Lifecycle: Meat Chickens

Lifecycle: Meat Chickens

Chicken is the most popular meat in Australia. By choosing RSPCA Approved chicken you can make a real difference to improving chicken welfare.

Did you know?
Australians consume an average of 45kg of chicken meat a year.
What came first - the chicken or the egg
Meat chickens are the offspring of breeder stock hatched from eggs which are imported from specialist breeding companies.

Breeder flocks are sourced from eggs that have been produced after an extensive breeding and selection program to create chicken strains that grow and gain weight in a short period of time.

Fertile eggs produced by parent birds at the breeder farms are incubated at hatcheries until the chicks hatch.

Breeder flocks are kept in climate-controlled sheds on floors covered in wood shavings or rice-hulls. As breeder flocks approach sexual maturity (18-20 weeks old), they are transferred to laying sheds that include banks of elevated nest boxes. Most sheds provide one nest for every five hens. Usually the sheds have one male to every ten breeder hens.

The welfare consequences of selectively breeding meat chickens to maximise productivity (in terms of growth rate) are apparent even at this stage of the chicken production process. Breeder birds are fed a restricted diet to ensure they don't become too large to affect their ability to breed. Further welfare consequences are seen in the offspring of these breeder birds, in other words, in those grown out for meat. The RSPCA is encouraging the chicken meat industry to look at breeding slower growing birds which will help improve bird welfare.

From the breeder farms, fertile eggs are sent to hatcheries.
Hatching time
Fertile eggs are incubated in hatcheries.

Hatcheries produce one or the other type of chick depending on whether they supply layer hens which produce the eggs we eat or chicks farmed to produce chicken meat. The incubation of fertilised eggs at hatcheries takes a total of 21 days, and can be divided into two phases. The first stage lasts 18 days, with the eggs being placed on a rack, called a setter, within a climate-controlled room. The setter turns the eggs every hour - mimicking a brooding hen’s natural behaviour. In the next stage, lasting three days, the eggs are transferred to a hatcher, and placed in loose trays. The temperature is increased slightly, to promote hatching.

At one-day-old (i.e. the day they hatch), both male and female chicks are transferred to growing farms. During transport between hatchery and farm, the chicks rely on the nutrients provided by the remains of the embryonic yolk sac to sustain them for the journey.
Chicks arrive on farm
From the hatchery, day-old chicks are transported to growing farms.

It’s here that meat chickens are housed until ready for processing. Typically, the growing of meat chickens is contracted out to farmers – the processing companies own the birds, and supply feed, technical direction and other support services to the farmer (also known as ‘growers’).

On arrival at a growing farm, day-old chicks are placed in sheds - the newer sheds are climate-controlled, while others may be naturally ventilated – whether the meat chickens are grown in an indoor environment or outdoor (free range), they will remain inside for around 3 weeks. The chicks are first housed in an area called ‘the brooding area’ – which forms a third to half of the floor space of the entire shed. This allows them to quickly find their food and water. The chicks’ bedding is usually sawdust, wood shavings or rice hulls.

Chicks are generally vaccinated for infectious bronchitis and Marek’s disease. As Newcastle disease vaccination is compulsory for all commercial poultry flocks, broiler chicks are vaccinated at the hatchery or in the field through drinking water at 7 -14 days of age.Pharmacological agents called coccidiostats against necrotic enteritis are routinely added to chicken feed to prevent disease outbreaks in broiler flocks. Antibiotics may also be used routinely by some growers.

On free range farms, chicks are first allowed outside at around 3 weeks of age. This is because chicks need to have sufficient feather cover to be able to withstand the outdoor temperature.
Growing RSPCA Approved Chickens
There are different ways to farm meat chickens – the RSPCA’s Standards focus on meeting birds behavioural and physical needs.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme includes standards for higher-welfare indoor and outdoor systems which focus on providing for chickens behavioural and physical needs. Under the Scheme, maintaining good quality litter through control of temperature, humidity and ventilation is essential.

The lighting regime encourages activity during the light period while providing sufficient and proper rest during the dark period. Antibiotics can only be administered under veterinary advice. Environmental enrichment is key to the RSPCA’s Standards - perches or pecking materials such as straw is beneficial for good welfare.

Meat chickens using perches can build leg strength and if given the opportunity, birds will perch from as young as 7 days old. Depending on the kind of ventilation used in sheds and management conditions, farms Approved under the Approved Farming Scheme may stock birds up to 34kg per m2. RSPCA Approved farms may house birds indoors in sheds where their behavioural and physical needs are met or in systems where they have access to an outdoor area, are provided with shade, shelter and protection from predators and are able to range during daylight hours for a minimum of 8 hours per day once the chickens are reasonably feathered.
Compliance is critical
Regular farm assessments are essential to ensure Standards are maintained.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme has a very robust assessment process to ensure Approved farms continue to meet the Standards. Poultry farms are assessed four times in the first 12 months and bi-annually in following years. RSPCA Assessors also visit processing facilities.

