Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ten Questions About Chickens

This is not a chicken.

Let's start the day with 10 questions about chickens:

1. You just got 25 hatchery hens. What happened to the roosters?

2. You raise 25 roosters. What happens next?

3. Wild chickens still exist in Asia. What are they called?

4. Wild chickens routinely sit on clutches of 10 or more eggs. What does this tell us about chicken mortality?

5. What is wild chicken mortality if we factor out predation?

6. Chicken farmers routinely trim beaks of egg-layers. Why?

7. Chicken farmers never trim the beaks of meat birds. Why?

8. Is beak trimming a modern practice?

9. Is rooster culling a modern practice?

10. What is the best way to kill a chicken?

This is a chicken.

    Here are the answers:

    1. What happened to the roosters? Since you were only ordering hens, you were no doubt ordering chicks of an egg-laying breed, and the rooster chicks of egg-laying breeds are normally killed as soon as they can be sexed (i.e. within the first week after hatching).

    2. What happens when you have 25 adult roosters? Simple: a lot of noise. Depending on the number of hens in the flock, and the room allocated, you can also have fighting that can lead to death. Meat chickens are typically killed between the age of 6 and 16 weeks, before the age when roosters will begin to fight amongst themselves.

    3. Wild chickens are called junglefowl. They come in three basic types: Red Junglefowl, Grey Junglefowl, and Green Junglefowl. The modern chicken seems to be a descendant of both Grey and Red Junglefowl.

    4. Any animal that has a lot of babies is telling you a lot of them die very young.

    5. When junglefowl are raised in an aviary by a professional, over 65% die of disease before the age of three months.

    6. Beak trimming is done because chickens have a tendency to become cannibalistic. Chicken cannibalism occurs in 13-15% of all free range egg-laying birds, and occurs among all breeds. Cannibalism seems to be a learned behavior, and so it is more prevalent in larger flocks than smaller ones, and it is generally triggered at the beginning of egg laying. Too much light can trigger chicken cannibalism (one reason chicken houses have very low-lighting), while pellet food, reduced crowding, and an ability to forage may reduce incidence rates (without ever completely eliminating them).

    7. Meat birds generally do not need beak trimming because they are killed at a young age, before egg laying begins. Individually caged egg-laying birds have less opportunity to engage in cannibalism, and so beak trimming is often omitted. Egg-laying birds in commercial operations that are not individually caged, however, are generally beak-trimmed to reduce feather-plucking and cannibalism.

      Cage-free hens are almost always beak trimmed.

    8. Beak trimming has been done for more than 70 years. While there may be no reason to trim beaks if you have only a dozen back yard birds for personal consumption, commercial egg producers often have 50,000 to 250,000 chickens at a time, and in these kinds of situations beak trimming is automated, and done with a hot cauterizing wire or laser that removes the tip of the top half of the beak when the chick is less than 10 days old. With just the top tip of the beak removed, the chicken can no longer grasp hard enough to pluck feathers or bite a neighbor's flesh.

    9. Rooster culling is a very old practice, though now it tends to be done with chicks under the age of 10 days, rather than with very young birds weighing just 3 pounds -- the proverbial "spring chicken."

    10. The best way to kill a chicken is the best way to kill any animal -- quickly.  The ethical answer has nothing to do with aesthetics.

With world population at almost 7 billion, and most of this population residing in urban areas, we can no longer afford to raise chickens as we did in the Year One.

In Iowa, there are 3 million people, 4 million cattle, 19 million hogs, and 52.4 million chickens producing 13.9 billion eggs a year. 

In the U.S. alone, about 2 billion chickens are in production at any given time, with about 9 billion chickens a year slaughtered. 

Across the globe, there are an estimated 25 billion chickens being raised right now, making Gallus gallus domesticus the most common bird in the world. 

If you think "free-range" chickens or eggs are ethically superior to any other type found at your local grocery store, think again. 

"Free range" chicken eggs are not defined by the USDA, and egg producers can slap that label on the side of any egg carton with complete impunity. 

As for "free range" broilers, USDA only requires that they have theoretical access to the outside world for a few minutes a day. Broilers are never raised in cages, but instead are raised in large sheds, and the "free range" sticker almost always means that a door on the side of the shed was left open for a short period of time so that any chicken that wanted to (often none) could go outside in a narrow fenced area devoid of vegetation, and covered in gravel.

A final bit of trivia:
What happens to all those commercial egg-laying hens after their second egg-laying season?

 A large number end up as dog food
, as these birds are now too old to be of much value as roasting birds.


Anonymous said...

