In commercial egg type chicken breeding three and four way crosses are used to produce commercial layers. The primary breeders are using closed nucleus breeding programmes, with birds kept under maximum biosecurity. All grand parents and parents are produced from a closed nucleus for the world wide demand of commercial layers. The breeding goals have been focused for several decades on increasing number of eggs per hen housed. Additional traits have become more important during the last decade, i.e. feed efficiency, internal and external egg quality and general adaptability. Prior to each selection, weights for individual traits within the selection index are adjusted to meet market demands. Breeding stock and commercial layers have to be bred to perform adequately in a variety of systems ranging from large intensive cage units to free range management under different environmental conditions world-wide.
Despite intensive selection for egg production the decrease in genetic variation observed in closed commercial lines is not yet critical. Peak production is approaching the biological limit of one egg a day. During this period genetic and phenotypic variation have been significantly reduced. But for early production (sexual maturity) and late production (persistency) genetic variation is still high. In a mating scheme avoiding full and half sib matings no serious inbreeding depression is observed. To achieve continued future genetic progress, selection pressure will shift to other traits like internal and external egg quality and perhaps behaviour traits which still respond to selection.
Primary breeders are responding to this challenge by testing pedigreed cross-line hens in a wide range of environments and housing systems while the pure-line elite stock is kept under conditions of maximum biosecurity. Marker assisted selection is already part of commercial breeding programmes. In the past, blood typing has been used to improve Marek's resistance, whereas today anonymous microsatellites which are linked to traits of economic interest are used for selection. In particular, selection between full sib males can give a major improvement.
The whole industry is getting more specialised. While the genetic potential of the birds is improved management and nutrition have also to be adapted to changing demands. The general goal for the future is to breed chickens with the ability to function well within a wider range of production conditions and do not respond to the slightest stress.