Up Close and Personal on a Broiler Farm

Sally Kneidel, Ph.D., co-author of Veggie Revolution

The smell hit me as soon as I opened the car door. It was worse even than the hog farm I’d been to a couple of weeks before. I knew I’d have to wash everything I was wearing again. The ammonia and fecal stench of a factory farm sinks into everything.

As I climbed out of the car, three long metal chicken sheds loomed in front of me, windowless and perfectly parallel, each one longer than a football field. There was no sign of life, although I knew the buildings were crammed with scrabbling chickens – 72,000 in all. I thought of a concentration camp. The grounds were scoured, the buildings clean and shiny. On the outside.

I heard gravel crunching, and my host Buck pulled up in an old pick-up truck behind me. He took a few seconds to diddle with some papers in the truck, then stepped out to greet me. Like most of the factory farmers I’d met, Buck seemed a bit guarded, but very polite, his country manners charming.

We exchanged Southern pleasantries for a minute, then walked over to the first shed. Buck opened the door, pushing a wedge of chickens out of the way. We stepped inside the dimly lit space and the door clicked shut behind us. An ocean of chickens surrounded us, receding into the hazy distance. The air was hot, humid, and wretched. My glasses fogged up right away and I couldn’t see a thing. Between the powerful stench and the sauna-like atmosphere, I felt unable to breath adequately for a moment. With a wave of claustrophobia, I considered bolting for the door. But Buck seemed nonchalant, so I wiped my glasses and decided I could subsist with shallow breaths for the time being. I tried to focus on why I was here – to learn about raising chickens under contract to a huge corporation.

These broiler chickens were loose on the floor, not caged as in the egg factory I’d visited. But they were literally crammed neck and neck. If each shed is 42 by 400 feet, with 24,000 birds, then each chicken has a space the size of a piece of standard computer paper. Such crowding overwhelms the chickens’ social instincts. Birds in a flock of thousands are unable to form the dominance relationships that normally reduce barnyard aggression – a chicken can only remember about 90 individuals. So the chickens in these big sheds peck at each other continuously. Many had raw red bottoms, which drew curious pecks from the other birds, making the bottoms ever more raw.

broiler chickens 8 broilers
Photos courtesy of Sally Kneidel © 

Why are the chickens packed so tightly? A couple of reasons. Buck showed me a computerized panel inside the shed that regulates the temperature and the automated feeding and watering pipes. In winter, the space is heated by propane burners suspended from the ceiling. Buck’s propane bill for just one shed can be $5,000 per year. So the more chickens crammed into the expensive heated and automated space, the more profit to be made. But there’s another reason. Crowding keeps the chickens from moving around. Immobile chickens gain more weight than active chickens. More weight means more meat and more money.

I noticed that the floor of the shed was oddly soft and spongy like a bed of deep moss.

“What’s on the floor?” I asked Buck.

“It’s litter” he said. “Sawdust.”

But it had a springiness that was unlike sawdust.

“Just sawdust?”

“It’s mixed with chicken waste” said Buck.

The feces lie where they fall for 18 months. Each particular flock stays in the shed only 7 to 8 weeks until they reach slaughter weight of about 6 pounds. Then the corporation sends a crew with tractor-trailer trucks to load the chickens into crates and cart them all away. A great opportunity to clean the sheds. But scooping out the litter is an expensive ordeal, and generates a pervasive stink throughout the whole neighborhood. So once every year and a half is deemed often enough to remove the fecal waste.

Buck pointed out the automated feed pipes and water pipes that run the length of the building, disappearing into the far end of the shed, obscured by a dense white fog of floating particles.

“Why is the air so hazy?” I asked him. He said it was just dust, but I learned later that the haze was airborne feather and fecal particles.

factory farm
Photo courtesy of Sally Kneidel © 

As we talked, a motor came on and small pellets poured out of the feed pipes into round dishes attached to the pipes every few feet. The dishes, at floor level, were already surrounded by chickens, but the sound of falling pellets caused a flurry of renewed interest. Chickens jostled for places around the dishes. Some birds wound up with their heads lodged sideways in between the thick wires that connected the dishes to the pipes.

Broiler chickens like these are bred to have big appetites so that they’ll grow as fast as possible. The feed contains antibiotics, which can speed weight gain even more. Broilers are also bred to grow huge breast muscles, because the breast is the most expensive cut of chicken meat at the grocery. But the freakishly large breasts are dangerous for the birds. Sometimes the breast muscles grow so big that a chicken’s legs can no longer support its body. Then the bird dies, unable to reach the feed and water. Buck said that he has to walk the entire length of each shed five times every single day to look for dead birds. No wonder poultry farmers have high rates of respiratory ailments, breathing the fumes and particles for hours every day. It takes five routes through each shed to get a view of every bird because they’re so densely packed. If he misses a carcass, the others will tear it up and make a mess. He’s got to get the dead ones out.

