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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Poultry farming is the practice of raising poultry, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, as a subcategory of animal husbandry, for the purpose of farming meat or eggs for food.

More than 50 billion chickens are reared annually as a source of food, for both their meat and their eggs. Chickens farmed for meat are called broilers, whilst those farmed for eggs are called egg-laying hens. In total, the UK alone consumes over 29 million eggs per day. Some hens can produce over 300 eggs a year. Chickens will naturally live for 6 or more years. After 12 months, the hen’s productivity will start to decline. This is when most commercial laying hens are slaughtered.

The majority of poultry are raised using intensive farming techniques. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74 percent of the world’s poultry meat, and 68 percent of eggs are produced this way. One alternative to intensive poultry farming is free range farming.

Friction between these two main methods has led to long term issues of ethical consumerism. Opponents of intensive farming argue that it harms the environment and creates health risks, as well as abusing the animals themselves. Advocates of intensive farming say that their highly efficient systems save land and food resources due to increased productivity, stating that the animals are looked after in state-of-the-art environmentally controlled facilities. A few countries have banned cage system housing, including Sweden and Switzerland. Consumers can still purchase lower cost eggs from other countries’ intensive poultry farms.


Indoor with higher welfare

Chickens are kept indoors but with more space (around 12 to 14 birds per square metre). They have a richer environment for example with natural light or straw bales that encourage foraging and perching. The chickens grow more slowly and live for up to two weeks longer than intensively farmed birds. The benefits of higher welfare indoor systems are the reduced growth rate, less crowding and more opportunities for natural behavior.


Free range poultry farming consists of poultry permitted to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that a free range chicken must have daytime access to open-air runs during at least half of their life. Unlike in the United States, this definition also applies to eggs. The European Union regulates marketing standards for egg farming which specifies a minimum condition for Free Range Eggs states that “hens have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, except in the case of temporary restrictions imposed by veterinary authorities”. In free-range broiler systems, the chickens are given continuous access to an outdoor range during the daytime and sheds where they are housed at night. Free-range chickens grow more slowly than intensive chickens. They live at least 56 days. In the EU each chicken must have one square metre of outdoor space.

Free range poultry production requires that the poultry have access to the outside. In some cases this means the poultry are raised on pasture, enabling the poultry to move around, forage for their natural diet and live in cleaner conditions than those in batteries. In some farms, the manure from free range poultry can be used to benefit crops.

The benefits are also a reduced growth rate and opportunities for natural behaviour such as pecking, scratching, foraging and exercise outdoors, as well as fresh air and daylight. Because they grow slower and have opportunities for exercise free-range chickens have better leg and heart health and a much higher quality of life.

Finding suitable land with adequate drainage to minimise worms and coccidial oocysts, suitable protection from prevailing winds, good ventilation, access and protection from predators can be difficult. Excess heat, cold or damp can have a harmful effect on the animals and their productivity. Unlike battery farms, free range farmers have little control over the food their animals come across which can lead to unreliable productivity.

Some free range farming in the UK, which accounts for 26% of production, has also come under criticism concerning animal welfare. This is due to some large scale free range farms where social abnormalities arise due to having large numbers of birds in an outdoor space. Beak trimming due to cannibalism and infighting is common in this form of poultry farming as well as in batteries. Diseases are common and the animals are vulnerable to predators. In South-East Asia, a lack of disease control in free range farming has been associated with outbreaks of Avian influenza.

In organic systems, chickens are also free-range. Organic chickens are slower growing, more traditional breeds and live typically for around 81 days. They grow at half the rate of intensive chickens. They have a larger space allowance outside (at least 2 square metres and sometimes up to 10 square metres per bird).


While often confused with free-range farming, yarding is actually a separate method of poultry culture by which chickens and cows are raised together. The distinction is that free-range poultry are either totally unfenced, or the fence is so distant that it has little influence on their freedom of movement. Yarding is common technique used by small farms in the Northeastern US.

Daily releases out of hutches or coops allows for instinctual nature for the chickens with protections from predators. The hens usually lay eggs either on the ground of the coop or in baskets if provided by the farmer. This technique can be complicated if used with roosters though, mostly because of difficulty getting them into the coop and to clean the coop while it is inside. This territorial nature is apparent while outside in which they have a brood of hens and sometimes even informal land claims. This can endanger people unaware of the existence of the territories who are attacked by the larger birds.

Intensive chicken farming

In egg-producing farms, birds are typically housed in rows of battery cages. Environmental conditions are automatically controlled, including light duration, which mimics summer daylength. This stimulates the birds to continue to lay eggs all year round. Normally, significant egg production only occurs in the warmer months. Critics argue that year-round egg production stresses the birds more than normal seasonal production.

Meat chickens, commonly called broilers, are floor-raised on litter such as wood shavings or rice hulls, indoors in climate-controlled housing. Poultry producers routinely use nationally approved medications, such as antibiotics, in feed or drinking water, to treat disease or to prevent disease outbreaks arising from overcrowded or unsanitary conditions. In the U.S., the national organization overseeing chicken production is the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.). Some F.D.A.-approved medications are also approved for improved feed utilization. In the U.S., federal law prohibits the use of hormones or steroids in poultry production.

In egg-producing farms, cages allow for more birds per unit area, and this allows for greater productivity and lower space and food costs, with more efforts put into egg-laying. In the U.S., for example, the current recommendation by the United Egg Producers is 67 to 86 in² (430 to 560 cm²) per bird, which is about 9 inches by 9 inches. Modern poultry farming is very efficient and allows meat and eggs to be available to the consumer in all seasons at a lower cost than free range production, and the poultry have no exposure to predators.

The cage environment of egg producing does not permit birds to roam. The closeness of chickens to one another frequently causes cannibalism. Cannibalism is controlled by de-beaking (removing a portion of the bird’s beak with a hot blade so the bird cannot effectively peck). Another condition that can occur in prolific egg laying breeds is osteoporosis. This is caused from year-round rather than seasonal egg production, and results in chickens whose legs cannot support them and so can no longer walk. During egg production, large amounts of calcium are transferred from bones to create eggshell. Although dietary calcium levels are adequate, absorption of dietary calcium is not always sufficient, given the intensity of production, to fully replenish bone calcium.

Under intensive farming methods, a meat chicken will live less than six weeks before slaughter. This is half the time it would take traditionally. This compares with free-range chickens which will usually be slaughtered at 8 weeks, and organic ones at around 12 weeks.

In intensive broiler sheds, the air can become highly polluted with ammonia from the droppings. This can damage the chickens’ eyes and respiratory systems and can cause painful burns on their legs (called hock burns) and feet. Chickens bred for fast growth have a high rate of leg deformities because they cannot support their increased body weight. Because they cannot move easily, the chickens are not able to adjust their environment to avoid heat, cold or dirt as they would in natural conditions. The added weight and overcrowding also puts a strain on their hearts and lungs. In the U.K., up to 19 million chickens die in their sheds from heart failure each year.

World chicken population

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that in 2002 there were nearly sixteen billion chickens in the world, counting a total population of 15,853,900,000. The figures from the Global Livestock Production and Health Atlas for 2004 were as follows:

  1. China (8,860,000,000)
  2. United States (1,970,000,000)
  3. Indonesia (1,200,000,000)
  4. Brazil (1,100,000,000)
  5. Mexico (540,000,000)
  6. India (425,000,000)
  7. Russia (340,000,000)
  8. Japan (286,000,000)
  9. Iran (280,000,000)
  10. Turkey (250,000,000)
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