Chicks begin their six-week journey from hatchery incubator to the grocery store.
We re going to see Elvis. I'm following geneticist David Pollock down a country road on Maryland s lower Eastern Shore where an unmarked turnoff leads to a compound locked behind sturdy fences and surrounded by forested swamps. We strip, shower, shampoo, and don sanitized clothing, then slosh through a long pan of disinfectant before approaching the inner sanctum. Lusty cock-a-doodling erupts as we enter the domain of some of the biggest chickens you ll never see: The great, state-of-the-art roosters sequestered here are too valuable ever to leave. They are the source, the future of all chicken from tandoori to Kentucky Fried, barbecue to coq au vin.
Each rooster struts in his own pen, shared with eight hens which he must mount at least 40 times a week to produce a flow of fertile eggs. Should he falter, a pen full of reserve roosters awaits. The laggard stud is euthanized and incinerated on site we can t risk competing poultry companies getting his elite genes, Pollock explains.
Human attendants, mostly women, gather the eggs around the clock, hand labeling each with soft pens so every hatchling can be traced back to its parents even to whether it was laid in a nest or on the floor and to which employee picked it up. For generations back, no detail about these pedigrees is beneath the breeders scrutiny: how they walk (indicating skeletal soundness); how effectively they mate; how well they make strong eggshells, viable semen, and bounteous breast meat. Amid such earnest science, the women have given each pen s rooster a nickname. There s Stinky, Pinky, and Bad Boy; Buckwheat and Alfalfa; Engelbert Humperdinck and Elvis, looking every inch the King.
This is our Fort Knox, says an official of Perdue Inc., the Salisbury-based company that operates this and two other secluded breeder farms to produce the genetic stock for the 615 million chickens it markets annually, 245 million of which are raised in Delmarva. The specimens here represent the cutting edge of relentless advance that has transformed the descendants of Asian
Chicken “sexers” separate the newly hatched birds by gender at a rate of one chick per second. Males are tossed into a big funnel in the center, while females go on an outer belt. The Delmarva region sends 571 million chickens a year to area markets.
A third-generation chicken farmer, Lou Ann Rieley home-schools her 12 children while she grows half a million chickens a year.
jungle fowl into protein machines, one of the most advanced food-production systems the world has ever seen.
The yen for a chicken dinner goes back a way. In 1589, Henry IV of France wished for no peasant . . . so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday. Herbert Hoover, en route to winning the presidency in 1928, reportedly made a similar pledge. But the one who actually delivered was a Delaware farm wife, Cecile Steele, who kept a small flock of egg layers near Bethany Beach. In 1923 her supplier mistakenly shipped 500 chicks instead of the 50 Steele annually ordered. She raised them for four months and sold the 387 survivors to a New York butcher for 62 cents a pound, equivalent to $6.85 a pound in today s economy. She ordered a thousand more chicks. By 1926 her husband had quit the Coast Guard, and the couple was raising 10,000 chickens. Within a few years, the Steeles and neighboring growers were producing more than a million chickens a year.
There are some reports of earlier mass production of meat chickens, but Delmarva was where it took. The peninsula, lapped by the Atlantic and Chesapeake and stretching 200 miles from Wilmington, Delaware, down through Maryland and Virginia, was in dire need of a new cash crop. A blight had hit the peach orchards, and storms had closed ocean inlets, ruining crabbing and clamming. Today the Eastern Shore and Delmarva remain mostly famous for beaches, blue crabs, oysters, waterfowl, and watermen but all those occur around the watery fringes. The story of the interior is the mighty agroindustrial complex that has risen around Gallus gallus domesticus.
From airplanes on summer nights, when open windows below leak light, fleets of poultry houses seem to ply the peninsula s dark landscape like convoys of ships. Poultry on Delmarva means 2,000 growers, mostly family farmers; 14,000 direct employees; and an industry-estimated 100,000 related jobs. They produce 3.3 billion pounds of chicken a year more than 570 million birds. The appetite of chickens for grain has transformed the landscape into corn and soybean fields. Poultry s legacy includes a business school, academic halls, and research labs on campuses of universities in Maryland and Delaware, all bearing names of poultry royalty Perdue, -Allen, Fulton, Guerrieri.
When Lou Ann Rieley could barely crawl, she was deposited in the high-sided cart from which her mother, Louise, scattered feed to their flock of about 20,000 chickens. My own mom did the same to keep track of me as she tended our chicken farm near Salisbury. Even now, when guests recoil at the odor of poultry manure spread on farm fields, I tell them, It smells like home to me.
