Most people are at least three generations removed from the farm, which means the average person doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what life on a farm is like, either for farmers or the animals they care for. Because of this, many of the ideas of what happens on a farm come from either romanticized images on film or TV, or worrisome images and stories told online and in the media. Questions about animal welfare are top of mind as people want to know more than just that the food they eat is safe. Increasingly, consumers are expecting chefs and cooks to be able to assure them that the chicken they are menuing was raised humanely and sustainably.
To help you get a better sense of what life is really like for a broiler chicken (a chicken raised for meat), this bite-sized video brings you inside a typical chicken farm to find out. Follow along as we explore the first day baby chicks arrive to the farm, to when they are transported to processing seven weeks later.
If you’d like a more detailed look into the life of a broiler chicken, check out the below “Day in the Life” video series. See how chickens are typically raised, the thought and research that goes into their housing, food, breeding, and medical care, and how farmers, veterinarians, and nutritionists are always working to do better.
Broiler chickens – chickens raised for meat – are hatched at a “hatchery,” and within hours they’ll arrive at the farm where they’ll be raised until they’re ready to leave the farm and go to market. The average broiler chicken spends about seven weeks on the farm. Providing a great start in those first days are crucial to ensure they have the best finish when they reach your grocery store shelves and kitchen tables. Learn about all that goes into bringing 25,000 day-old chicks into a house…from transportation to heating to safety and feeding.
After fertilized eggs are incubated (kept warm and rotated) for 21 days at a hatchery, chicks are hatched, and within hours they are transported to the farm. Chicks are delivered in crates – 100 to a crate, around 25,000 chicks per barn. All birds on any given chicken farm will be the same age, come from the same hatchery, and stay together for the remainder of their lives – this is to ensure traceability (in case there is any issue), and for biosecurity reasons (to reduce the threat of illness or bacteria). The chicks go all-in to the farm at the same time, and the birds go all-out to processing at the same time.
In preparation for the arrival of baby chicks, barns are cleaned and prepped. Farmers lay out litter and fresh water, and feed that is specially formulated for their nutritional needs at this age, to help the chicks learn how to find food. Temperatures in the barn are raised to kill off any pathogens that may exist, and soil temperatures are also closely monitored – a 2” chicken cares much more what the floor feels like than the ceiling!
When the chicks arrive, they’re placed into a designated area of the barn, sectioned off to keep them close together where temperatures are optimal during the brooding phase – the time before they lose their soft, downy fuzz and begin to mature.
Placement of chicks can seem surprising to those who’ve never seen it, but care is taken to ensure that the chicks are not harmed when being moved from crate to barn, and experienced farmers, who are trained in proper animal welfare procedures, keep the chicks’ welfare at top of mind during this process.
Farmers keep chickens safe from predators and the elements, but they also work to keep them safe from introduction to disease through advanced biosecurity measures. Especially during the first few weeks of life, chickens need extra care and attention to stay healthy and grow well. See how farmers manage the health of chickens – how they’re fed, how temperatures are controlled, and what measures are taken to ensure biosecurity in the houses.
During the first two weeks of life, chicks are more susceptible to illness due to their young age, so farmers keep a watchful eye on the flock to make sure the chicks are eating and drinking well and remaining healthy. Chicks are vaccinated before they come to the farm against common illnesses, but farmers are still watchful for new illnesses, or chicks that are simply not thriving.
As chickens near the end of their 2nd week of life, they will begin to molt – shedding their soft, downy fuzz and growing feathers. This marks the end of the brooding period, and at this time, farmers are able to open the whole barn up for chickens to roam and explore as they please.
Broiler chickens aren’t raised in cages – they’re raised in large, open barns called “growout houses.” These houses provide precise climate control for each stage of a chicken’s life –warmer when they’re smaller and less able to regulate their body temperature, and cooler as they grow bigger and “feather out.” Ventilation and temperature control is key when raising chickens – see how chicken farmers manage both to keep chickens healthy and comfortable.
The chickens are getting bigger now, and are putting out more body heat – so climate control becomes key at this stage in a chicken’s life. We know through extensive study of chickens that they are most comfortable living in a precise temperature range and modern chicken barns are equipped to keep temperatures right within this range, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside. At week three, houses are kept about 75 degrees F and the temperature will gradually decrease to about 64 degrees F by week seven, to keep them cooler as they grow bigger and emit more heat.
As chickens age and grow, their feed begins to change with them, like most animals. The feed chickens are given at each stage of their life has been properly formulated for their needs by certified animal nutritionists to ensure that each bird gets the right nutrients, at the right time. We work with nutritionists and independent experts to develop healthy diets for our birds, tailored to each stage of the chicken’s life.
