The Short Lives of Broiler Chickens

broiler chickens

Broiler chickens, or chickens farmed for their meat, are among the most abused animals on the planet. They are certainly among those suffering in the greatest numbers, making up 95 percent of the land animals killed for food across the globe each year.

In this article, we will look beyond the industry-given name of “broiler chickens” to reveal more about these birds and their short lives inside factory farms.

What Are Broiler Chickens?

In industry terminology, chickens raised specifically for meat (and not for eggs) are called “broiler chickens” or “broilers.”

Genetically Modified Origins

While it is often believed that broiler chickens are genetically modified, this is not technically correct in the way that the phrase is commonly understood. Chickens raised for meat are selectively bred for rapid growth so that they become unnaturally large very quickly. Selective breeding is when certain animals are bred in order to produce offspring with desired traits—in the case of broiler chickens, the industry’s goal is to raise birds that will produce more meat.

In this way, the genes of broiler chickens have been changed over time through selective breeding for specific genetic outcomes. But broiler chickens are not subjected to genetic modification, which would typically involve DNA editing, gene transfers, or splicing in a laboratory.

Broiler Chicken Production Process

Purchase of Pullets

A pullet is a young female chicken, or hen, who is less than one year of age but has developed adult feathers in place of down. Chicken producers typically purchase these birds at around a day old. These hens endure having their beaks and toes seared or trimmed without anesthesia because the stress of intensive confinement inside factory farms can cause birds to harm each other or themselves. Some birds may be unable to eat because their beaks are cut too short or become painful.

For about a year the birds will remain in these conditions laying eggs that are collected and sent away to be hatched. Once the hens are no longer able to produce so many eggs, they will be transported to a slaughterhouse to be killed for meat, arriving at the same grim fate as broiler birds.

Artificial Insemination

Unlike many hens in the egg industry, broiler breeder chickens are not typically caged, and they are usually, though not always, allowed to mate “naturally.” That being said, the breeding of broilers does not really occur the same way in the industry as it would in the wild, because the hens are bred to produce such a large number of eggs.

Eggs Are Collected, Delivered, and Incubated

Three times a day eggs are collected at the breeding facilities and sent to hatcheries. Outside of the chicken industry, hens would build nests and sit on their eggs to keep them warm, vocalizing to the chicks before they hatch. Inside industry hatcheries, though, the eggs will be warmed using incubators and chicks will never meet their mothers. 

In 2020, 9.8 billion broiler chicks were hatched in the U.S.

Transported to Farms

Newly hatched broiler chickens are moved down conveyor belts where they are vaccinated and packed into transport crates. What comes next is the first of two journeys in their short lives for which they will be transported.

It can be a long and grueling trip from the hatchery to the grow-out farm where the chickens will be raised for another few weeks. At just one day old, the chicks are vulnerable to weather extremes during transportation, as they are not yet able to regulate their body temperature.

Transported to Processing Plant and Killed

Reaching market weight at around 47 days old, broiler chickens are caught and loaded into crates for transport once again, this time to a slaughterhouse.

Slaughterhouses often kill chickens using a method known as live-shackle slaughter, in which the birds are hung upside down by their legs in metal shackles before being dunked into an electrified water bath that is intended to render them unconscious but which sometimes fails, leaving the birds to have their throats slit while conscious. They then are moved to a scalding tank, where they are submerged in the hot water, and some may continue to suffer there.

In 2013, U.S. Department of Agriculture records showed that nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive every year. Many animal protection groups are working to end live shackling. 

Is There Some Difference Between Broiler and Layer Chickens?

Broiler chickens are raised to produce meat, while layer chickens are raised to produce eggs. These two types of farmed chickens are also selectively bred for different desired traits: broiler birds to grow fast and produce a large amount of meat, and layer hens to produce a large number of eggs.

Layer chickens must be kept alive longer than broiler birds, the latter being slaughtered at only around 45 days old while the former lay eggs for about one year. Therefore, layer chickens are provided with less food so that they will not grow at the same rates as broilers, who can often succumb to the effects of this rapid growth.

Do Broiler Chickens Lay Eggs?

Both male and female chickens are raised as broilers, and some female broilers do lay eggs.

How Long Does it Take to Grow a Broiler Chicken?

In today’s fast-paced system of industrial agriculture, the lives of chickens raised for meat have been cut far shorter than they were on the farms of the past. In order to produce more meat faster and at a lower cost, chicken producers have selectively bred broiler birds for rapid growth.

Today, a broiler chicken reaches what the industry considers market weight at around only 47 days old. The National Chicken Council reports that in 1925, chickens reached a market weight of 2.5 pounds in 112 days—and as of 2020, the market weight reached in just 47 days is 6.41 pounds.

At What Age Are Broiler Chickens Slaughtered?

Once they have reached market weight, at around 47 days old, broiler chickens are transported to a slaughterhouse and killed. 

What Are the Problems With Broiler Chickens?

Ammonia

Confined in filthy sheds and living in their own waste, sometimes unable to stand or walk due to leg deformities from rapid growth, broiler chickens live amid a high concentration of ammonia, which can burn their skin. The Better Chicken Commitment writes, “Ammonia burns to the skin can cause breast blisters, hock burn, and footpad dermatitis.”

A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry found that “the presence of excessively high levels of ammonia in the air, for any time period, will lead to discomfort to the birds.”

Cardiovascular Dysfunction

The bodies of broiler chickens often cannot support their rapid growth, sometimes leading to heart failure. The Poultry Site writes from the industry viewpoint, looking at the bottom line: “economic losses associated with heart failure problems in broiler chickens amount to more than $1 billion annually.” But this also means many young chickens are suffering and dying before even reaching the age of around 47 days old when they would be slaughtered.

