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In Ovo’s automated sexing solution for chicken eggs

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - InOvotive (In Ovo’s automated sexing solution for chicken eggs)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-05-31

The global poultry industry has two main goals: the production of poultry meat and the production of eggs. To do this as efficiently as possible, chickens have been specialised by breed. This has resulted in specialised egg laying chickens (layers) and meat producing chickens (broilers). There is one problem with the current egg laying chickens: the global layer industry kills over 6.5 billion day-old male layer-type chickens as only female layers lay eggs. And egg-laying breeds don’t grow big enough to sell for meat.

Besides the effect on animal welfare (manual sorting and the culling of chickens is stressful for the animals), the sorting process is also a difficult process for the people involved. The sorting is still a manual process at hatcheries breeding millions of chickens. Every day, teams of hatchery workers pick up thousands of newly hatched chickens from conveyor belts, sex the animals and sort them into two groups. This type of job is hard to do and difficult to find people for.

This problem has been around in the poultry industry for decades but only recently has come under attention of both politics and the consumer. Germany has banned this controversial practice of slaughtering male chicks in from 2022 and other countries are following their lead. In general, not many consumers are aware male chickens are killed for the production of table eggs, which is perceived as a food product that is suitable for vegetarians as well. In addition, animal welfare standards are a big differentiator for eggs in the supermarket. Most people who buy eggs with a high standard, do not expect (or realize) that the day-old male chick issue applies to virtually all commercially produced table eggs. Supermarkets are now catching on to this issue as well and are pressuring their suppliers to come up with solutions. In Germany, for example, multiple retailers have communicated concrete timelines for making the switch to table eggs produced without killing of male chicks. However, at this moment, there are not enough (scalable) solutions that could help drive this switch.

The objectives of the InOvotive project is to provide a scalable solution for in-egg sexing of layer chickens at an early stage and with high accuracy. This will provide the poultry industry with a cost-effective solution to a global problem, which makes the production of table eggs more sustainable and animal friendly. During this project, we are further improving our technology, making it faster, more accurate and robust, with the lowest possible impact on the quality of the eggs and hens that hatch from them.
At the start of the project, we developed improvements for the sampling system and integrated the commercial version of the screening module as well as the sample transfer system with the prototype. The upgraded prototype was moved to an independent commercial hatchery in The Netherlands for testing and further validation of the process. Together with the hatchery we prepared a facility separate from normal hatchery operations for our system and set up large-scale validation tests. Over a course of six months several hundreds of thousands eggs were screened and sorted. To facilitate the processing of these numbers of eggs and to mimic a real-life production environment, the prototype was further expanded with equipment for manual candling and sorting of the eggs. Based on our experiences along the way, several improvements were added. These included steps to assure eggs were handled in the best possible way.

In order to do further developments of the screening method, a second screening module was acquired and placed in a lab facility close to our office. Further developments were necessary, as there were several (unexpected) differences between the preliminary version of the screening module and the commercially available version. These differences had a big effect on the expected throughput of the complete solution. The second screening module was needed as the first screening module, being part of the upgraded prototype, was being used for the large-scale validation tests and simultaneously doing R&D was not possible. Having a separate system for R&D also had the benefit of being able to do further research on potential additional biomarkers. This resulted in the identification of several candidate biomarkers that can improve the screening accuracy from 95 to 99%.

Using the lessons learned from the validation tests, engineering for the demonstration machine started. This included an improved method for handling the eggs internally in the system as well as a new method for transporting the acquired samples from the egg to the screening module. This new sample transfer method not only assures a higher accuracy, it also removes and intermediate step and reduces the amount of consumables (plastics) needed for the process. The demonstration machine also includes a module that automatically sorts eggs after screening and refills incubation trays completely with female and male eggs (backfilling). The demonstration machine is currently being build and will be placed at the hatchery in the summer.

In collaboration with our hatchery partner and three more industry players (egg packers), we were able to sell a good number of hens that hatched after our validation tests. These hens were first placed at rearing farms, where they were monitored and reared until they reached the egg-laying age, which takes about 18 weeks. Data from the rearing farms show that there is no difference in chicken quality or the number of table eggs produced compared to hens from regular production.
The machine we are developing and building is the single highest use-case for applying mass spectrometry screening in an industrial setting and is pushing the limits of this technology. Together with the supplier of the screening module, we are improving their system (which is the fastest available system in the world) and use it to open up a completely new market for mass spectrometry analyses, which can lead to new applications besides the screening of a biomarker for gender.

Our company is growing rapidly. By the end of the year we expect to employ over 30 fte. Team expansion is required for R&D, building and integrating subsystems and preparing operations once the solution hits the market. We are already talking to potential customers who are interested in implementing our solution in their hatchery, even though the full system has not been fully tested and demonstrated, yet. Talks with financiers are ongoing to make sure we can timely scale-up and start building machines to keep up with market demand.

Our scalable solution offers a competitive alternative and is particularly interesting compared to the rearing of the day-old male chickens for meat. This practice of rearing the males is currently being applied, but not only is it extremely costly (especially when reasonable welfare standards are taken into account), it has a big detrimental impact on the environment. As layer chickens grow much slower than broilers, it takes more time and more feed, and results in more excretions, to grow the males to a practical slaughter weight.

At the end of this project we expect to have demonstrated a solution that is competitive, scalable and cost-effective and is ready to be implemented in hatcheries around the world.
In Ovo Ella sexing machine prototype
In Ovo founders
Girls Only eggs
In Ovo Ella sexing machine conveyor belt