the same time, we’ve also improved the performance of the broiler itself. Today, broilers reach market weight one to two weeks faster than when I started; yet hens lay just as many, if not more, eggs than they did back then. Other breeders don’t focus much on balance.

One of our strengths is the uniformity of broilers. When producers follow our selection programs, their broilers are more uniform in terms of weight and yield. That means a lot to integrated companies and truly impacts the bottom line.

To hear more stories from Cobb employees, visit our Life at Cobb page. 

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