Catching and Transport

When broiler birds reach market weight, they are rounded up and crowded into crates that are loaded onto transport trucks headed for the slaughterhouse. The catching of the chickens can be a violent process, as the birds can become frantic and workers quickly grab the chickens by their legs. Investigations have revealed that the birds are sometimes forcefully thrown or shoved into the crates.

Transport can be another stressful experience for broiler birds, as they are often trucked long distances through all weather extremes and without food or water.

Integument Lesions

The ammonia burns from which chickens suffer can lead to open skin lesions. According to the Better Chicken Commitment, the burns “can get worse over time, developing from mild to more severe inflammation which can then ulcerate,” and “such lesions are likely painful.”

Mortality Rates

The Global Animal Partnership estimates that 5 percent of broiler chickens die before even reaching the market, primarily succumbing to metabolic disorders or heart and lung conditions. Many undercover investigations by animal protection organizations have revealed that young chickens often become unable to walk, stand, or even survive due largely to the effects of rapid growth—even within companies supplied by farms with animal welfare standards considered to be high, such as Perdue.

Released in September 2020, a study by FAI Farms found that slower growth results in better health for broiler chickens, including decreased mortality rates.

Ocular Dysfunction

Ammonia can also lead to severe eye conditions in broiler chickens. Megan Howell from the Poultry Site writes, “Ammonia exposure can be disastrous for the birds’ eyes. Prolonged contact with the compound can cause corneal ulcers and tears, which can ultimately lead to infection or even blindness.” 

Skeletal Dysfunction

Chickens raised for meat sometimes grow so large that their legs cannot support their body weight. Research shows that rapid growth can result in leg deformities and bone defects, and undercover investigations by animal protection organizations often reveal many young birds with their legs splayed out, unable to walk or even stand. 

Stocking Density

Broiler chickens are often raised in dark sheds containing thousands or tens of thousands of birds. Beyond their confinement to these crowded barns, birds are further limited in their ability to roam because even birds considered “free-range” often have few windows and little access to the outdoors.

Research has shown that “broilers in high stocking densities have higher frequency of foot pad lesions and hock burns,” and that high stocking densities have negative effects “on parameters which are considered reliable indicators of broiler health and welfare.” 

Environmental Impacts

Animal agriculture is a leading driver of environmental degradation and climate change. Chicken is sometimes thought of as a more sustainable choice in comparison with other meats, particularly because beef and other red meats have such a heavy carbon footprint. Yet, chicken is not as eco-friendly as it is sometimes marketed.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Environmental Working Group states, “Just half of chickens’ emissions are generated during production. That’s because pound for pound, chickens require far less feed than hogs and beef or dairy cattle, and chickens generate no methane. However, chicken processing is more energy- and water-intensive than other meat processing.”

Yet the industry also emits harmful gases through the treatment of large amounts of chicken manure. It is widely understood that the treatment of broiler manure and its application to the land “can cause substantial emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and nitrous oxide (N2O).”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that “Overall, the emission intensity of broiler meat (per kg CW) is 45 percent higher than that of layer eggs (per kg eggs),” partly because the feed conversion ratio of broilers is 22 percent higher than that of layers. This means that 22 percent more feed is needed to produce one kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of meat when compared with eggs.

The global poultry industry as a whole—including turkeys as well as chickens—contributes 360 million tons to total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO.

Water Pollution

The environmental impact of chicken production does not stop at gas emissions and air pollution; this industry is also polluting our waterways. A prime example of this harmful impact can be seen in the Chesapeake Bay, an area densely filled with chicken farms. Released in April 2020, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) concluded that “ammonia air pollution from the Chesapeake region poultry industry,” which annually raises more than one billion chickens and turkeys and produces 5.7 billion pounds of manure, “contributes about 12 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay every year, more than all the sewage and wastewater in Maryland or Pennsylvania.”

A 2009 FRONTLINE story also revealed impacts of runoff from chicken waste on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where “large-scale chicken farms dominate the landscape.” PBS writes, “These factory farms produce a bountiful supply of cheap chicken, but also an excess of chicken manure. Runoff from these farms, which is largely unregulated, flows into rivers that pollute the bay. While chicken farmers and chicken companies debate who should be responsible for the waste, the industry has successfully resisted pollution control regulations, arguing that voluntary practices are better.”

Broiler Chicken Statistics

The U.S. has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world, and nearly all of these birds—99.9 percent—are intensively raised on factory farms. With over 16 percent of the industry’s production exported to other countries, according to the NCC, the U.S. is the second-largest broiler exporter behind only Brazil. 

The number of chickens in the U.S.—an estimated 518.3 million in 2020—is skyrocketing, and will likely continue to increase, as chicken is the most highly consumed meat in the country. The NCC estimates that Americans will consume 96.1 pounds of chicken meat per capita in 2021, a figure that has risen almost every year since 1960 when it was at 23.6 pounds per capita.

What You Can Do to Help

Many animal protection organizations suggest that the best way to protect chickens and other farmed animals are to eliminate one’s consumption of their meat, and instead choose from the ever-increasing variety of plant-based meats.

You can also improve the lives of broiler birds by urging corporations to sign onto the Better Chicken Commitment, an agreement requiring certain animal welfare standards for broiler producers, including a shift away from practices such as breeding for rapid growth, and live-shackle slaughter.

Why It’s Important to Act Now

More than 9 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered every year in the U.S. to feed rising demand for their meat, resulting in suffering for birds, dangers for workers, and harm to the environment. 

Because nearly all of these birds are raised inside factory farms, they live their lives of less than two months confined in stressful and filthy conditions, most never going outside, and are denied the chance to engage in many of their natural behaviors. It is a short life, but for many, it is still not survivable for long enough to reach the slaughterhouse.