The Rieleys farm near Millsboro, Delaware, is about ten miles from where Cecile Steele began it all. Lou Ann knows about raising large broods. At 46, she s a mother of 12, from Matthew, three, to Mark, just back from Humvee gunner duty in Iraq. She home-schools them all, some to a high-school diploma by age 15. Simultaneously she grows some half a million chickens a year under contract to Perdue.
She's the third generation of her family to raise poultry on this site. Her sales-manager husband, John, doesn't do chickens, she said when we met. For a time Lou Ann, too, wanted off the farm and out of Sussex County, her mother recalls. Pretty enough to get work as a model, she moved to Washington at 18, but it wasn't long before she missed the farm and moved back.
You are married to these birds, she says, seated in the family kitchen by a computer screen that tracks the temperature, water, feed, and other automated systems that control her three 500-by-42-foot chicken houses. Church is as far away as I go except when we are between flocks. But I truly love what I do, love the physical labor of it. And chickens let you stay at home and make work a family enterprise. The Rieley kids have varying degrees of enthusiasm about raising chickens, but it s not an option, their mother says: Everyone learns how to feed and care for the animals. It s training for life. It s also how she has
An automatic counter dumps 100 chicks into each plastic tray: yellow for the boys, blue for the girls. Next stop: growing up at the farm.
Like all the Rieley children, Megan, 16, helps raise and care for the chickens. “I really hate killing ‘em, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
taught them all their numbers, counting the dead chickens they must pick up, tally, and compost daily. We are all paid, and we have to tithe 10 percent of that, says daughter Megan, 16, a small girl with a room-size personality. Then it s another 10 percent for the horses, and half goes into savings. The rest we can spend.
I ask Megan, who s a fair bet to become a fourth-generation grower, how much she and her siblings make. She says it all depends on the chickens the better they grow, the better we all do. And she adds something that at first seems fanciful: We always pray for rain the day they move [by open truck in cages to the processing plant]. That little extra weight on their feathers is more money for us. That came to strike me as emblematic of a fiercely competitive industry s unceasing quest to wrest even the tiniest gains in profitability from the cheap and abundant meat of which Americans now consume, on average, about 88 pounds a year.
The good profit margins of the early years following Mrs. Steele s legendary flock are long gone, despite advances in breeding, nutrition, disease prevention, and controlled-environment housing. Lou Ann can raise a chicken nowadays to more than four pounds, twice the weight of Cecile Steele s, in 42 days versus 116 back then and on half the feed.
Only fish, which spend no energy fighting gravity, can convert feed to edible flesh more efficiently than chickens. But the profit in raising chickens now lies in volume. A new grower who doesn't raise half a million or more a year probably can t make it. The newest chicken houses hold more than 60,000 birds. Tyson Foods, the country s biggest poultry company, kills 43 million chickens a week.
Profit, or the lack of it, was on Lou Ann s mind in the chill days of February. Dressed in sweats, hair and nails perfectly done, she s awaiting delivery of 90,000 new chicks today. The afternoon before, seated in her office under a sign reading i am believing in god for 100 pct increase in profit for 2006!, she made the call she had been dreading to make getting the numbers on her last flock, which moved out a couple of weeks before.
The contracts that are standard between poultry companies and growers guarantee a minimum payment, insulating farmers against losses if volatile chicken prices are low. If prices soar, a bonus is possible. But the real payoff comes if your flock outperformed others sent to market that week. It s not just how big your chickens grew but factors like how much fuel and feed they required and how many died. The companies furnish feed, heat, medicines, chicks, and more; growers pay for chicken houses, including maintenance and upgrades. Most growers have sizable mortgages; a new house can cost more than $300,000.
It could be your sister next door, and if she s growing chickens, you need to beat her, says Lloyd Jones, a Perdue official who oversees 350 farms like Lou Ann s, and whose own bonuses are pegged to his growers performance.
Sheeeeewww, Lou Ann says as she repeats the first set of numbers, followed by a glum, gol-ly day . . . okey-doke.
Gosh, Mom, says son Thomas, who favors Daniel Boone hats and runs the front-end loader to move chicken manure around.
See, even an 11-year-old knows it s bad, Lou Ann says. Bottom line? A disaster.
For the flock of 90,000 chickens that represented nearly a sixth of her work year, she made around $11,000, compared with maybe $26,000 had she been the top grower that week. What happened? The flock before was a near record setter, she says. Maybe ammonia from the chickens wastes spiked to unhealthy levels in the houses,
Chickens are never far from the automated feeder lines or metal “nipples” that deliver drinking water on demand and are raised daily as the flock gets taller.
or maybe the temperature drop that happened when a mouse chewed through a heat-controller cable went uncorrected too long. The whole modern growing process looks so scientific, so mechanized and programmed, but you re still dealing with living animals, she says.
