Hatcheries Overview

Chickens, like all birds, start life in the dark comfort of the egg. In a natural setting, once the mother hen lays a clutch of eggs, she dotes upon her unhatched offspring, warming them with her body, turning the eggs throughout the day, and even verbally communicating with the chicks through the eggshell. When the chicks hatch, they imprint on their mother, following her and looking to her for guidance. The hen shows her precocious chicks how to find food, teaches them about the social setting of the flock, protects them from predators, and keeps them warm under her wings.

The vast majority of chickens in the United States today never knew their mothers. Instead, they hatched in a drawer filled with other hatching chicks in the austere and mechanized setting of the industrial hatchery. Their parents, kept as breeding stock, lived in confinement. They may have been bred through artificial insemination.

Once they leave the protected confines of the shell, chicks are thrust into a whirlwind of automated and human sorting, first the eggshells, late hatchers, and sickly chicks from the fluffy, healthy ones; then the males from the females. Chickens destined for the egg industry or for sale through catalogs are sexed as they jostle along the conveyor belt. Male chicks, who cannot produce eggs and will not grow large enough to produce meat – backyard chicken fanciers generally do not want roosters either – are disposed of. Some hatcheries throw male chicks and those with injuries or deformities into a macerator, a machine that grinds them up to be used as pet food, fertilizer, or even chicken food. Other hatcheries simply throw unwanted chicks into trash bags or dumpsters to suffocate.

The newly hatched chicks are handled roughly throughout this process, more like objects than like infants, dropped from conveyor belt to conveyor belt, tossed into one category or another. Chicks that fall off the line may be trampled by workers’ feet or hosed into the drain with the rest of the garbage.

Depending on their ultimate destination, surviving chicks are generally vaccinated, via either a fine mist or an injection, and may be debeaked. Sometimes called “beak trimming,” this process involves removing the end third or more of the chick’s beak, generally via a hot blade; however other methods include cold blade infrared, electrical, and laser removal. Debeaking is meant to reduce injuries in intensive confinement, particularly in the egg industry, where frustration, boredom, and misdirected foraging attempts can lead to feather picking and even cannibalism. However, chickens and other birds have extremely sensitive beaks that they use to explore the world, find and pick up food, groom themselves, and interact with their flockmates. The debeaking blade cuts through the nerve-rich beak with neither anesthetic nor pain management; the subsequent acute and chronic pain causes some chicks to stop eating and die. Severely debeaked chickens may have trouble eating and preening themselves throughout their lives.

Chicks destined for small farms, feed stores, and backyard hobbyists are routinely shipped through the mail as day-old youngsters. Chicks absorb the yolk of the egg before hatching, and hatcheries take advantage of this boost of nourishment, shipping chicks without food or water. Unfortunately, chicks can be exposed to temperature extremes, abandoned at the post office, or handled roughly in the shipping process. Hatcheries often include extra chicks—often unwanted males—in orders as “packing peanuts,” with the expectation that some chicks will die en route.


Mail Order Peeps

By: Susie Coston, National Shelter Director, Farm Sanctuary

Hatcheries ship day-old birds through the postal service without any legal oversight. During journeys as long as 72 hours, these chicks are deprived of food and water and are exposed to extremes in temperature. As Dr. Jean Cypher, a veterinarian specializing in avian medicine notes, “A day-old chick can no more withstand three days in a dark crowded box than can any other newborn.” Other experts in avian medicine and behavior agree that transporting day-old chicks in boxes for the first 24 to 72 hours of life is cruel and medically detrimental to the birds. We know from past rescues just how detrimental, and, in fact, fatal this practice can be.

In early January 2013, a box was mailed from a business in Texas. The package was supposed to be delivered to a location in Alabama, but it was addressed incorrectly and traveled nearly a thousand extra miles to Washington, D.C. It sat unclaimed in the post office until postal workers realized that something was amiss and contacted local animal control. Inside the box were more than 100 newborn chicks. 

In 2005 we witnessed a similar situation involving mail-order chicks, although, in this case, the peeps were refused at the post office. By the time the local SPCA was called, more than half of the tiny birds were dead. These hatcheries mail out millions of chicks a year. These hatcheries are not farms, but instead warehouses full of incubators. Chicks that are sent through the mail are doomed if the purchaser decides they don’t want them or if there is a mistake in labeling or shipping. Returning them through the mail would mean certain death. These chicks are at an age where they must remain in a climate-controlled environment, and they are shipped with no food or water in their boxes. And there is no farm to return to.

