Chickens are by far the most farmed animal in Canada. The total number of chickens in Canada is estimated at 145.5 million (meat and egg-laying chickens). Chickens that are raised for meat are called broiler chickens. There are over 2,000 broiler chicken farms across Canada.
Life of a broiler chicken
Broiler chickens start their life at the hatchery. Hatcheries produce fertilized eggs that will develop and hatch into baby chicks. These chicks are then sold to a poultry farmer who raises the chicks until they are ready for human consumption.
These chickens have been bred to grow very big very quickly (especially their breast muscles), and most reach slaughter weight at just six to eight weeks old. Today, in only eight weeks’ time, a broiler chicken can put on over four times as much weight as the same strain of bird did in the 1950’s.
Broiler chickens are different from their leaner, slower growing cousin: the egg-laying chicken (also called a ‘laying hen’). By comparison, laying hens live to be one to two years of age before they are sent to slaughter, although the poorer quality meat from layer birds is typically only used for soups or in pet foods.
What are the main concerns for broiler chicken welfare?
Broiler chickens have been bred to grow as quickly as possible; over four times as fast as they did only 50 years ago. While faster growth means more efficient meat production and more birds raised in the same amount of time, it comes at a painful cost to the birds. With such a focus on rapid growth, especially in the breast muscles, these top-heavy birds may get to the point where their legs can no longer support their body weight, leading to lameness. They suffer from breast blisters, leg and feet deformities that may eventually lead to death.
- Feather pecking and cannibalism
While the causes of feather pecking and cannibalism are not clear, it is known that these behaviours cause pain and distress to affected birds. A variety of factors are thought to influence this behaviour, including high stocking density, inability to perform natural behaviours, and poor air quality or lighting programs.
Broiler chickens are often raised in large barns with artificially controlled lighting and ventilation. Unlike egg-laying hens, chickens raised for meat in Canada are never housed in cages. In other words, all broiler chickens are cage-free and free run. However, even without cages, broiler chickens are often overcrowded. High stocking densities make it almost impossible for chickens to express their instinctive, natural behaviours like scratching, dustbathing and foraging.
- Air and litter quality
Indoor housing of broiler chickens can lead to issues regarding poor air and litter quality that are not seen in natural outdoor environments. Dust, humidity, temperature and ammonia all impact air and litter quality. When quality is poor, it can cause various respiratory issues and poor foot health.
Many chickens die while being trucked from farm to slaughter. Death by heat exhaustion or even freezing to death are far too common. Those birds that survive the journey are hungry, thirsty, crowded, dirty and wet after the long and arduous trip. How to safely transport thousands of birds at once is an ongoing problem for conventional farms. Learn more about farm animal transport.
Support a better life for broiler chickens
By choosing higher-welfare food products, you can help broiler chickens lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them. Learn more about shopping for higher-welfare chicken products.
We are always working to build a better future for farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for farm animals by taking action.
- Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Chickens, Turkeys and Breeders
- Fun facts about chickens!
- Caring for backyard chickens
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