But that was yesterday, and this morning there s work to do, school to teach Monday through Thursday in the basement and 90,000 fresh-hatched chicks arriving. It always feels good to get my flock back, Lou Ann says. There s nothing like the smell of the houses when they re just scrubbed out and disinfected, and fresh litter [wood shavings] on the floor. The night before biddies come I always lie awake, thinking about a hundred different things fans, heaters, waterers, feed lines, that one house that just won t stay warm in one end. She s told a water line is leaking in House 2 and strides off to fix it.
The incoming flock which could be grilling on a patio in Washington in six weeks has been hatching since midnight at Delmarva Roaster Hatchery #3 near Salisbury. The fertile eggs came by truck from a breeder farm in West Virginia. For most of the last 21 days, Jamesway incubator machines have rotated them hourly in high heat and humidity, doing pretty much what a brooding hen does, except the Jamesways can handle about three-quarters of a million eggs at a time. Not until the 20th century did technology surpass that of ancient Egypt, where wood-fired ovens could handle 15,000 eggs at a time. Historians of the chicken like Page Smith and Charles Daniel think such mass food production was key to the building of the pyramids.
Trays from the incubators, holding Lou Ann s chicks and the eggs they have pecked their way out of, are placed on a moving belt where a gentle shaking separates shell from birds. The eggs go off in one direction to make pet food, and a peeping stream of golden fluff surges off in another. The little poofs spill onto an intensely lit circular table surrounded by 14 skilled chicken sexers who divine which will grow up to be a rooster and which will be a hen. At the rate of nearly a chick a second per sexer, males are plucked from the belt and tossed into the table s center; females go on an outer belt. Passing through automatic chick counters, they stream in separate but equal batches of 100 to fill bright-colored plastic trays yellow for boys, blue for girls.
Which came first, chicken or egg, is open to debate, but equally confounding for most of the chicken s 5,000 years of domestication was telling its sex without waiting months for distinguishing features to emerge. Ideally, you want to know that before you waste lots of time and feed raising guys to lay eggs or girls who take forever to plump up into the robust roaster-type chickens in demand these days. Without early sex determination, today s poultry industry would be far more difficult.
Like most birds, roosters don t have penises. Mating proceeds vent to vent or, as some say, by cloacal kiss. Aristotle taught that longer eggs usually produced males. Pliny two centuries later preached the opposite. Both were wrong, but even now, no one s any better at telling sex before hatching. Ads for bogus sex detectors so abounded during the early 20th century that the Postal Service excluded them from the mails. Then in 1925, Japanese researcher Kiyoshi Masui proved that male chicks did have a copulatory eminence, though a mighty subtle one. To recognize it you had to look hard and recognize a lot of subtle variations. By 1938 the American Chick Sexing Association was operating training schools, though the demanding profession was to remain mostly with Asians (Japanese sexers were given special releases from WWII internment camps).
Lou Ann's flock undergoes no such indignity of having its hind ends probed. Most of today s birds, geneticist David Pollock explains, are bred to exhibit uneven wingtip feathers in females and even ones in males. Sexers today work faster and cheaper. The poultry companies can tell you precisely how much cheaper 4½ pennies per chick
Megan Rieley looks over the current flock of 90,000 – about two days away from market – that stretches as far as the eye can see in the family’s three chicken houses.
to sex the old way versus just seven-tenths of a cent with feather sexing.
The delivery bus, one of two bound for the Rieleys today, is loaded with her first 75,000 chicks. These half-day-old passengers weigh less than an ounce apiece. In the next month and a half they will multiply that about 65 times. Wild birds, whose evolutionary dictate is get big or get eaten, actually gain weight faster to a point but the modern chicken keeps on gaining and gaining. Six weeks from now the bus s few thousand pounds of fluff will weigh more than a quarter of a million pounds.
At that point they will fill Lou Ann s three houses, a chicken to every ten-inch square of floor throughout the metal-roofed structures; at 500 feet long, you can barely see from one end to another. To most people, a modern chicken house looks about as interesting as dirt. But it s no less critical to pushing the limits of the chicken than the sexier feats of the geneticists. The typical house of even five decades ago was by comparison a shed, not fundamentally different from first-century Roman chicken coops.