In both cases where we stepped in to help these chicks, some had already perished. In the 2005 case, more than half of the babies died due to exposure. The label on this box stated that it contained 50 white Jersey Giant hens and 50 black Jersey Giant hens, but the contents of the box were actually very different.  In this case, 27 roosters and 25 hens survived from a total of 125 birds. We have not attempted to sex the chicks from our most recent rescue, but some are already showing the telltale signs of being roosters.

Every day boxes packed with newborn chicks are sent through the postal service heading to vendors, farmers, and hobbyists large and small. These mail-order businesses use similar shipping practices, and their websites boast more than a million chicks mailed this year — meaning more than a million chicks who are handled callously and mailed like inanimate objects to destinations throughout the United States. Those who buy chicks online, from catalogues, or at feed stores support the very same types of facilities that supply large egg producers. The chick business is not an alternative to the factory farming industry, it is part of it — and it’s characterized by the same cruel practices.

These businesses cannot sex the birds while they are still in the eggs, and they have very few orders for roosters. Male chicks are, for the most part, considered useless by hatcheries that supply egg-laying chickens. Most males are killed within a day of emerging from their eggs after being sexed. Common methods of disposal include gassing chicks; stuffing chicks into plastic bags and throwing them into dumpsters, where they die slowly of suffocation or exposure; electrocution; and tossing live, conscious chicks into a macerating machine that grinds them into pulp for fertilizer. Because the sexual distribution of hatched chicks is roughly fifty–fifty, any purchase of female chicks represents the death of an equal number of male chicks.

Chicks are sexed at hatching, but this is not an exact science and many male chicks are misidentified as female. These survivors seldom fare well and are shipped to customers who do not want roosters or cannot legally keep them. Others rooster chicks are added to boxes of hens and used as a kind of packing material to fill up empty space in the boxes and ensure fewer deaths during the shipping process. Hundreds of male chickens are dumped at municipal shelters, where they are typically euthanized, and hundreds more are abandoned to contend with harsh weather, starvation, and predators. Many roosters are given to farms to be killed for meat, dumped in parks or on city streets to fend for themselves, or taken to area dog and cat shelters, where many are destroyed due to a lack of available homes. Farm Sanctuary and other shelters field dozens of rooster placement requests every month, more than any rescue network could hope to accommodate.

Hatcheries, like other factory farming businesses, are not interested in expending time or cost to protect the well being of these animals. Because they “produce” chicks on such a large scale, it is cheaper for them simply to replace sick, injured, or dead animals than to prevent illness, injury, and death in the first place. Suppliers offer guarantees to replace chicks who have died during transport or add a few extras to the shipment to account for the probable “losses.” Whether or not mail-order chicks survive shipping, it is an awful experience inflicted upon them during their very first days of life.

The single most important way to stop this practice is to educate the public. The majority of people we speak to don’t know that these hatcheries exist or that it is legal to ship live animals through the postal system. Today, there are many farm animal sanctuaries across the United States and most have an abundance of hens who need homes, so adoption is a much better source for chicken companions. Removing eggs from your diet is, of course, a powerful step toward eliminating these practices.

Of all the many chicks we have rescued from hatcheries, one of the most outstanding roosters I have had the pleasure of meeting came from the 2005 rescue of the Jersey Giant peeps. His name was Fennel, and from the first day we met him we knew there was something very special about him. He was a friendly peep — a tiny black and yellow marshmallow-sized fuzz ball who grew into a very curious and sweet, shiny black rooster.

With this group, it soon became evident that we had many roosters. We separated the males and females because the hens appeared to be the source of fights between the roosters. Once Fennel was in a group of roosters, however, he was picked on by his male companions. 

One big fight during the winter months landed Fennel in our hospital and eventually in the treatment room, where he became a friend to all who entered. He loved nothing more than sharing lunch with a caregiver — he would hop in the air to grab a piece of a sandwich or sit on the desk attempting to drink out of a water glass or sip some soup. In spring, he loved to go on rounds with caregivers, following them from barn to barn, but he never entered an area that housed another rooster. 

We finally found the perfect spot for Fennel on our main farm. Fennel joined a flock of chickens who lived with our turkeys. His hens adored him, being the gentle, kind rooster that he was, and guests were thrilled to be able to hold a rooster in their lap, sometimes for an hour or more, and stroke his beautiful plumage. He loved children and adults alike and never showed a bit of aggression towards humans. Even the turkeys loved this amazing boy.