It’s not only important that welfare standards are regularly assessed on farm, but crucial that RSPCA Assessors understand animal welfare.
Does free range and organic mean higher welfare?
It's really important that consumers look for products that are certified by an independent and reputable organisation and that Standards are publicly available. It's also important to understand how often farms are audited – the RSPCA Standards are assessed on farm at least twice per year. Free-range chicken meat comes from chickens that have access to an outdoor area during the day. At night, free-range chickens are kept indoors in sheds. Conditions on free-range farms vary greatly. On some farms, the range area is large, provides grass for foraging, has access to shade and shelter, and all birds are able to come and go from the range during the day; on others, the range area may be less attractive for the birds or the birds may be stocked densely in sheds with limited opportunity to access the range.

Organic farming has a focus on avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals, including synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, hormones and antibiotics. In animal production, organic farming may aim to provide a natural environment for animals and usually includes access to the outdoors (free-range), but the exact standards of this can vary greatly.
Unfortunately not all chicken is humane
Some meat chickens in Australia are raised in barren, conventional farming systems.

Following their time in the ‘brooding area’, chickens in the growing shed usually come to occupy the entire floor of the shed by the age of 14 days. The chickens are usually provided with feed and water around the clock and lighting in the sheds is kept dim to discourage activity while still encouraging the birds to eat continuously.

Stocking density for meat chickens is calculated on the basis of bird liveweight and the floor space available to the birds in the shed. In conventional farming systems, chickens can be stocked up to 40kg per m2 – when fully grown this could mean up to 20 chickens per m2.

The large size of the chickens also affects stocking density (the space given to each bird), especially at the end of the growing period. In conventional systems, lack of space results in lack of exercise, which increases the incidence of lameness. This increases the birds’ contact with the litter, causing foot pad burn, hock burn and breast blisters if the litter is not well managed. Chickens may die from heat stress caused by the cramped conditions in the growing shed.

Chickens on these farms may be kept in dim light for 23 hours a day to discourage movement and increase food intake. The majority of these chickens live in barren environments with no possibility for behavioural stimulation. The low space allowance, inadequate lighting and barren environments can lead to serious welfare issues, even death.

The RSPCA believes that the abnormally fast growth of meat chickens is a fundamental problem that has important welfare consequences for the birds during their growing phase manifesting in the bird developing chronic leg disorders, ascites (a heart condition) and sudden death syndrome. It’s the RSPCA’s view that the most desirable way to prevent these welfare problems would be to grow meat chickens from slower growing strains and encourages the Australian industry to look at this as a commerical alternative.
What is a spatchcock?
Spatchcock are younger meat chickens, and are usually processed at 21 days of age. RSPCA Approved spatchcock is farmed to the same animal welfare standards as our meat chickens. The only difference is that they are harvested and processed at an earlier age.
Harvesting meat chickens
Meat chickens are collected for processing either all at once or in batches depending on the weight requirements of the market.

The process of collecting birds in batches is known as 'partial depopulation', 'thinning out', or 'multiple pick-up'. The advantages of repeated bird collection include easier regulation of temperatures inside the shed and the availability of more space for the remaining birds. However, the disadvantages include bird disturbance and disruption to feed and water supply at the time of pick up. The RSPCA allows the practice of 'thinning out', or removing a proportion of the birds at a time, to provide more space for the remaining birds.

If birds are to be sold as spatchcock (younger meat chickens), they are usually processed around 21 days of age. Birds to be sold as chicken, may be picked up as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days. Chickens are often picked up at night as it is cooler and the birds are more settled. They are usually caught by hand (up to four birds per hand) by 'pick-up' crews under low light. It's very important that pick up crews are appropriately trained and competent to ensure proper handling and treatment of birds. The birds are then placed into plastic crates or transport modules and loaded on trucks for transport to the processing plant.
Once at the processing plant, chickens are rested for up to 2 hours to allow them to settle from being transported.

Chickens are then removed from their crates and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system. Shackling must take place in a purpose-built dimly-lit area, and birds must be quickly and competently suspended from the shackling line to reduce injuries or pain to birds with leg disorders. While shackled, chickens pass through an electrical water bath which renders them unconscious and they then have their necks cut by a sharp rotating blade. Chickens must be stunned without delay and bled out prior to the bird regaining consciousness.

In some larger processing plants, stunning is carried out by means of a controlled atmosphere system, which makes use of carbon di-oxide gas either alone or combination with argon or nitrogen to induce unconsciousness. The RSPCA encourages the use of controlled-atmosphere systems as it avoids the welfare problems associated with live shackling of birds because birds are not shackled until they have passed through the controlled atmosphere system.

Once they are dead, chickens are plucked, cleaned and further processed either as whole birds or cut into pieces such as drumsticks, breasts, wings and thighs. They are then packaged for sale.