Meat chickens, also called broiler chickens, are those that are grown for their meat, as opposed to laying eggs. Chicken is the most popular meat consumed by Australians, with over 650 million meat chickens slaughtered every year in Australia for human consumption. The birds have been selectively bred over many generations to grow and gain weight in a short period of time. This rapid growth rate can cause significant welfare problems, particularly leg disorders and cardiovascular disease.
How are meat chickens housed?
Once hatched, both male and female chicks are transferred from the hatchery to farms in climate-controlled trucks. On arrival at the farm, large numbers of chicks are placed in sheds; tens of thousands (up to 60 thousand) birds may be housed in one shed. They are given immediate access to feed and water. Meat chickens are provided with continual access to feed and water while on the farm, usually via automated feed and drinker systems that run down the length of the shed. Modern sheds are generally climate-controlled, while older sheds may be naturally ventilated.
Meat chickens grown indoors will spend their entire lives inside the shed, while meat chickens that are provided with outdoor access (‘free range’) are generally contained within the shed for the first 3 weeks until they are reasonably feathered and then given access to the outdoors during daylight hours.
For the first week or so, the chicks are kept in an area of the shed called ‘the brooding area’, a heated and well-lit environment, since young chicks are unable to regulate their body temperature. Bright lighting is used to encourage chicks to find feed and water in their new surroundings. The floor of the shed is covered with a layer of bedding which is usually sawdust, wood shavings or rice hulls. After the brooding period, birds are given access to the entire shed.
How long does it take for a meat chicken to grow to slaughter weight?
Meat chickens are typically slaughtered between 4-6 weeks of age. Depending on the weight requirements of the market, meat chickens may be ready for slaughter as early as 30-35 days (whole birds) and up to 55-60 days (chicken pieces). If birds are to be sold as spatchcock (younger meat chickens), they are usually slaughtered around 21 days of age.
How are meat chickens transported from the farm to the abattoir?
When it is time for the birds to be transported from the farm to the abattoir, a catching crew will come to the farm and place the birds into plastic crates or transport modules, which are then loaded on to trucks and transported to the abattoir.
It is common in Australia to practice ‘thinning’, where only a portion of the birds in each shed are collected and transported to the abattoir at any one time. The birds that remain in the shed are grown to heavier weights and collected as and when needed to meet market requirements. It is not uncommon for a shed to go through a number of ‘thin outs’ before being completely depopulated, cleaned and then prepared for the next batch of day old chicks to arrive.
What happens when they get to the abattoir?
Once at the abattoir, the birds are rested to allow them time to settle after transportation. Each bird is then stunned (rendered unconscious) before slaughter either via electrical water bath stunning or controlled atmosphere (gas) stunning. Once unconscious, the bird’s throat is cut and bled out to cause death, prior to the bird regaining consciousness.
The carcasses are plucked, cleaned and further processed either as whole birds or cut into pieces such as drumsticks, breasts, wings and thighs.
Commercial meat chicken abattoirs are highly mechanised systems and the larger facilities have the capacity to process over 1 million birds per week.
How is the meat chicken industry structured?
The vast majority of chicken meat in Australia is produced by a handful of vertically integrated companies. These companies (known as processors) own and operate the breeder farms, hatcheries, feed mills and processing plants, but will generally contract out the responsibility for growing meat chickens to independent contract farmers (growers).
The processor provides (and owns) the birds, feed, veterinary and technical support, and will arrange for the birds to be caught, transported and processed at the abattoir. The grower owns the farmland, farm infrastructure (e.g. sheds and equipment) and is responsible for caring for the birds while on the farm, including providing all necessary inputs such as water, litter, labour as well as gas and electricity.