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?

12 Comments on “Are Hatcheries Humane?

  1. I know you do this yourself and “humanely,” but would you kill your own child for food if they were raised properly? Or do you think of people as “more important” and “deserve to die less than animals” then that is quite arrogant. No matter how you do it, it is cruel to kill a living being. Think of Animals as equal as people and then try killing them.

    1. There is a huge difference between killing a human child and killing a chicken.

      I can never think of chickens as equal to humans.

      Do you think that eating vegetarian or vegan means that you are morally superior to those who eat meat? Vegetable based foods are grown on land that formally supported rainforests, grasslands, or other ecosystems that have been razed or clear cut to grow crops. In the process untold numbers of animals were killed to feed people.

      The difference is that I know I am responsible for the death of an animal, whereas you seem to think that you are innocent.

      I fully support your right to eat as you wish.

  2. Even though we raise meat & egg birds, I can’t watch the video. Somehow it’s different when a broiler is handled humanely than hundreds of unwanted chicks being put through a disposal system. We’ve been that naive customer! We’ve also switched methods of adding to our flock. Right now a dozen of our own eggs are being incubated. A first! We are very excited about the possibilities this opens up for us.

    1. Hi Rebecca,
      I made myself watch it…ugh. I figured if I was going to share it, I had to watch it first. But it wasn’t pleasant, understatement of the year. Yes, I butcher my own birds…and it still bothers me to see the mass killing of baby chicks.

      It’s so wonderful that you are raising your own in an incubator! Best wishes with your hatch! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  3. This subject keeps me awake at night 🙁 We don’t eat meat, but love our chickens and the eggs they produce. I add only 2-5 chicks per year to keep production up without overwhelming the flock, so I can’t order 25 at a time. My moral compass goes spinning when I think about those grinders. I hate being a part of that. I will think more about my options before I order next time.

    Thanks for your excellent research.

    1. Hi Joan,
      I understand how you feel…I had trouble sleeping last night after find 2 kittens under a pallet at a local hardware store. The lady working there was nice enough to let me know that the mamma cat comes back at night to feed them…but my brain just keeps jumping back to those little kitties. 🙁

      I wonder, do you have friends who might share an order with you? I’m planning to order from Sand Hill Preservation from now on…when I need to. But 25 is a lot to order when you only need a few. Best wishes and thanks for reading (and commenting!).

  4. Lisa, this is an excellent post about a sensitive but important topic. You’ve presented the problem that too few people know about and offered suggestions for avoiding those inhumane hatcheries. Do you know of other mail order hatcheries in addition to Sand Hill that sell straight-run only? I know that Freedom Ranger Hatchery does. Thanks for an informative article!

    1. Hi Marie,
      I haven’t found any other hatcheries that claim to be no-kill facilities in my searches on line. I went to the website for Freedom Ranger Hatchery, and didn’t find anything stating that they are a no-kill facility. Although they sell straight run chicks, it appears that they still raise a certain number of chicks per week. So I don’t know what they do with the extras.

      Thanks for commenting! If I find any more information, I will be sure to share it!

  5. Hi! I keep chickens too, and have thought about all of these issues and arrived at the same conclusions. I think the most humane way of doing it is to raise a dual purpose breed for both meat and eggs, so you can be out of the factory farm loop entirely.

    I actually think the chick grinding is just the tip of the ice berg, when it comes to the cruel practices used to bring us chicks from hatcheries. Those hatcheries need to get their chicks from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is usually a whole bunch of different breeders. And you can bet that most of those breeders don’t have their chickens out roaming over green, bucolic hills. As far as I know, the typical breeder set up is crowded pens, and some may have small cages.

    All of that said, I buy hatchery chicks (pullets). I’m not currently in a position where I can raise them for meat and do the butchering. I do the best I can. I figure that just keeping hens for eggs is a drastic improvement, better than buying eggs from just about any other source, because I know my hens have a lot of space, squeaky clean quarters, good natural forage, and a low stress life.

    I personally don’t think the answer is veganism, though I totally respect anyone who makes that decision. Even production of vegetable foods involves environmental degradation and direct killing of wildlife; there is no such thing as “cruelty free”. Whatever I don’t raise myself, I try to get from the most humane farms possible. I feel it is important to support these farmers, because there will always be some people who want/have to be omnivores, and if there is no market for humanely produced animal products, then all animal products will be produced in intensive “factory” conditions.

    1. Hi Janet,
      Very good points! I didn’t go into the problems with going vegan…but you are so right about that. And I know that you are also right on the money with the ‘tip of the iceberg’ comment too…there isn’t enough time to write about all of the things wrong with our food industry…well, I don’t have enough time anyway. 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m so glad that you are making the best decisions you can for your situation.

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