Are Hatcheries Humane?

Hatched at home...chick from my own fertile chicken egg.

Hatched at home…chick from my own fertile chicken egg.

Raising Humanely Treated Poultry

One of the main reasons I started raising my own poultry for meat and eggs is because I care about the humane treatment of animals. It may seem strange to hear that, as an animal lover, I raise and butcher my own birds. It isn’t an easy way to come by our meat, but at least I know exactly how the animals live their lives and how they meet their end.

Perhaps you raise poultry and other animals for the same reason. You care about their welfare and want to be sure that you are not contributing to the inhumane practices employed at factory farms and slaughterhouses. So you order chicks from hatcheries and raise them with care.

 

Ordering from Inhumane Hatcheries?

Would it surprise you to know that some of those hatcheries may be practicing less than humane treatment of their chicks? If you order pullets for laying hens, it is likely that the extra male chicks are sent (alive) through a grinder to recycle the protein in their little bodies. Now, I’m a practical person, and I’m in favor of recycling. However, these grinding machines don’t always kill the chicks immediately and they are left to suffer until they die of their injuries. This is not humane treatment of an animal. Due to the expectation in our world for cheap sources of meat, there are no requirements for chickens to be raised or killed in humane conditions.

Most hatcheries produce large numbers of chicks of all different breeds on a regular basis so that customers can place an order and have it filled in a short period of time. Some of these companies offer specials on the chicks that will hatch and have not been sold, but the rest are sent to the grinder. I hate to think that I’ve supported this practice, put in place for the convenience of customers who want their chicks next week instead of planning ahead and ordering in advance. Unfortunately I have been one of those naive customers.

If the unwanted chicks were humanely euthanized, it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much.  Some of these hatcheries have also been accused of tossing unwanted chicks into bins to die slowly from suffocation. In some cases workers have cut off their toes before sending them to the grinder. Investigators have shared footage filmed while working undercover in these hatcheries.

You might be wondering why I would be against this practice when I butcher my own chickens. It’s a justifiable question. When I raise chickens, they are given clean water, fresh food, a roomy coop, and a large pasture for the time they live on my homestead. The thought of hurting my chickens, neglecting them, or treating them as walking nuggets is a foreign concept to me. When young roosters are large enough, or older laying hens have outlived their productive years, I butcher them and our family eats the meat. I don’t find it easy to kill my chickens, but I know that I would rather eat my humanely harvested chickens than their plastic wrapped counterparts at the grocery store.

By raising my own chickens for meat and eggs, I thought I was bypassing the cruelty. I recently ordered a batch of cornish x chicks to raise for our freezer and while I waited for their arrival, I began researching the subject of inhumane practices in hatcheries for this article. While I have made it a point to only buy straight run chicks since learning of the practice of grinding male chicks, I didn’t realize that hatcheries routinely raise more chicks than they sell. I was mortified that I have been supporting this practice. It was too late to cancel my order. The chicks have arrived and I will raise them as planned, but I have decided not to order from mainstream hatcheries in the future.

This video shows the inhumane conditions at a hatchery that raises chicks for the laying hen industry. It’s pretty disturbing, so if you you are easily upset, you might not want to watch it. The group that produced this video, Mercy for Animals, is suggesting you switch to a vegan lifestyle.

I understand that the mainstream practice of raising laying hens will always produce unwanted male chicks. And I also realize that these male chicks don’t produce enough meat to justify raising them. But it doesn’t mean that I have to support the industry and it seems that there should be a better way of euthanizing these chicks. I am able to raise the eggs that I need without going to the grocery store, but most people can’t. Switching to a vegan lifestyle may work for some people, but finding locally raised eggs may be a better option for most people.

In all fairness, these conditions have been reported in huge hatcheries that raise chicks and turkey poults for the factory farms. Egg laying breeds in particular are subject to this practice. I could not find footage or reports of inhumane treatment of chicks in all hatcheries. But it stands to reason that hatcheries that do not state that they are a no kill facility are likely to grind chicks alive on a regular basis.

Humane Alternatives

There are alternatives to purchasing from the large hatcheries that kill unsold chicks. Sand Hill Preservation Center and The Poultry Hatchery both raise chicks from heritage breeds for sale to the public.

Sand Hill doesn’t raise large numbers of extra chicks. To make sure that they have enough healthy chicks to fill their orders, they do hatch out a few extras. They make these extras available for sale and advertise on their site that they are a no kill facility. Deformed or sick chicks are euthanized.

Straight Run Only

Because their facility practices a no kill approach to hatching, they are only able to sell straight run chicks in batches of 25 or more. This means that you will receive approximately 50% male and 50% female chicks when you order from them. Different breeds can be ordered to make up the 25 minimum for shipping, but you still need to do something with the extra roosters. For me, this is not a problem. I cull the extra roosters for my table and I also live on a property that is zoned agricultural, so I can keep them.

 

Buy Locally or Raise Them Yourself

Another alternative to ordering from a hatchery is to raise chicks yourself. I have a strapping young rooster, Brutus (aka ‘The Brute’) in my flock. He’s pretty darn proud of himself and will let you know who rules the roost in our barnyard. The ducks are afraid of him, the hens are somewhat tired of his ‘attentiveness’…heck, I’m a little afraid of him too! But he is very protective of his flock and most of the eggs from my hens are fertile.

If you have a broody hen, you may be able to bypass the incubator and let that ol’ gal raise her own clutch. It’s less to worry about, although some hens don’t do a good job of staying on the nest or protecting their little ones once they hatch. Be ready to intervene if you are worried about their welfare.

Not everyone can keep a rooster, but you may be able to buy fertile eggs from a local farmer to hatch in an incubator. Or you might be able to find locally raised chicks or pullets on Craigslist or another online source. Ask if they were raised as chicks purchased from hatcheries or from their own hens.

Raise Heritage Breeds

Raising heritage dual purpose breeds of chickens may not be the most efficient method of producing meat and eggs for your table. However, it will give you sizable roosters and stewing hens and delicious eggs. You will also contribute to the preservation of old world breeds that are dire need of conservation.

Although I have not made the switch to raising a flock of one heritage breed, I have decided to selectively breed my mixed flock for disease resistance and egg laying abilities. Perhaps you can do the same and join the slow food movement.

 

Do you keep chickens? Where do you purchase your chicks? Or do you raise them yourself?

 

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