In the layer (egg-producing) hen industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the layer-hen hatchery. Sexing chicks requires considerable skill and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.
If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up. Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth (see below).
Male chicks are killed for two reasons: they cannot lay eggs and they are not suitable for chicken-meat production. This is because layer hens — and therefore their chicks — are a different breed of poultry to chickens that are bred and raised for meat production.
Chick hatcheries breed one or the other type of chick depending on which poultry industry they supply — egg or meat. At the layer-hen hatcheries supplying the egg industry, eggs are taken away to develop in industrial incubators. Once hatched, the newborn chicks pass down a production line to be sexed and sorted. Sick or weak female chicks and all male chicks are rejected and then killed.
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry states that all culled or surplus newly hatched chicks that are destined for disposal must be treated as humanely as those that will be retained or sold. They must be destroyed promptly by a recommended humane method such as carbon dioxide gassing or quick maceration. Chicks must then be carefully inspected to ensure they are all are dead.
Quick maceration ensures the chick is killed within a second and is considered more humane than gassing with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Gassing results in gasping and head shaking and, depending on the mixture of gases used, it may take up to two minutes for the chick to die.
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