At Lou Ann's, long lines of automated feeders and rows of metal nipples that deliver drinking water on demand stretch into the dusty distance. No chicken will be more than ten feet from fresh feed and water. The drinking lines are raised daily as the flock gets taller, maintaining a 45-degree neck angle that facilitates efficient sipping. Heat is programmed to track a gently decreasing path as the growing chickens increasingly crowd the house. Mammoth fans can pull a gale of wind through the house to cool it and maintain air quality. Fluorescent lights burn 22 hours a day to encourage steady feeding. The open architecture of the modern house has made it possible to confront one of the most brutish and intractable obstacles to getting a chicken to market; more in a moment on this.
The chicks are settling in nicely, instinctively pecking at the water nipples and the crumble, their finely ground starter feed. Feed is 65 percent of the cost of raising a chicken, and while the bulk of it is corn and soybeans, poultry companies always are tinkering with a range of vitamins, amino acids, and other additives to either cut costs or boost weight gains. Recently they've hit on a win-win by adding phytase. It s an enzyme that lets chickens extract more of the nutritious phosphorus in feed. This in turn cuts their excretion of phosphorus, whose runoff from manure into Chesapeake Bay is a pollution concern.
What is never in the feed of chickens? Growth hormones. They re illegal and haven t been used for more than 50 years. Companies have also cut back sharply on the use of antibiotics in response to concerns that human consumers might develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Lou Ann and Megan shuffle fluidly through the dense carpet of chicks to disperse them. My size-14 boots seem big as canoes among the peeps. After that last disaster I need this flock to do well, Lou Ann says, adding, If we don t do good with these, it won t be for lack of trying.
She's sharing those sentiments with Chad Carpenter, 25, her Perdue flock supervisor, who will be very much with her in this effort. His quarterly bonus is tied to the performance of flocks at Lou Ann s and 24 other farms on his watch. The bigger they grow the better, I venture, but Carpenter says the key is really to hit the uniform weights and sizes that big customers like Wal-Mart and Food Lion demand. This drives the geneticists to emphasize the shape as well as quantity of meat in designing chickens. Carpenter strives for flocks within a couple of tenths of a pound of the target weight. If he can hit that goal 75 percent of the time, he s rewarded. Last quarter I missed the bonus by one flock. Competition, it s the American way, he says wryly.
On arriving, Carpenter stopped outside the farm to spray disinfectant on his tires and don disposable Tyvek booties, bonnet, and jumpsuit. It s standard practice for chicken-house visitors, aimed at minimizing the chance of bringing disease to the farm; one could go through a closely packed flock like wildfire. He grew up on
Matthew Rieley, three, is learning his numbers the way all eleven sisters and brothers did – by counting the dead chickens the children pick up and compost daily. Here he tangles with a bird that’s very much alive.
Geneticist David Pollock helps Perdue create big elite roosters made for breeding.
a chicken farm not far from here and still hopes to build some houses of his own if the price of real estate doesn't go completely out of sight. One of his growers, he says, is putting in a 2,800-home residential development. The biggest threat to this industry s future is not a possible bird-flu pandemic but the real pandemic of development that s hitting Delmarva's farmland, says Bill Satterfield, longtime executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
From now on Lou Ann and Megan, assisted by the other Rieleys, will be in the houses morning, noon, and night. Only during Sunday church is the farm unattended, and Lou Ann can dial up the status of all systems by phone. Carpenter will be a frequent caller, analyzing ammonia levels, water and feed consumption, and temperature charts and probing the litter to assess the consistency and color of the chickens poop, which tells him how well they are converting feed into meat. He will also check the kids daily counts of dead and culls, chickens that weren't thriving and had to be dispatched by a quick and, I am assured, painless cervical dislocation. Total mortality in a healthy flock this size typically runs around 4 percent, some 3,600 chickens. I really hate killing em, Megan says, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
As long as they don t suffer, Lou Ann adds. I think about this a lot, because the Lord gives us animals to keep, and that makes us responsible.
It s almost March. The swamp maples are blushing and wild tundra swans are aloft, headed to Alaskan breeding grounds. The chicks, who will never reach sexual maturity, are looking like chickens, the broad-breasted conformation for which they've been bred emerging. They have just been vaccinated against disease and are sluggish, not eating or drinking well. To stir them up, Lou Ann nicely coiffed and in dust-caked jeans, flannel shirt, and muddy boots is whooping and hollering and flapping and clapping her way through the house. If it is possible to look both the model and the farmer, she does. YEEEEEWWW-HAAAAW! Such a performance, she recalls, brought her 11th child on early.
Carpenter and his boss, Lloyd Jones, have brought a new toy, a $19,000 infrared scanner to pinpoint where more insulation might boost performance of Lou Ann s houses. Chickens that are too hot or too cold are chickens that are not putting on all the meat they can. Not everything is so high-tech, Lou Ann says. Listen, hear that high-pitched whistle, like a sniffle almost, she says, pausing in the end of one house. I can t. It took me two or three years before I could, she says. It can be an indication of lung and trachea problems; my dad could just walk in a house and say, just like that, They got this, They got that.