“What exactly are the chickens eating, besides antibiotics?” I asked Buck. Meat-eaters might want to know, I reasoned, since presumably whatever the birds eat will turn up in the meat.

“Corn,” he said. Beyond that, he didn’t know. The corporation supplies the feed and they don’t say what’s in it. But a local turkey farmer told me that the pellets are made of ground corn, which is dry, held together by a “special protein supplement” that acts as a binder. What kind of protein supplement would act as a binder? The turkey farmer said that the binder is a greasy soup made from slaughterhouse scraps (heads, feet, bones, fat, feathers) and the old litter from poultry sheds such as this one. These ingredients are standard fare in livestock feed. The only limitation is that, with mad cow disease on the scene now, cow scraps can no longer be legally fed to cows.

I was grateful to Buck for showing me his chicken sheds. He had nothing to gain by it, other than the affirmation we all feel when someone shows an interest in our work.

When I first started visiting factory farms, I expected that the farmers would be callous business-men who would be easy to blame for the lives of misery the animals lead. But that hasn’t been the case. They are men, families, whose lives have been taken over by contracts with huge meat corporations like Tyson, Smithfield, and Con-Agra. The farmers borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct these sheds, usually offering their family’s land as collateral. The corporations own the animals. Newly hatched chicks are delivered to Buck’s farm on tractor-trailer trucks from the nearby corporate hub, packed a hundred chicks to the cardboard box. When the slaughter date rolls around 7 to 8 weeks later, they’re trucked back to the corporate hub to be killed, plucked, eviscerated, chopped and packaged by the corporation’s mechanized processing plant. The animals are the real victims, but these farmers are getting the short end of the stick too. Few states have adequate laws to protect farmers’ rights in these contracts. In many states, the corporation can pull out of a contract at any time and leave the farmer with no income, forcing foreclosure on his land, often followed by bankruptcy.

Beyond the animals and the farmers, who else is getting shafted by the corporate takeover of the meat industry? Who works in our slaughterhouses, the most dangerous workplaces in the country? Immigrants, mostly. In the egg factory I visited, every single worker I saw was Latin American. Illegal immigrants wind up with the most dangerous jobs because they’re the most vulnerable segment of our population, the least likely to complain or demand higher wages. Even a risky and miserable job like chopping up livestock at breakneck speed seems better than the two or three dollars a day they might have made in their country of origin – the country they might get sent back to if they make waves.

The offenses of the meatpacking corporations that contract with factory farmers don’t stop with labor offenses, animal welfare abuses, and chemical-laden meats in the grocery. These corporations are also trashing the environment. Buck wanted to tell me that he’s a careful steward of the environment, and it’s true that he does his best to stick to corporate and government guidelines. But the fact is that raising livestock in confinement, in dense concentrations, leads to massive waste-management problems that official guidelines do not address. The only legal options for disposing of the mountains of feces generated on factory farms are 1) feeding it to other animals, in the case of poultry waste, 2) storing it in vast open cesspools called lagoons, or 3) spraying it onto crop fields. With the last two choices, much of the waste eventually finds its way into our ground water and rivers, and finally into our delicate coastal estuaries. This pollution can and does wreak havoc with wildlife, and often elevates the nitrogen levels in our own drinking water beyond safe limits. These are big problems, but they’re problems that have solutions.

What can you do about it? Every time you choose a meatless meal, you’re part of the solution. Every time you tell others why you’re choosing a meatless meal, you’re taking an even bigger step. If you do buy animal products – milk, eggs, or meat – buy them from providers who raise the animals humanely and sustainably. Ask your grocer to stock animal products from these same providers. If you don’t know how to find such providers, ask at your local farmers market or natural foods store, or check www.eatwild.com or www.localharvest.org.

To go a step farther, consider writing letters to your state legislators, asking them to address animal welfare concerns and environmental issues related to factory farms, and to enact a moratorium on construction of any additional factory farms in your state. For more ideas, go to www.factoryfarm.com.

If you’d like to read more details about our other factory farm visits, or the environmental and health consequences of factory farming, check out our book, Veggie Revolution. It’s available on www.amazon.com or www.fulcrum-books.com. The book provides a comprehensive and personal look at how these megafarms and the corporations behind them are threatening our future.

For more discussion of these topics, more links, a list of our upcoming events, and a glimpse of the characters we’ve met for our upcoming book (The Power of Your Pocketbook: How Americans’ Spending Habits Shape our World), check out our blog and post your own comments: http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com.

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