Farm Animals - Poultry

chickens chicken hens food

Poultry are domesticated birds cultivated for their eggs or meat. This includes chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. Chickens are by far the most common type of poultry raised in the United States. The USDA estimated that there were 8.8 billion chickens living in the United States in 2004.


Chickens were originally domesticated from wild Asian jungle fowl. In natural conditions chickens tend to live in small groups composed of one male chicken (called a rooster or cock) and a dozen or more female chickens (called hens). Chickens are known for their hierarchy, or "pecking order." Each member of the group has a particular rank that determines its place in society. The average natural lifespan of a chicken is six to ten years, although they can live to be as old as twenty-five.

Chickens are omnivores, meaning that they will feed on both vegetable and animal substances. They spend a good part of their day foraging and pecking at the ground for food. They also like to perch, flap their wings, and take dust baths. Hens prefer to lay eggs in a private nest. Young hens above the age of five months produce 200 to 300 eggs per year. Unless the hen has recently mated with a rooster, however, the egg is infertile and does not develop into a chick. In the wild the hen would leave infertile eggs to rot or be eaten by predators.


Prior to the 1920s, chicken meat was not common in the American diet. Female chickens were valued on the farm for egg production. Besides being sometimes used for cockfighting, male chickens were considered to have little value at all. They were relatively scrawny and aggressive. This began to change in the 1920s when enterprising farmers started cultivating chickens for meat. Scientific advances led to chicken breeds that were much meatier and grew faster. The use of vitamins, antibiotics, and growth hormones allowed mass production of chickens to become a thriving business. In the 1950s producers began using large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This became the preferred method for raising chickens.

In the twenty-first century the vast majority of U.S. chickens are raised by contract farmers and finished in CAFOs. Nearly half of the chickens sold in the United States in 2001 were produced by only four companies: Tyson Foods, Gold Kist, Pilgrim's Pride, and ConAgra Foods.

Chickens raised in crowded conditions are prone to aggression. They peck and claw at each other, which can cause feather loss and injury. Injured chickens may be pecked to death and even eaten by other chickens. It is common practice in factory farming of chickens to debeak a certain percentage of chickens by removing part of the upper and/or lower beak. Toe clipping involves cutting off parts of the chicken claw. Producers say that these practices are for the good of the chickens, to spare them injury. They claim that the chickens do not experience any pain because beaks are similar to human fingernails.

United Poultry Concerns (UPC) is a nonprofit group based in Maryland that advocates for the humane treatment of domestic poultry. UPC claims that scientific studies show that chicken beaks contain nerves and pain receptors. Thus, UPC suggests, debeaked chickens suffer pain that is evident through their decreased desire to eat for several weeks following debeaking. The group describes debeaking operations as "haphazard and uncontrollable."

Animal welfarists say that debeaking and toe clipping would not be necessary if chickens were raised in more natural environments. They believe that it is the stress of living in cramped cages in buildings housing tens of thousands of other chickens that drives chickens to demonstrate aggressive behavior. Instead of changing the way in which chickens are raised, welfarists say producers accommodate these brutal systems by mutilating the chickens.

Chicken producers defend these practices as necessary. The National Chicken Council (NCC) is an industry organization for companies that produce, process, and market chickens. According to a January 2005 press release from the NCC, the organization's member companies account for approximately 95% of the chickens sold in the United States. The NCC's voluntary Animal Welfare Guidelines (March 2003) states: "Today's chicken has been purposefully selected to thrive under modern management. We believe current good management practices that avoid destructive behavior, prevent disease, and promote good health and production are consistent with the generally accepted criteria of humane treatment."

Although there are many different breeds of chickens, for the purposes of farming they fall into two main categories: meat producers and egg producers. According to the USDA's 2004 inventory, there were about 8.5 billion meat-producing chickens (broilers) and 345 million egg-laying chickens in the United States.


Broiler-type chicks are bred to gain weight fast so they can be used for meat. Although commonly called broilers, these chickens have different cooking names, depending on how they are raised and when they are slaughtered:

  • Cornish hens are slaughtered at five weeks old and weigh around two pounds.
  • Broilers or fryers are slaughtered at seven to eight weeks and weigh four to five pounds.
  • Roasters are slaughtered at twelve to thirteen weeks and weigh about eight pounds.
  • Capons are castrated at three to four weeks, slaughtered at seventeen to nineteen weeks, and weigh around eleven pounds.