Megan, who always shadows Carpenter, says confidently: We ll make some money on these birds, won't we.
They're looking good, he says, but we won t know until they move. Little factors, Carpenter says, many uncontrollable, can make a difference. If the weekend coming up warms as promised, Lou Ann can run her fans to improve air quality, which will make a difference in how much feed and weight the flock will pick up.
Lou Ann says, I hope so, because I'm feeling just a little desperate right now. The infrared scanner told her she needs to spend thousands of dollars on new insulation. I need new nipples too, for the waterers. Ideally, she should spend, she says, around $60,000 to bring her three houses up to snuff that s on top of her $3,000 to $4,000 monthly mortgage payments and about $100,000 she has spent on previous upgrades over the years. Since the last flock, she continues, I put the electric bill on the credit card. And by the way, her husband, John, the one who doesn't do chickens, was laid off this week after 23 years with the same company. She and John have been working on franchises for mobile coffee kiosks, which are almost ready to roll. They will weather this, but it s an anxious time. Her father, Edward, who lives next door, recalls that in heat waves, you d set up blocks of ice and fans blowing across em and hope for the best.
Now it s almost spring and time for what the industry terms movement. Despite efforts to make it more humane, this next 12 to 24 hours in the life of a broiler, as meat chickens are called, remains a lightning rod for animal-rights activists and other critics of industrial poultry raising. People and chickens have both left the farm, says Mike Morris, poultry health and welfare manager for Yum! Brands, whose KFC and other franchises serve a billion pounds of chicken a year in the United States. The disconnect, he says, lends itself to negative perceptions of animal agriculture a risk that makes the extraordinary access Perdue granted for this story a rarity.
The catchers come to the Rieleys around 3 am. Sometimes Lou Ann has a sausage breakfast for them. I love to watch them work the house, see their rhythms, hear their talk, she says. On any given night, thousands of them are fanned out across Delmarva, gathering in the feathered harvest.
Theirs is undoubtedly the worst job in the whole industry, says Paul Siegel, a poultry researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute for 50 years. A lot of study and money have gone to automating transport of broilers from thousands of scattered farms to centralized processing plants. But it s still mostly done the old-fashioned way pay guys to pick them up, millions every week, one bird at a time. It's total immersion in flapping, squawking, scratching, pecking chickens, dust too thick to breathe without a mask, work too hard and sweaty to stand wearing one. As
Chicken catchers, thought to have the worst jobs in the industry, arrive in the dead of night. Over and over, they stoop to pick up the chickens and carry four struggling birds in each hand to cages.
Once at the processing plant in Delaware, chickens are on a continuous conveyer belt from killing to cleaning, shown here, to shipping. Most of the work is done by machines.
for your back and knees by the end of the day? Try stooping and coming up quickly with 15 to 18 pounds in each hand. Do it a thousand times, and do it fast, because you re getting paid by the chicken, not by the clock. I caught chickens during Maryland summers in high school and in California when I was a college dropout (only Mexicans do that job, said the employment office in Los Angeles). It s work that gets under your skin. When I d go back to school, no matter how many hot baths I d take, classmates for days would sniff and wonder where that smell was coming from.
The crew at Lou Ann's are total pros; stooping, plunging gloved hands deep into white drifts of massed chickens, arising magically in a few seconds with four struggling birds head-down in each hand. A house man thumps the walls and shakes stones inside a Clorox jug to keep the panicky chickens from mobbing up and smothering.
The job's gotten more efficient and easier on man and chicken since I did it 40 years ago. Modern houses can be kept much more ventilated and closed so daylight doesn't make the birds go bonkers. And you can drive machinery through today s big houses. We used to carry our chickens to a truck outside, where the birds were roughly handed up and jammed into wooden coops. Now a forklift follows the catchers, bringing and removing cages into which they slide the birds. The crew of seven catchers fills a tractor-trailer with 7,000 chickens every 45 minutes. They will pick up 40,000 to 60,000 chickens before their shift ends.
Today's catchers are better trained than we were and constantly evaluated to minimize bruising and breakage among the chickens they catch. But for labor, economic, and animal-welfare reasons, the Holy Grail for poultry companies remains a machine that can automate catching to match most other phases of the industry. Perdue tried years ago, but the machines couldn't take it, couldn't keep up . . . the dust, the corrosion, breakdowns; our crew'd catch two loads to every one for the machine, recalls David Marshall, 42, a compact man with the effortlessly firm handshake that comes from picking up 2 million chickens a year for the last 25 years. Perdue says it is constantly testing new mechanized options.