Just like any other animal, chickens’ dietary needs change as they grow. Working with expert poultry nutritionists, we specially blend feed that changes with the chickens as they grow, ensuring they’re getting the proper mix of nutrients for each stage of their life.
By their fourth week of life, the chickens are really growing up! Their feathers are in and they’re getting big! There’s a number of factors that go into getting chickens to a healthy size at this age – nutrition tailored to each stage of the chicken’s life, coordination between farmers and veterinarians, and optimized living conditions – from temperature, to lighting, to litter – all contribute to healthy growth of the chickens.
What isn’t making the birds bigger are added hormones or steroids. And there are no genetically modified chickens, period. Over the years, we’ve selected chickens with the healthiest growth and size for breeding, and we couple that with feeding, housing, and raising them well to raise larger, healthier birds. Additionally, all chicken is free of added or artificial hormones and steroids. In fact, federal regulations prohibit the use of added hormones and steroids in all poultry.
What’s a chicken farmer’s number one priority? Maintaining the health of their chicken flock. Chicken farmers regularly inspect the birds to make sure they’re thriving. Find out how the health of chicken flocks is monitored and maintained on a daily basis.
Three times a day, farmers make the rounds to check on the health of the chickens. The temperature in the barn and all environmental factors are checked, and all 25,000 chickens in the barn are surveyed to make sure that they are all in good health and able to access food and water independently. Today, through improvements in nutrition, housing, breeding, veterinary care and bird health – chickens’ mortality rates have dropped by 450%, compared to previous years. That’s a number we’re proud of, but we also know there’s still work to do to continue improving how we care for our birds.
If a chicken is found to be ill, a flock will be treated – possibly including antibiotics – to bring it back to health. Chickens with an illness or ailment, like a broken leg, that cannot access feed or water on their own will be humanly euthanized by trained animal welfare representatives or farmers, to prevent suffering. This process is called culling and it involves cervical dislocation, a process in which a chicken’s neck is quickly and humanely broken. This method of euthanasia is approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Broiler chickens take about seven weeks to reach market weight. Once they’ve reached the proper size and weight, trained workers arrive to catch – by hand – all 25,000 chickens, which will then head off to the processing plant. See how this process works and learn what farmers do to reset the houses for the next flock of chickens.
The chickens have almost reached market weight by six weeks and are generally a week away from transport. The barn is dimly lit at this point – and that’s exactly how they like it (it helps to keep them calm, cool and from hurting each other). Soon, it will be time for the chickens to be picked up and transported to the processing plant.
When the time comes for chickens to be transported to the processing plant, trained workers arrive to catch – by hand – all 25,000 chickens, where they’ll then head off to be processed. Not only are the workers who round up the chickens trained in animal welfare techniques, they are financially penalized for any chickens who arrive at the plant with injuries. Chickens are caught and placed in cages for their safety during the short drive (generally less than 45 minutes) to the processing plant, and this is the only time in a broiler chicken’s life that it spends in a cage.
It’s important to know where your chicken comes from because your business is built on the quality of the ingredients that go into the food that you serve to your guests. There are a lot of stops along the way from the chicken farm to your operation. From the hatchery, where meat (or broiler) chickens are hatched, to barns on family farms where chickens are raised under the watchful eye of farmers and veterinarians, to processing, distribution and ultimately your local foodservice distributor or cash and carry, chicken makes quite a journey to get from the chicken farm to the table.
Chickens begin their life in hatcheries, where fertilized eggs (not table eggs) are incubated and hatched into chickens that are raised for meat. These kinds of chickens are called “broiler” chickens. Once the chicks are hatched, they are transported to local farms where they live and grow until they are big enough to be sold for meat. Once situated in the barn at the farm, chickens roam, eat, drink and socialize with other chickens under the supervision of farmers and veterinarians, who make sure the chickens are comfortable, healthy and growing well.
Just like humans or any animal, chickens may fall ill and may be treated with antibiotics. Many restaurateurs don’t realize that any meat from chickens sold in the U.S. is free of antibiotics. The USDA regulates withdrawal periods to ensure no meat you buy contains antibiotics or antibiotic residue from animals that may have been treated with them. Also, no chicken you buy is ever given added hormones or steroids. In fact, the use of such added or artificial hormones forbidden by law by the FDA.
When the chickens grow to the ideal weight to be sold for meat (usually 4-7 pounds), they are collected and transported for processing. That short transportation to the processing plant is the only time in a broiler chicken’s life that it spends in a cage, which is for the safety of the chickens during the drive. Once at the plant, chickens are processed quickly and humanely, thoroughly washed, chilled and inspected by the USDA. After USDA inspection is completed, chicken can receive the USDA seal for wholesomeness and be distributed to local grocers and restaurants.
Learn more about the detailed inspection each piece of chicken you buy undergoes in this infographic about modern poultry inspection.