Chicken meat is extremely popular in the United States. Annual per capita consumption increased from 10.4 pounds per person in 1909 to 57.5 pounds per person in 2003. In 2002 the total number of pounds of chicken produced for meat exceeded the number of pounds of cattle produced for meat for the first time in U.S. history. (See Figure 4.10.) Billions of broilers are raised and slaughtered each year to keep up with the demand for chicken meat. According to the USDA, broiler production was a $15.2 billion business in 2003. The top five states producing broilers in 2003 were Georgia (1.3 billion birds), Arkansas (1.2 billion), Alabama (1.0 billion), Mississippi (0.8 million), and North Carolina (0.7 million). FIGURE 4.10
Pounds of cattle, broilers, hogs, and turkeys produced, 1953–2003
SOURCE: "Cattle, Broilers, Hogs, Turkeys, Pounds Produced, 1953–2003," in Agricultural Charts & Maps: Meat Animals Production, Disposition, and Income Charts: Cattle, Broilers, Hogs, and Turkeys—Pounds Produced, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, April 2004, (accessed February 8, 2005)
Together these states accounted for nearly 60% of all broiler production.

Broilers start their lives at hatcheries. Day-old chicks are moved into chicken houses that may be hundreds of feet long and contain tens of thousands of chickens. These buildings are windowless and usually have dim lighting, because this is considered more calming. Under the crowded conditions and unused to the presence of humans, the chickens are prone to panic attacks at sudden loud noises. In modern chicken houses nearly everything is automated. Food and water are dispensed by machine. Chicks are vaccinated against common poultry diseases. Broilers are routinely given antibiotics and other drugs to overcome disease and speed up growth.

The NCC's voluntary Animal Welfare Guidelines (March 2003) specifies that bird density should not exceed 8.5 pounds per square foot of living space. Because a typical broiler weighs four to five pounds at slaughter weight, two birds of this size would have approximately one square foot of space under this system. The NCC also recommends that broilers not be beak trimmed unless they are used for breeding purposes.


Laying hens, or layers, are chickens specifically bred for their egg-laying abilities, rather than for meat production. The chicks are sorted by gender when they are one day old. Only the females are kept. The males are discarded because they have not been bred for meat production and will not grow up to be used as food. According to animal rights groups, millions of culled male chicks are thrown into garbage bags, where they suffocate. The poultry industry does not generally discuss its methods of culling male chicks, but it is widely believed that methods including suffocation and maceration (instantaneous death in a high-speed grinder) are commonly used.

U.S. egg production has more than doubled since the 1940s. As shown in Figure 4.11, around eighty-seven billion eggs were produced in 2003, up from about forty billion in 1941. Approximately 85% of the eggs produced in 2003 were for human consumption. The remainder were for breeding additional hens. According to the USDA, chicken egg production was a $5.3 billion business in 2003. The top five egg-producing states in 2003 were Iowa (10.5 billion eggs), Ohio (7.6 billion), FIGURE 4.11
Number of eggs produced by chickens, 1943–2003
SOURCE: "U.S. Egg Production, 1943–2003," in Agricultural Charts & Maps: Poultry: U.S. Egg Production, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, April 2004, (accessed February 8, 2005)
Pennsylvania (6.8 billion), Indiana (6.0 billion), and California (5.4 billion). Together these states accounted for approximately 42% of all chicken eggs produced.

Under natural conditions, hens can lay eggs for more than a decade, but egg-laying production of hens in factory farms ceases dramatically after the first year. One method used by producers to rejuvenate laying is forced molting, in which all food is withheld from the hens for either a set number of days (usually five to fourteen), or until the hens lose a particular amount of weight. This forced fast mimics the conditions that wild chickens experience in the fall or winter when food is not as plentiful. Lower food intake causes a hen to molt (lose her feathers). Also, her reproductive system temporarily ceases producing eggs. When food is fully restored, the hen is much more productive at making eggs than she was before.

Many chicken producers use forced molting to extract more eggs from their chicken flocks. The USDA reported that 83% of egg-laying facilities used forced molting on a routine basis in 1999. Animal welfarists are extremely critical of forced molting, saying that because all food is withheld from the hens, it is much more brutal than natural molting. They equate the practice to forced starvation and note that food deprivation for the purpose of forced molting is banned in Europe.