And the machines are getting better take it from Ron Stuckey, who sells the Italian-designed, Mississippi-built Chickat, a creation resembling the moon lander. At about 50 feet long, all stainless and galvanized aluminum, the $200,000 Chickat features a 20-foot boom that moves through the house, sweeping side to side like an unearthly hunting dog casting for scent. A whirling storm of soft, rubber fingers on rotating drums at the boom s business end gathers the birds onto a belt that conveys them into cages, ready for trucking to slaughter. Sure, a motivated hand-catching crew will beat the socks off the machine at first they got pride, they want to beat that thing, Stuckey says. But the day goes on and it's John Henry and the steam drill all over again. The crew gets tired; the machine just keeps on catching. Across the country, 63 Chickats are catching 5 million birds a day, Stuckey says.
Also driving automation is a consensus among animal-welfare groups that machine catching is more humane. In turn they have pressured McDonald's, Yum! Brands, and other big buyers to demand machine-caught birds. Longtime poultry researchers like Yvonne Vizzier-Thaxton and her husband, J. Paul, of Mississippi State University have looked at everything from stress hormones, blood pH, bacterial levels, and meat quality in birds caught each way. The conclusions: A machine, if operated optimally, is a tad better, but in neither case are the chickens happy. If something 40 times bigger than you came in and picked you up and carried you off, wouldn't you
It takes about 25 minutes for a live chicken to be processed and packaged.
be scared? Vizzier-Thaxton says. No one argues catching isn't stressful; it just is.
The last truckload heads out Lou Ann s lane in morning sunshine: Be on your supermarket shelf tomorrow, says Lloyd Jones. The time has come to take apart what the geneticists, the nutritionists, the hatcheries, and the grower have assembled. The nearby complex where Lou Ann s chickens go can kill, pluck, eviscerate, cut up, and shrink-wrap her flock of 90,000 in less than eight hours.
The birds, still in cages from the truck, enter a chamber dimly lit with red lamps to keep them as calm as possible. Workers, who get premium pay for this job, hang them upside down by their feet in shackles on a moving line, which pulls them into a warm-water bath where a mild electrical current stuns them. An auto-killing apparatus positions the moving, unconscious birds for a precise cut to the neck that opens veins and arteries to encourage blood drain but leaves the head on, spinal cord intact. This minimizes pain and struggling, veterinarians say.
The chicken plants where I worked, typical a few decades ago, were less humane. We slit live birds throats by hand, and not always well. The birds often went, still conscious, into the hot-water tanks that loosen their feathers for picking. None of us were people who would willingly inflict pain on a dog, cat, or pet chicken, but there we were. I have read papers comparing the mass slaughter of meat animals to the Holocaust. I'm not on that side philosophically, but I do think of how easy it is to become uncaring once a group of animals or humans is seen as nameless, without individuality or personality. I know a Chesapeake waterman who caught diamondback terrapins for a living. I asked him to pose for a photograph with a big, old female, probably 40 years old. He did, reluctantly, then said: Now you've done it I've got to throw this one back. I knew once I looked er in the eye that was gonna happen. He put it back in the water, and off he went to market in his skiff, loaded down with a couple of hundred other terrapins.
Slaughter systems continue to improve. A gas process used in Europe and by one small US company renders chickens unconscious before they are hung for killing. It s almost the consensus among poultry scientists that this results in better welfare, says Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, which is suing to expand the use of gas.
After a three-minute scald water hot enough to loosen feathers but not to blanch their skin the dead chickens enter the ear-splitting, steamy confines of the picking room. Seldom seen but key to the whole operation, it reminds one of the boiler room in the bowels of a great ship.
Two attendants constantly adjust long rows of roaring, rattling machines, each big as a pickup truck. These lash the chickens from hocks (ankles) to neck with thousands of corrugated rubber fingers, defeathering even the hardest-to-reach crevices with improbable delicacy. Twin lines of glistening, golden chickens whiz out into the main plant at a bird every half a second. A machine slices them off the line, cutting cleanly through their hocks, then automatically rehanging the birds by their drumsticks on another moving line. Long rows of golden feet march off in another direction, bound for China as chicken paws, a chewy snack.
