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Chicken production in industrialized countries has undergone huge changes in the course of the last century. In the past, chickens were fed on farm diets and kept to produce eggs and meat. This has changed with the establishment of specialized industrial production systems that are characterized by factory farms. Nierenberg and Garces (2005, p.11) define industrial farming as “a system of raising animals, using intensive ‘production line’ methods that maximize the amount of meat produced, while minimizing costs”.
Chicken factory farms have thrived significantly in the past 2 decades and they supply the largest share of chicken meat demands in the country. This paper will set out to offer a detailed description of the process of raising factory farm chickens. The paper will focus on the environmental conditions that chickens thrive under as well as their food.
Growth and Development of the Broiler
The lives of the chickens that are raised in the factory farm begin at the hatching machines. Here, thousands of fertilized eggs are placed into incubators which play the role of brooding hens. In the incubator, the temperature and humidify levels are carefully controlled and monitored so as to ensure successful hatching (MacDonald, 2008).
In 21 days, the breeding cycle is complete and the chicks are hatched successfully. When the chicks are hatched, they are delivered to the broiler shed where they will be raised for meat. In order to increase their chances of success, it is necessary to transport the chicks to the farm quickly and begin feeding them in the proper environment. Before being transported to the farm factory, the young chicks which will become broilers are administered with vaccinations to help them overcome diseases that are common to chickens.
Monitoring the climate conditions is of most importance for chicks since they lack the ability to regulate their body temperature for a period of up to two weeks. Preheating the house is therefore crucial for the survival of the chicks. The air temperature should be 86F while the litter temperature should be 82⁰-86⁰F (Aviagen, 2009).
The relative humidity (RH) of the houses should be relatively high when the chicks arrive from the hatchery. This is because RH at the hatchery is high at the end of the incubation process (approximately 80%) and if the chicks are taken to a house with low RH, they may suffer from shock and will be predisposed to respiratory problems. The ideal RH for the first few days should therefore be 60-70%.
The chicks which are kept as broilers are specially selected fro their high growth rates and low feed to gain ration. Broilers are raised to 35-42 days of age by which time they have acquired a weight of 1.5kg. The Aviagen (2009) stresses that it is important for chicks to be able to feed and drink freely upon their arrival to the house.
The water should have low mineral content while the food should ideally be in the form of pellets. Pellets are preferred to mash feed since they encourage food intake and performance by the chickens. The nutrients levels in the pellets are balanced and have ingredients with high digestibility. This reduces the amount of energy needed to eat the feed hence increasing performance.
In the first days of their lives, chicks are fed with crumbled feed or mini-pellets. The main objective of the starter feeds is to give the chicks a good appetite and ensure optimal growth within the first 10 days. After the starter feed, the chicks are introduced to grower feeds which consist of pellets.
The pellets have a high concentration of energy and amino acids and during this intake, the chicks’ exhibit dynamic growth. Chicks are fed grower feeds for a period of up to two weeks. The final course of feeds is the finisher feeds which are given from 25 days until the day of processing which is generally at 42 days.
Antibiotic use in poultry factory farms is high due to the crowded conditions in which the chickens live. Antibiotics are used both for preventive and curative measures. As curative agents, they are used to treat bacterial infections which the chickens may succumb to. As preventive agents, antibiotics are used to prevent and control the spread of diseases which would otherwise overwhelm the entire farm. Aviagen (2009) recommends that the antibiotics be distributed though the water that is given to the chicks.
When the chickens have reached the desired weight, they are taken to the processing companies. Before the birds are taken for slaughter, it is important to withdraw feed so as to eliminate pharmaceutical residuals that are in the bird’s system due to the constant use of antibiotics during the bird’s growth.
The housing provided for the broilers is crucial to the survival as well as the productivity of the flock. The MacDonald (2008) notes that housing is of great importance in the chicken production industry since housing influences the feed efficiency as well as the mortality rate of the chickens. A typical house has a side curtain that can be lifted or dropped to control the climate in the house through natural ventilation. Even so, more modern houses have climate control equipment installed to give the farmer greater control over the climate.
MacDonald (2008, p.8) asserts that they two most important climate control equipment are “tunnel ventilation and evaporation cooling cells”. The Tunnel ventilation systems are made up of huge fans at one end of the house and air inlets at the opposite end of the broiler house. The fans pull the air through the house thus creating a wind effect while removing the excessive heat in the house. The evaporative cooling cells provide further cooling by lowering the temperature of the air as it moves through the pads and the chicken house.
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Litter material is spread up to a depth of 4inches on the floor of the building that is to house the chicks. Litter is mostly made up of soft wood shaving material. This litter is important since it helps to raise the temperature of the floor. It is therefore important that the litter remains loose and dry through the entire period that the chickens are in the house.
Lighting is also an important consideration when constructing the house since light plays a role in the performance of the chickens. Lighting programs adopted by the farm are such that log day lengths of 23 hours are provided with only an hour of darkness per day. Continuous lighting ensures that chicks have an optimal feed intake which increases their growth rates.
Issues Affecting Broilers
While in the house, chickens face a number of contaminants that adversely affect them. Common contaminant emissions from the houses include nitrogen, carbon dioxide and ammonia.
If these contaminants of air are not properly regulated, they may lead to the damaging of the birds’ respiratory tract which will result in reduced performance. Continuous lighting is another conditions that negatively affect the welfare of the chickens. Aviagen (2009) reveals that continuous lighting throughout the life of the flock results in abnormal feeding and drinking habits due to sleep deprivation.
Another important issue is that of stocking in the houses. Decisions on the stocking density are made on an economical consideration since profit maximization is the primary goal.
Aviagen (2009) asserts that “stocking density influences bird welfare, broiler performance, uniformity and product quality”. With these considerations in mind, it makes sense to avoid overstocking which not only increases environmental pressures on the house but also reduce profitability due to low bird performance. The US recommends 2 birds per ft2 with the live weight of each bird being 3lb.
Wise and Jennings (2002) report that the growth rate of bones in broilers is greatly outpaced by the growth of muscles and fat which results in the chickens not being able to support their weight efficiently. As a result of this, many boilers suffer from leg deformities or even lameness.
Researchers conclude that “birds might have been bred to grow so fast that they are on the verge of structural collapse” (Wise and Jennings, 2002, p.286). Also, Rauw et al. (1998) assert that broilers that have been genetically modified for faster growth are susceptible to a myriad of diseases as a result of the weakened immune system.
This paper has described how producers raise chickens with particular focus being paid to the conditions and environment under which the chickens are raised. From this paper, it is clear that the major concern for most factory farms is high productivity which translates to greater profitability.
As such, the welfare of the chickens is secondary to profitability. Even so, chicken welfare is linked to higher performance and because of this, most farms aim to provide conditions that are conducive for high productivity. Through broiler meet produced through factory farms, the dramatic increase in broiler meat demand has been met effectively.
Aviagen (2009). Ross Broiler Management Manual: Chick Management. Web.
MacDonald, J.M. (2008). The Economic Organization of U.S. Broiler Production. USDA.
Nierenberg, D., & Garces, L. (2005). Industrial Animal Agriculture: The Next Global Health Crisis? World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Rauw, W.M, et al. (1998). “Undesirable Side Effects of Selection for High Production Efficiency in Farm Animals: A Review”. Livestock Production Science, 56:15-33.
Wise. D., & Jennings. A. (2002). “Dyschondroplasia in Domestic Poultry”. The Veterinary Record 91:285-6.