Forced molting induced by food withdrawal is also associated with an increased risk of the bacteria Salmonella enteritidis in laying hens. The bacteria can congregate in the ovaries of healthy-looking hens and be passed to their developing eggs. Humans that eat infected eggs that are not completely cooked can develop severe gastrointestinal symptoms. In August 2004 researchers from Texas A&M University and the USDA published a report in Poultry Science suggesting that zinc compounds be fed to laying hens to force molting instead of withholding food. The researchers conducted experiments with dozens of laying hens and found that doses of zinc acetate effectively induced molting without increasing the risk of Salmonella enteritidis infection (R. W. Moore et al., "Comparison of Zinc Acetate and Propionate Addition on Gastrointestinal Tract Fermentation and Susceptibility of Laying Hens to Salmonella enteritidis during Forced Molt").

Once a hen dramatically reduces her egg output, she is considered "spent." Spent hens are slaughtered for lower-grade meat uses such as canned soups or pet food. They are replaced with young hens called pullets.


In early 2002 egg producer Cypress Foods went out of business, leaving about 1.7 million layers in facilities in Georgia and Florida with no food. Animal rights groups say that 20,000–30,000 of the hens starved to death after the company declared bankruptcy. Another half a million hens had to be euthanized by authorities because they were half-starved and not salvageable. State authorities refused to prosecute the company for animal cruelty, saying that the deaths were due to economic factors rather than criminal intent. A spokesman for the animal welfare group Farm Sanctuary criticized the decision, saying "running out of money is no defense for animal cruelty."

The U.S. poultry industry had to destroy millions of birds in California, Nevada, and Arizona beginning in 2002 because of exotic Newcastle disease (END). END is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease that affects birds' nervous, respiratory, and digestive systems. Industry and government officials feared that millions of birds would have to be killed as a preventative measure to halt the spread of the disease.

In early 2003 a mass chicken kill at the Ward Egg Ranch near San Diego, California, received widespread media attention. Employees reportedly tossed more than 30,000 live chickens into wood chippers to dispose of them. The chickens were spent hens that were no longer wanted. Ordinarily, they would have been shipped to a slaughterhouse in northern California, but the county had enacted a chicken quarantine because of fears about the spread of END in the state.

Local authorities were harshly criticized by animal welfare groups, including the HSUS, for not filing animal cruelty charges in the case. The county district attorney defended the decision, saying that the ranch owners did not act with criminal intent. Also, the owners insisted that they had consulted with a veterinarian before destroying the animals and were told that use of a wood chipper was acceptable.


When they are ready to go to the slaughterhouse, chickens are gathered by their feet by handlers, who carry them upside down to put into crates. At the slaughterhouse the chickens are shackled upside down by their feet to a conveyor belt. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply to poultry, which means that chickens do not have to be stunned unconscious before having their throats slit. Some plants do, however, use a stunning method based on the availability of electricity.

Each live chicken strapped to the conveyor belt has its head dunked into a water bath containing salt. An electric current is passed through the shackles to knock the chicken unconscious. Immediately the birds pass by an automated cutting blade that slits their throats. After the blood is drained (which takes about ninety seconds), the birds are dipped into scalding water baths to loosen their feathers before moving on to cutting stations.

In January 2003 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and United Poultry Concerns obtained a signed affidavit from a former worker at a chicken slaughterhouse in Arkansas. The man, who worked at the plant from 1997 to 2002, claimed to have witnessed many acts of brutality toward the birds, saying that other workers regularly ran over chickens with forklifts, stomped them to death, and threw snowballs made of dry ice at them for fun. He also claimed that chickens were often not stunned or killed prior to entering the scalding baths. He described working one night when equipment breakdowns delayed the conveyor belt and allowed stunned chickens to wake up before their throats were slit. The workers did not have time to do the slitting so they sent the chickens straight to the scalding baths. The animal welfare groups turned the affidavit over to local authorities in hopes that cruelty charges would be brought against the workers named.