Since the 1950s the processing industry talked about its automated plants, and these were marvels in comparison with the old New York dressed chickens sent to market with heads, feet, and guts all intact. But until the 1980s, most plants just had moving lines of chickens along which dozens and dozens of workers still performed by hand every minute job slitting throats, sucking lungs, scooping viscera, extracting crops and windpipes, snipping off such marketable organs as hearts, livers, gizzards;
Chickens can be on the dinner table a day after they leave the farm.
carving wings, drumsticks, breasts, backs. No more. About 80 percent fewer workers now staff the lines, and most of them are just backing up machines, says Rod Flagg, who manages Purdue s Georgetown, Delaware, plant. In the embrace of all this latest machinery of evisceration and disassembly, the chickens at times appear Borglike, half flesh, half steel.
Quality control, however, gets almost obsessive human attention in comparison with the operations I knew as a kid we d soak chickens overnight in ice water to disguise bruises. Each eviscerated chicken glides past multiple inspectors, its brightly colored entrails moving with it on a separate belt. The birds are checked for bruises, cuts, color, and other imperfections, while their viscera are examined for disease. When Perdue is running its premier Oven Stuffer Roasters through the plant, only about half are deemed good-looking enough to sell whole the rest are sold as parts. In one corner of the plant is a group of women in red hats, over whom Flagg says I have absolutely no control. . . don t even talk to them. They work for corporate quality assurance and are authorized to pull chicken products from all sectors of the plant, grading them from a thick book of specs for everything from fat scraps in the meat to unattractive wrapping. The women post results continually on a big bulletin board in full view of the plant. Supervisors are expected to watch it and make immediate corrections.
Serial numbers coded on boxes of shipped poultry allow tracing of complaints back from consumer to the time and place of processing. From living bird to oven-ready has taken about 25 minutes; the chickens then spend two more hours in an ice bath, cooling to shipping temperature. I suspect it took about 25 minutes for a farm wife to ax and pick a chicken for Sunday dinner in times past but this place does about a million a week.
How far can it go? It s the question I ask the geneticist, David Pollock, about pushing the frontiers of more and cheaper chicken meat. Cloning, I ve already learned, would be stupid because that would end mutation and the constant gains the industry demands. If we extrapolated the weight gains of recent decades into the future, one of these breeder chicks in another few decades would be five pounds at birth, he says. Of course you d need an egg the size of a dinosaur's.
Pollock picks up one of the huge roosters at the breeding farm, palpating its broad undersides. Good, he can mate well, he says of the fowl's flat belly. They are kept on a restricted diet here to keep them from growing too big and breasty to mate efficiently. (Turkeys long ago succumbed to this and are all artificially inseminated. The sheer numbers of chickens make that prospect uneconomic.)
You won't see Elvis and his compatriots in commercial chicken houses like Lou Ann's, Pollock explains. The breeders here represent four pure lines (two male, two female), which will eventually be crossed to produce the full range of traits desired in commerce. The gains Elvis represents will work down through five generations from thousands of these elites to hundreds of millions of great-great-grandchildren, which will be in Lou Ann s house four or five years from now. The gains from any one generation of top breeders, whose working life is about a year, are incremental, Pollock says maybe half a day faster to kill weight, maybe half a percent better at converting feed to meat. But even that tiny a gain in feed conversion is worth $3 million to the company, he says.
Five-pound chicks won t happen, but the modern chicken continues to show an ability to mutate at a rate that has surprised scientists. Virginia Tech's Paul Siegel began an experiment 50 years ago, selecting for bigger and smaller birds in the same flock. Forty-nine generations later, they have diverged in size tenfold but have not plateaued in their progress. The chicken is just an amazingly adaptable, compatible beast, Siegel says. It doesn t fly away, doesn t migrate. We ve bred chickens with 15-foot-long tails, chickens that crow from two to 20 seconds and everywhere in between. From thousands of years ago they were just easy to keep. On top of that, Pollock adds, there are fewer religious biases, worldwide, against eating chickens than almost any other animal.
And chickens, modern derogations notwithstanding, are fundamentally courageous. Historians Page and Daniel are emphatic that despite its egg and meat production, what really spread the jungle fowl and its heirs worldwide early in human history was cockfighting. . . the most universal sport known to man. Humans have been ingenious in transforming the chicken, but the real genius lies with the bird itself.
There's a lonely counterpoint to the efficiency of America s poultry prowess located near Machipongo, Virginia, just down the road from two of Delmarva s biggest processing plants. In a small, sunny barnyard ringed with chicken coops, Karen Davis camps in the heart of enemy territory. Here for the last decade she has run her sanctuary for escapees and discards from the poultry meat and egg industries and borne witness on behalf of the chicken. She is founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, an animal-rights group with 11,000 members. Last May UPC organized International Respect for Chickens Day to celebrate the dignity, beauty, and life of chickens and to protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations.