Heart disease took the life of our big-hearted boy, and his loss was felt by everyone who had met him—guests and caregivers alike. He charmed the world and educated people not only about the plight of roosters born to hatcheries but also about what amazing beings roosters really are. 


Excerpt from Undercover Investigator’s Field Notes, Mercy For Animals Investigation of Hy-Line Hatcheries Facility, 2009

May 26, 2009

About 10 times today, we found live chicks in egg carts pulled from incubation rooms. At the order of one of our foremen, we placed these chicks in baskets with eggs and then sent the baskets into other incubation rooms. No water or food was given to these newly hatched chicks.

May 27, 2009

I saw a bloody chick on the floor slowly twitching and breathing. I asked a worker if the chick would live, and he told me to throw it away. Like every day, dozens of chicks from broken eggs were left to die in trashcans.

I helped clean the "separator," a machine that separates chicks from pieces of hatched eggshell. Baskets full of chicks are set onto a conveyor to move towards a rotating arm. The arm turns the baskets 90 degrees so that the chicks fall onto a conveyor made of rolling metal bars and then through to another conveyor of rolling metal bars. Un-hatched eggs and pieces of eggshell fall beneath the chicks. The chicks are then dropped about eight inches down to another conveyor that dumps them about another eight inches down to a third conveyor that runs them into the “sexing” room.

I asked a worker about the dead chicks in an eggshell collection bin of the separator. "Are those bad ones and dead ones, or some of them just fall in it?" She responded, "Some of them get on the floor and get wet and then they're no good. And those that were dumped down there were probably just dead ones that were stuck in the trays. That end of the machine is for washing the trays...if they're stuck in there, they get washed out and that's how come they're in there."

May 28, 2009

I saw one live chick, who appeared to have fluffy, dry feathers, stuck in the separator. She stood a couple inches from a conveyor of rolling metal bars and centimeters from a turning sprocket. I asked a cleaning worker, "If there's any live ones left in there, do I just knock 'em out?" She said, "Yeah, just spray 'em out."

May 29, 2009

Near the separator I saw a soaked chick struggling on the wet concrete floor, unable to stand.

While washing the separator room with a coworker, I found a wet chick on the floor, who was slightly moving and breathing but unable to stand, and another live chick, lying soaked among several dead bodies and pieces of eggshell in a collection bin, feebly moving his body and seemingly also unable to stand.

June 1, 2009

A worker instructed me to go through the baskets of female chicks by brushing my hand through them, looking for chicks that couldn’t walk, were deformed, or had obvious signs of injury. These were set aside and left overnight before being put in a grinder – many while still alive and conscious – the following morning. I never saw food, water, or veterinary care provided to these chicks.

I watched workers "sex birds." They quickly picked up the chicks and examined their wings tips. Female chicks have feathers of alternating lengths at the tips of their wings, while male chicks’ feathers are a uniform length at the tips of their wings. Workers then hastily tossed them into one of two different chutes, sending the males and females onto separate conveyors. Male chicks fell flailing, kicking and chirping off of their conveyor into a large metal grinder. I saw a bloody slush coming out of the bottom of the grinder.

Half of the chicks hatched every day are male, meaning that about 150,000 chicks are ground alive five days a week.

The plant manager told me that the ground-up male chicks were used in dog food and fertilizer.

I also observed the de-beaking stations. At each station, an employee inserts each chick's beak into one of many holes on a large panel, leaving them hanging by their heads. This de-beaking device sears the ends of their beaks, then drops the chicks into a metal chute and into plastic baskets where 100 are collected at a time. A worker explained to me that the chicks' beak tips will fall off a week after being burned.

June 2, 2009

I found two live chicks on the floor, chirping. I could only reach one, and handed the bird to a foreman who put the chick in a basket with eggs to be transferred to incubators. Chicks were hatching as we transferred the stacked egg baskets into the incubators. I saw about 15 live chicks placed in egg baskets. These baskets would remain in the incubators for three days. I did not see any food or water given to the chicks in the egg baskets.


Debeaking Machine

This video was taken at the International Poultry Expo 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia, at a booth for a debeaker company.  The company had a debeaker plugged in and set up for demonstration purposes.  Visitors could operate the foot pedal to make the hot blade come down.  The holes for different sized chick beaks are visible; a hatchery worker would insert a day-old chick's beak in the hole and the hot blade would sear and cauterize the tip off of the beak.