All’s not well, down on the chicken farm

The poultry industry is one of the most wasteful and cruellest intensive farming industries. Millions of male chicks are thrown into dustbins to die, at just a few days old, because they are of no commercial interest for the meat industry. Male chicks are also worthless to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs, so every year millions of them are tossed into trash bags to suffocate or are thrown—while still alive—into high-speed grinders called “macerators.”

According to the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) the recycled remains of unwanted male chicks, growth hormones, yolk, colourant and other additives end up as feed for the hens.

Egg-laying hens
Most people’s mental image of egg production is that of a farmyard in which chickens are free to roam about, to fly, and to even roost in the trees. To the side of the yard is a chicken coop, where the chickens are free to enter, to leave, and to nest and lay their eggs. Then each day the farmer comes out with his basket and collects the eggs for market or personal use.

While such a situation may exist on some individual small farms, nothing is further from the truth when it comes to farms engaged in commercial egg production. Unfortunately, many ethical vegetarians believe that the eating of eggs is OK as it doesn’t cause the death of the chicken.

Here’s what really happens on a commerical egg farm, where chickens raised for their eggs endure a nightmare that lasts several years.

The battery cage system is an industrial farming system in which laying hens spend their short lives confined in small wire cages with several other hens.

Why is this a problem?
The welfare of the egg-laying hen is directly linked to her ability to act out natural behaviours. A happy hen is a bird free to forage, take exercise, preen, dust-bathe, take refuge on a perch whenever she feels vulnerable and build a nest in which to lay her eggs. These natural behaviours are denied to hens kept in the battery cage system.

Exacerbating the mental cruelties inflicted upon the caged egg-laying hen, the environment of the caged system also poses significant physical welfare concerns. The wire floor causes problems for hens’ feet as their claws can become twisted around the mesh, further reducing the hen’s chances of exercise and sometimes preventing her from reaching the food and water supply.

Because of their close proximity to each other, aggression can become a problem with hens attacking their cage mates. In an attempt to stop the physical injuries of such anti-social behaviour, hens are often de-beaked, removing a third of the bird’s beak using a red-hot blade – a case of treating the symptom, rather than treating the cause.

Scale of the problem
There are over five billion egg laying hens worldwide, and some 70-80% of them are housed in battery cages for the duration of their lives. In South Africa, more than 18 million hens are kept caged in battery systems until they become “spent” and are sold for the pot as “Cornish hens”.

The alternatives
Barn (perchery) systems – in this system the hens are kept in loose flock sheds with raised perches or platforms. The flooring must be littered, often wood-shavings are provided, and the stocking density numbers are 25 hens per square metre of floor space, with 15cm of perch provided for each bird.

Free range systems – free range hens are usually kept in houses similar to those used for barn systems, but they have access to the outdoors (which must be mainly covered with vegetation) during the day and space allowance of between 2.5m2 and 4m2 per hen. Without question, the free-range system offers the hen a more natural environment and the freedom to act out her normal behaviours – offering mental and physical welfare improvements over all other systems.

Broiler Chickens
Chickens raised for their flesh, referred to as “broiler chickens” by the meat industry, spend their lives crammed into massive,
windowless sheds that typically hold as many as 40,000 birds.

Chickens can function well in groups of up to about 90, a number low enough to allow each bird to find his or her spot in the pecking order. In crowded groups of thousands, however, no such social order is possible, and in their frustration, they relentlessly peck at each other, causing injury and death.

The intense confinement and overcrowding on factory farms also results in unimaginable filth and disease. The chickens are forced to breathe ammonia and particulate matter from feces and feathers all day long. Many suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, weakened immune systems, bronchitis, and “ammonia burn,” a painful eye condition.

Chickens are also genetically manipulated and pumped full of drugs to make them grow faster and larger—the average breast of an 8-week-old chicken is seven times heavier today than it was 25 years ago. In 1968 South Africa, broilers were slaughtered at 62 days, weighing 1.2kg. Today, they are slaughtered at 42 days, weighing 1.9kg

Because of this unnaturally accelerated weight gain, these very young birds frequently die from heart attacks and lung collapse, something that would never happen in nature.

According to Feedstuffs, a meat industry magazine, “broilers now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses.”

In addition, chickens on today’s factory farms almost always become crippled because their legs cannot support the weight of their bodies. In fact, by the age of 6 weeks, 90 percent of broiler chickens are so obese that they can no longer walk. Many crippled chickens on factory farms die when they can no longer reach the water nozzles.