Of the modern chicken's life, she says, It doesn't get any worse: raised in a dark, stinking world, no mothers, no sunshine, total terror of catching, killing . . . this is what we ve done to a wild jungle fowl.
A PhD in English, she has written several books: Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs and The Holocaust and the Henmaid s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.
Karen Davis is as wedded to her flock as Lou Ann Rieley is to her s. The number of birds here has numbered as high as 123, but right now it s about 85 every one an individual. There s Bonnie Brown and Rebecca, former caged egg layers, and Hamilton, a bantam-cochin mix with fancy
Karen Davis, who decries the bleakness of a broiler’s life, runs a sanctuary for escaped and discarded birds.
feathered feet. Then there is Victor, a huge broiler rooster found abandoned in a parking lot. Victor is Elvis in old age, though he s not that old. His skeleton can t support his bulk, and he quivers with the effort of just standing to eat. It s okay, it's okay, Davis murmurs as she props him up. Birds like this get old awful fast; they were never bred for the long run, she says. Should she euthanize him? I can't, as long as they can enjoy the food, the breeze, and the sun and they have each other, she says, referring to Eloise and Amanda, two crippled broiler hens who seldom leave Victor's side.
It is remarkable, Davis says, how quickly the birds revert to nature despite being bred for generations to maximize egg or meat production: They take dust baths, perch in trees, or try to, bathe in the sun, eat green grass, and socialize. Anyone who argues they are adapted to captivity in the modern broiler house should come here and watch how joyfully they rush outside each morning. She often cites the work of Australian avian researcher Lesley Rogers, who has devised experiments to test for intelligence in chickens and has written, I am convinced chickens are not animals that should be kept in mentally and socially deprived conditions. They are as complex as the cats and dogs we share our homes with and should not be looked upon as bird brains.
DPI's Bill Satterfield says there s not a whole lot he could say to Davis it s a philosophical difference, and she wants to deny consumers the right to eat meat. He argues that it would make no economic sense for his industry to keep birds stressed and suffering, which would diminish performance and profits.
The dogwoods on the way to Lou Ann's are glorious. A warm, late April wind sweeps across flat fields of barley and wheat. Shad and striped bass are pushing up the peninsula s tidal rivers to spawn. New chicks have arrived. Her houses recently got a total crustout, she says, a removal of manure-laden litter down to the bare floor, which Perdue does every couple of years. It filled around 35 tractor-trailers with 1.4 million pounds of waste this from just a few of the region s thousands of poultry houses.
More manure was a godsend in poultry s early days. Added to Delmarva's sandy soils, it raised corn yields from 25 to as much as 80 bushels per acre. But now it s way too much of a good thing. While Delmarva is a small poultry-growing region in relation to Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama, nowhere is poultry and poultry manure more concentrated than in the four Delmarva counties of Sussex, Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset. Farm fields, especially as more sprout houses, can t handle it all, and the resulting runoff is implicated in pollution of both the Chesapeake and oceanside bays. Growers contracts stipulate that the manure produced by the chickens is all theirs. Perdue has recently invested millions in a state-of-the art plant to turn the chicken litter into organic fertilizer pellets. That s where much of Lou Ann's goes; Thank God they take it, she says. But the plant handles less than 30 percent of the region's manure, and pressure continues to build for a broader solution.
So how did the Rieleys do on the last flock? I'm almost afraid to ask. Much better than the disaster previous but not as well as hoped, Lou Ann says. Seated at their big kitchen table, she and John calculate they made about 15 cents a chicken. John, who worked until recently for a wholesale food company, says of it, We d sell those same chickens for about $2.50 apiece, and a restaurant would sell them for about $6.25 apiece. Just another nickel a chicken on our end would make such a difference.
It s pretty clear she ll have to spend thousands on new watering equipment, Lou Ann says. Leaks are wetting the litter and causing stressful ammonia levels. We've got avian flu staring us in the face, got electricity going through the roof, but we ll spend the money; we've got to, she says. Megan talks about the newest model chicken houses some growers are getting 666 feet long by 66 feet wide, they will hold 65,000 chickens each, she says approvingly: Big investment $315,000 but the cash flow is good.
Lou Ann says the new biddies need checking before she reconvenes school for the afternoon. On the way out she says: This flock looks real good.
Author's note: In early August, Lou Ann Rieley switched her grower's relationship from Perdue to Allen Family Foods.
Tom Horton is a former environmental writer for the Baltimore Sun and author of six books and many magazine articles on the Chesapeake Bay. He has raised chickens himself and once helped start a chicken farm in Ethiopia.