Industrial Chicken: Sowing Breeds of Despair

Industrial chicken farming - whether for meat or egg production - is notoriously inhumane. Chickens raised for meat live in crowded, windowless barns, induced into a state of semi-torpor, while those raised to lay eggs are stuffed into cramped cages, existing under conditions so stressful they have their beaks mutilated to prevent pecking each other to death.

An oft overlooked aspect of the industrial model, however, is that the chickens trapped in the system not only endure horrible living conditions, but are actually bred in a fashion that perpetuates the cruelty. Furthermore, breeding decisions made by industry affect the ability of independent farmers to make more compassionate choices.

Industrial imbalance: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

For meat chickens, the industry’s breed of choice is the Cornish Cross (also known as “Cornish-Rock,” as it is a cross between a Cornish and a white strain of Plymouth Rock). Whitefeathered and stocky, the Cornish Cross was developed with one key aim in mind: to produce a bird who reaches market weight as rapidly as possible. Cornish Crosses are inactive birds who basically sit and eat, grow quickly, and provide a lot of breast meat.

In fact, Cornish Crosses put on weight faster than their bodies can bear. Bred for a high muscle-to-bone ratio, their bones are not strong enough to support their top-heavy bulk. They are thus prone to joint and ligament problems, and are often lame. It is not uncommon for the birds to die of sudden heart failure even before they reach slaughter weight in six weeks. Selective breeding for growth - at the expense of other traits - often means their immune systems are compromised, as well, leaving them susceptible to disease. Industrial operations must rely on preventative antibiotics to maintain productivity - a practice risky to human health as it promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of sometimes lethal bacteria.

Notwithstanding its advantages as a fast and fulsome grower, the Cornish Cross is not, however, a prodigious layer. To produce eggs, the industry turns to another breed - the Leghorn. Leghorns are smaller and svelter than Cornish Crosses. In fact, the Leghorn is one of the smallest standard breeds. But what Leghorns lacks in stature (and placid temperament - they are considered nervous and flighty), they make up for in egg-laying capacity. Leghorn eggs are large and white and the chickens have an excellent feed-to-egg conversion ratio. Leghorn hens also have less “broodiness” tendency than most breeds (broodiness being the perfectly natural instinct to sit on the eggs they lay - which sends a biological signal to stop laying for awhile). Leghorns just keep laying - a little over 23 eggs a month, every month until they are spent.

Leghorn males, however, are left in limbo. Very few are needed to maintain breeding stocks. They can’t lay eggs, obviously, and it isn’t efficient to raise such relatively scrawny birds to adulthood for meat. So from an industry perspective, they are worthless - and they are eliminated. In 2009, an undercover video shot at a large U.S. egg hatchery showed hundreds of tiny male chicks moving down a conveyor belt, at the end of which they were dropped - alive - into a grinder. According to the narrator, nearly 150,000 male chicks met their deaths this way each day at the facility. This method of culling males - termed “maceration” - is standard practice within the layer breeding industry.

Pasture-based farming caught in the “Cross” hairs

Family farmers wishing to raise meat chickens on pasture face a dilemma. Because of the enormous influence of the industry in determining breeding stocks, farmers find Cornish Crosses the easiest to come by - and often the only choice available locally. But AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) high-welfare farming certification program will not certify pastured poultry farms that raise Cornish Crosses. The problem is not with the farmers, many of whom do the utmost to improve the welfare of their birds. The problem is with the breed.

Cornish Crosses are not bred to thrive on pasture. They are not adept at ranging and foraging, and have poor tolerance for heat. On his website, TheModernHomestead.US, pastured poultry farmer Harvey Ussery says he no longer keeps Cornish Crosses in his flock. He describes losing 22 such birds during one unseasonal temperature spike within two hours. Before he was aware of their distress, his birds had sat in the shade of a pasture shelter, panting and eventually dying - rather than walking six feet for a drink of water outside the shelter.

Even if you hover constantly over your birds so as to avoid such mishaps, you still have birds who are programmed to grow too big for their bones. Some pastured poultry producers try to dial down this growth by providing smaller rations than would be given in an industrial setting. While this approach might reduce heart failure and lameness, it can lead to other welfare issues. Reducing the quantity or quality of food for birds bred to eat a high nutrient diet and grow quickly might indeed slow growth. It might also result in chronically hungry birds. 

Breeding high welfare back into chicken farming

AWI continues to fight against the systemic cruelty of factory farming - a system where billions of birds suffer; where untold millions of “useless” male chicks are callously killed on a weekly basis. When it comes to meat chickens, the industry long ago crossed the line from selective breeding into Frankenstein territory - using mismatched parts to create an animal who looks like a chicken... but isn’t fully equipped to be one. The Cornish Cross is a chicken literally designed for an impoverished existence.

To promote high-welfare pastured poultry production, AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved program is taking a different approach. Rather than attempting to fit a very round bird into a square peg (or pasture), the AWA program is working with breeders and hatcheries to increase the availability of heartier breeds. Chickens on pasture should be robust birds who retain the physical attributes necessary to range and forage successfully - in other words, birds who have not been robbed of the tools they need to act like chickens.