Where do ‘broiler’ chickens come from?
Updated: Jan 20
by Becci Pigeon & Cliff Grant
Chicken ‘breeding’ or ‘parent’ farms are not something we tend to think about–but have you ever wondered where all the eggs come from for the billions of chickens raised for meat? (More than 60 billion ‘meat’ chickens are slaughtered annually worldwide.)
These birds are known as ‘broilers’, and ‘broiler breeder farms’ raise the hens and roosters who are the parents of broiler chickens.
Male and female chicks are initially raised separately, but at 16-21 weeks old, they are brought together in enormous sheds that hold up to 10,000 birds, with an average size of 3,000-8,000 birds in the EU. There will be approximately ten roosters to 100 hens. ‘Extra’ roosters are included in the flock at first, but culled as time goes on. At about 13-14 months of age, they will be sent to slaughter. (This is considerably longer than their young will live, however: broiler chickens are slaughtered before they reach of six weeks of age in the UK.) A healthy chicken can live up to 10 years.
First, a note about broiler chickens: due to genetic manipulation, they grow at an astounding rate. (In the 1950s, it took 63 days to reach slaughter weight; by the 1990s, it only took 38 days–and the amount of food required to raise them had been halved.) Though they are killed at barely six weeks old, many are already crippled by their enormous bodies to the point that they cannot stand upright. Their bones, hearts and lungs simply cannot keep up with such an unnatural rate of growth. Their ‘breeder’ parents are kept alive much longer, and thus have an even greater risk of organ failure and painful death. In an attempt to stunt their growth, farmers drastically limit the birds’ feed, keeping them in a constant state of hunger and frustration. If able to eat as they like, the birds will be so disabled by their rapid weight gain that they can no longer mate properly or even move without pain. The desperate rush to feeders when the food is restored frequently results in injury to themselves or the other birds–as does the overcrowding and boredom, which cause serious issues with multiple forms of abnormal aggression, including forced mating.
Rather than cut into their profits by fitting fewer birds into the sheds or providing some form of stimulation for them, farms deal with the issue in a few ways. One of these is by utilising ‘blackout houses’, in which the birds are kept in semi-darkness. This combined with high concentrations of toxic ammonia from the build-up of waste causes damage to their eyes. (Poor lighting also manipulates the reproductive cycle of the hens, causing them to lay more eggs than they would normally.). In an attempt to reduce the likelihood of injury, these chickens are subject to a number of possible mutilations, and painkillers are very rarely utilised. These include:
debeaking (also known as ‘beak trimming’, this involves cutting off the end of the chicken’s beak and has been shown to cause chronic pain)
detoeing (having the ends of the toes, including the toenail, clipped off)
dubbing (cutting off the bird’s comb)
despurring (roosters grow sharp talons, called ‘spurs’, on their legs as they reach maturity; these are removed)
Broiler breeders will never see their chicks; the eggs are collected and taken away. After a year of deprivation and confinement, when their bodies are frail and exhausted, they are loaded onto trucks and sent to the slaughterhouse. Their short lives are filled with hunger, forced matings and mutilations, and in the end, their spent bodies are turned into cheap meat.
Lawrence, Felicity, The Guardian, If consumers knew how farmed chickens are raised, they might never eat meat again, 24 April 2016
CIWF, Welfare Sheet: Broiler chickens, 5 Jan. 2013
CIWF, The Life of: Broiler chickens, 16 Dec 2019
PoultryHub.org, Breeder farm sequence
United Poultry Concerns, Broiler Breeder Chickens: Their Misery Revealed