Can you also add in why the Federal requirements for cleaning eggs is contributing to the issues with contaminated eggs? In the EU, egg producers cannot clean eggs before sale, and thus have to actually keep a clean premises so the eggs are clean enough, without being washed, that the public will buy them. Even those who buy at their local farmers markets, etc. and who think they are buying "free-range" "organic" or whatever eggs have no assurances that the producer is actually free-ranging the hens and keeping premises clean enough to avoid egg contamination. I do free-range chickens (and suffer the losses to predators) and can guarantee all these consumers that it is NOT a profitable way to raise chickens or eggs. There is absolutely no way in H*** that the eggs sold in stores are from hens that are not confined regardless of the labeling.

Bonnie McLarty said...

The photo illustration I'm seeing does not show debeaked (beak trimmed) birds.

Jennifer said...

With brown shavers (the most popular backyard chook here in New Zealand), color is sex linked: roosters are white, hens brown. Thus, they can be sexed on hatching, no expertise required. Only hens are sold to the public.

An alternate way to get rid of male chicks: Give them to the dumb
city slickers who are going 'back to the land'. A certain feed store used to give you 50 free chicks if you bought a large sack of feed...and laugh their heads off as soon as the customer was out of earshot.

PBurns said...

The American way of egg production is actually healthier for humans. The incidence of Salmonella poisoning in the EU is roughly double that of the US.

As for cleanliness, I think the Europeans and the Americans are going to be about the same. Mass U.S. commercial egg producers generally have poop that falls through the cage botttom to a belt which keeps cages and eggs clean. The eggs themselves roll off a sloped floor into a trough where they are collected.
I doubt there's a lot of difference between the sanitation of modern US and European egg producers, but there might have been once. In any case, I suspect the American egg laying system will actually be cleaner as it is more standardized and fully capitalized.

This is not to say the American way is not without problems.

Egg production facilities in the US are BIG. We can have a million chickens or more under a single roof, which means that a single chicken that is carrying salmonella could infect a lot more hens and surfaces.

After a massive salmonella outbreak in the UK in the 1990s, they started to vaccinate their hens. We don't do that in the US, because we do something different -- we wash and refrigerate our eggs.

Egg washing is actually a highly technical thing. Imagine washing a million eggs a day, making sure none are broken, and that none pass on disease. The water temperature has to be perfect, the handling has to be perfect, etc. The short story is that most Europeans egg producers with under 10,000 hens cannot afford the equipment to wash eggs right, so they vaccinate their chickens instead.

The main difference between the Europeans and the Americans in the egg arena is that the Europeans do not refrigerate eggs, as we do. Refrigeration, along with washing, cuts down on the spread of disease. The problem is that once an egg is refrigerated, it has to stay refrigerated until used, or shrinkage of the inside of the egg can potentially result in bacterial growth due to the egg "sweating".

So which way is best? The American system produces safer eggs at a lower price. We win if the voters are all human.

PBurns said...

Beak trimming is almost always done in open egg houses, but it's a very subtle thing -- a blunting. See >>

Bonnie McLarty said...

To me debeaking is quite obvious (I know what I'm looking at, I've raised chickens for over 20 years), and while I don't dispute the widespread use o f debeaking in large-scale chicken houses to prevent cannibalism and bullying in large flocks (and have seen plenty of images of trimmed beaks, with a range of trim levels) I did go back and zoom in on the image and I swear those beaks are not trimmed--the tips can clearly be seen to meet in several of the birds, in a normal, untrimmed fashion. I thought it interesting to use untrimmed beaks for the photo given your article's content, is all...

PBurns said...

Have you see modern commercial debeaking machines in action -- the ones that have been around for the last 15 years or so?

It's not what was being done 20 or 30 years ago, or what's still being done with scissors or old hot wire machines at home. It's quite different in both amount of trim and style or method of trim. Modern debeaking is much less likely to stagger-cut than the old method.

By way of background, the picture was taken at Black Eagle Farm outside of Charlottesville, and is labeled as debeaked birds on the web site it came from. Black Eagle Farm went bankrupt in 2009, or I would email them, but prior to that it was the largest organic free-range egg producer in the state of Virginia, where I am from. They had scores of thousands of birds at any one time.

The quality of this picture does not get better when it is enlarged, so I am not sure what there is to to see.

In any case, modern debeaking is not done with the the old hand-held hot blades of 20 years ago, or with scissors, but with no-contact, high intensity, infrared heat which results in a beak trim of only 1-2 mm (about the thickness of a US penny) and a nearly flush-cut blunting.

There is nothing to see without a pretty tight close up of the bird's head.

Beaked and debeaked is simply not obvious from across a shed.

Look at the thickness of a penny and you will see the quality of the picture is too poor to pixel count.