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Read our interview with... James Bell

James Bell, President of Cobb-Vantress Inc. speaks exclusively to ThePoultrySite.com

James Bell
President of Cobb-Vantress Inc.

James Bell studied for four years at the University of Arkansas where he gained a B.S. degree majoring in Poultry Science.

He started in the poultry industry in 1977 with Tasty Bird which was subsequently acquired by Tyson Foods in 1982. He held hatchery and breeder farm management positions and then became live production manager for two Arkansas complexes. In 1991 he moved to Cobb-Vantress Inc, by then part of Tyson Foods, initially as US Division Manager and then President in 1996.

Over the past eight years Mr Bell has travelled extensively to the world's major chicken producing countries. He is president of Cobb Spain and a board member of Cobb India, and also is a charter member of the European Poultry Club.

Within the US, he is actively involved in industry affairs. He has been a board member of the National Chicken Council (NCC) since 1995, serves on the US Poultry and Egg Association and is a past member of the NCC's Growout Committee.

Mr Bell and his wife Julia, who have two sons and a daughter, live on their cattle ranch in North West Arkansas where he is a member of Rotary International and actively supports the Boys and Girls Club which promotes sporting and cultural recreation. His leisure interests include motor cycle cruising and golf.

Take me there!


Cobb is the oldest established poultry breeding company and is today the leader in the largest chicken markets. The Cobb 500, introduced 30 years ago, has been developed to become the world's most successful chicken.
     The breed has benefited from a massive on-going commitment to invest in research and development - more than $230 million has been spent on this over the past ten years - centring on the new complexes in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kentucky established by Cobb-Vantress Inc since it was set up there in 1986.
     The research has focused on reducing the overall cost of producing chicken meat, so improving 'bottom line' profitability. This approach has enabled the Cobb 500 to be the 'first choice' breed in many countries around the world.
     With the increasing demand from some customers for a heavier chicken for deboning, the Cobb 700 has been introduced to provide higher breast meat yield. The purchase of Avian Farms in 2000 and new development work on the breed lines has enabled Cobb-Vantress to re-launch Avian products for countries where the emphasis is primarily on high chick numbers.
     The Cobb breed is also associated with a high standard of customer support. The company has assembled a technical support team second-to-none in the world industry, working with regional technical services personnel to provide expertise in all aspects essential to the success of modern chicken production.

Below are answers to a number of questions put to the President of Cobb-Vantress Inc., James Bell.

Cobb are for the first time marketing different products for specific markets. How are you managing the product differentiation issues this inevitably raises?

We're sensitive to our customers' needs which are becoming more diverse as they respond to changing market demands. In the USA we have seen the average weight of chickens go up fairly significantly. While this is still slightly more than 2kg, more birds are being grown to much heavier weights and some up to 4kg. In contrast, the cost of the day-old chick is the biggest issue in Asia where many chickens are sold live.
     We've developed an economic model which helps customers to determine which is the best breed for them. The Cobb 500 is the standard product in many of the world's largest markets, while the Cobb 700 is attractive to producers supplying deboned and added value markets. Our Cobb Avian lines are aimed at countries where there is greater emphasis on reproductive performance.
     Looking ahead, the Avian gene pool and the six new Chester lines we've acquired from Brazil provide us with new genetic material. As primary breeders become fewer in a global context, there is an increasing obligation on us to retain a large library of genetic stock to preserve genes which may not necessarily be useful today but which may well be in the future.

Has the acquisition of Avian Farms presented any branding issues worldwide, particularly in Asia?

Any acquisition is bound to raise the issue of branding and how you identify a product in different markets. Since we purchased Avian Farms we have developed the Avian lines and today they are part of our Cobb portfolio of products.
     In principle, our policy is to take advantage of our strongest brand and we are using this approach to develop the market for the Cobb Avian lines not just in markets where they have traditionally been strong such as the Far East but in other parts of the world where they have a place too.

Where does the name Vantress come from?

The name comes from Charles Vantress who was one of the first to have a truly 'national' breed in the United States and who launched one of the first dominant white feathered males. Up to then multi-coloured breeds had predominated, and his breeds gained a significant share of the market.
     Charles Vantress sold the business to Tyson Foods and then when Tyson became increasingly involved with primary breeding with the acquisition of Cobb, the name Cobb-Vantress was developed for the combined operation. Today the Vantress lines are retained in the research program. While there is no Vantress breeding in the modern Cobb, the Vantress lines do possess real health strengths which could be important in the future.

What are the advantages of being owned by Tyson Foods?

We see several major benefits. The first is to be owned by a company which thoroughly understands the chicken business. Tyson Foods are producing 53 million broilers a week and they know the precise value of any genetic advantage. They are looking to what improvements we can bring, having not so much an eye on our corporate dividend as an ear to what our research and development is doing to make genetic gains.
     Having such a large volume of product with one company provides us with feedback which is invaluable in analysing performance over many sites and many environments - so we know how our breeds are doing under strict commercial conditions. Then there is the benefit of the sounding board which Tyson provides, keeping us in touch with customer trends and being able to shape our products to cater for future market needs..

What are the main challenges and opportunities facing primary breeders right now and in the future?

The biggest challenge is having the right crystal ball to look into the future! Certainly, we have obligations to adopt environment friendly policies and to be sensitive to animal welfare issues.
     Distribution of product is always going to be an issue, particularly with the impact of disease as it occurs and political pressures to free or sometimes restrict trade. It will be interesting to see how the enlargement of the European Union, for example, will impact on global trade issues. With only three major primary breeders today, there are tremendous obligations on us all to ensure that the future of poultry breeding remains in safe hands and so biosecurity is obviously something we take extremely seriously.

Do you envisage any radical change in genotype selection strategy in response to the growth in organic and free-range product demand?

It's important not to ignore any market, and if the organic and free range markets continue to grow to the point where we could economically justify providing products for them, we shall certainly do so. Our current lines do provide a high health status in a wide variety of conditions. They perform well under organic market conditions, and I would suspect they perform well in free range conditions as well, although our experience there is limited.

Broiler growth and feed conversion has shown almost linear genetic improvement for three or four decades now ....is the end in sight or will geneticists innovate techniques to maintain future improvements?

We believe in employing the highest calibre geneticists and to support them fully in developing our products to provide what our customers require. We are continuing to improve the performance of our breeds, while remaining sensitive to their well-being.
     It's also important for our customers to understand the significance of the genetic potential available to them today, so they can manage the breed to suit their own needs.
     We're providing, for instance, a growth rate potential which gives customers the option to grow their chickens as fast, or as slowly, as they require. Also, a potential not only to achieve the lowest feed conversion ratio but to take advantage of cheaper rations to reduce production cost, which might mean opting for a slightly higher feed conversion. Our target for the customer is the overall 'bottom line' profitability rather than any particular performance trait.

And finally, the world's largest meat producer, broiler breeder and retailer are all based in North West Arkansas..........is this a coincidence or a product of The Natural State?

The problem is that the world is finding out about North West Arkansas. This is now the third fastest growing state in the US. On television recently Helen Walton, the widow of Sam, founder of Wal-Mart, talked about why they chose to come to Arkansas rather than St Louis - basically because it's a good place to live.
     The poultry industry developed here through small farms here needing an enterprise like chickens to sustain their living. Yes, it is a natural state with beautiful countryside and rapidly developing facilities. Business at the North West Arkansas airport has increased ten fold in a few years since it opened. This is a good place to live, and long may it stay that way.

Source: ThePoultrySite's intrepid interviewer - June 2004

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