Turkeys are one of the few domesticated animals native to North America. Today's turkeys have little resemblance to their wild ancestors, however. They have been bred to gain weight quickly, particularly in the breast. According to the USDA, 264 million turkeys were being raised in the United States in 2004. Turkey production is much more scattered geographically than broiler production. The top five turkey-producing states in 2003 were Minnesota, North Carolina, Missouri, South Carolina, and Virginia. The National Turkey Federation (NTF) reports that the average weight per bird in 2003 was nearly twenty-six pounds.

Figure 4.12 shows that turkey consumption in the United States skyrocketed during the twentieth century. In 1905 average annual consumption was less than a pound per person. By 2003 turkey consumption was close to fourteen pounds per person. NTF statistics on the organization's Web site in 2005 noted that 30% of all turkey consumed each year occurs during holiday celebrations. The percentage of turkey consumed during the holidays is down from 50% in 1970, indicating that turkey is becoming more of an everyday choice in the American diet.

Turkeys are raised much the same way that broiler chickens are raised. At around six weeks of age, the baby birds are moved into growing houses in which they spend the remainder of their lives. Conditions there are crowded, as they are for chickens, and can lead to feather-pecking and cannibalism. Turkeys are slaughtered similarly to chickens at around three to six months of age.

Ducks and Geese

Domestic ducks and geese are raised for their meat, eggs, and feathers. According to the USDA agricultural census of 2002, there were 49,746 farms raising ducks and geese that year. The number of birds was not reported, but USDA slaughter reports dated March 2004 show that 24.3 million ducks were slaughtered during 2003. Another ten million pounds live-weight of "other poultry" were slaughtered during 2003. This category includes mostly geese, and a few ostriches and emus. Assuming that the average goose weighs ten pounds, nearly one million geese were slaughtered during 2003.

A February 2003 fact sheet published by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) noted that Americans consume approximately one-third pound of duck per person per year and less than that of goose.

Most ducks are raised indoors, similarly to chickens, and are fed fortified corn and soybeans. Geese are raised in covered enclosures for the first six weeks of their lives and then allowed to forage for grass in fields. Most ducks are raised in Wisconsin and Indiana, while most geese are raised in California and South Dakota. Federal law prohibits the use of hormones in duck and goose production. Also, the USDA FSIS reports that antibiotics are not routinely given to the birds, but may be used to cure illnesses. However, a withdrawal period of several days is required before the birds can be slaughtered. Ducks and geese are slaughtered with electrocution baths followed by throat slitting.

Duck and geese products are mostly sold in specialty markets. The tongues and feet of the animals are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia (particularly Hong Kong) and are also sold in Asian-American markets. High-value products from ducks and geese include down feathers, smoked meat products, liver pâté (paste), and foie gras. Foie gras, is pronounced "fwah grah" and means "fat liver" in French.

Turkey consumption, per capita in pounds, 1909–2003
SOURCE: Adapted from "U.S. per Capita Food Consumption (Meat)," in Food Availability, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, December 21, 2004, (accessed February 5, 2005)


Foie gras is obtained by force-feeding male ducks and geese a very rich mixture containing corn, fat, salt, and water over a short amount of time. This regimen causes the birds' livers to become fatty and hugely swollen, six to ten times their normal size.

The feeding process, called gavage, is usually started two to four weeks before slaughter. It is accomplished using an electronic pump that forces food through a twelve- to sixteen-inch tube that is placed down the bird's throat. The birds are force-fed several times a day and held in cramped cages or pens so that they cannot move. This prevents them from losing weight during the fattening process.

Animal welfarists are highly critical of gavage. The HSUS says that the birds suffer pain from swollen abdomens and lesions in their throats. The organization also says that autopsies conducted on dead birds subjected to gavage show severe liver, heart, and esophagus disorders.

Foie gras is a gourmet delicacy that is very expensive, selling for up to $45 per pound. It is available at upscale restaurants and specialty stores. Most foie gras comes from France. As of 2005, there were only two commercial producers of foie gras in the United States, and both used duck livers. One producer was located in the Hudson Valley of New York and the other in the Sonoma Valley of California. The producers defend the use of the gavage process, saying that it does not gag the birds because they do not chew their food anyway.

In September 2004 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law that will ban the force feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras and ban the sale of the product in California. The ban goes into effect in 2012. The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights estimated in 2005 that 50,000 to 75,000 ducks per year are slaughtered for foie gras in California.

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