The forgotten world of broiler breeders

'I would like to begin this paper by proposing a new scientific name for broiler breeders: Gallus neglectedus (neglected chicken) . In fact, broiler breeders are caught on the horns of a dilemma: the management practices that are essential to ensure good health and reproductive competence may also reduce other aspects of welfare.' (J.A. Mench, Dept. of Poultry Science, University of Maryland, 1993.)

Broiler breeder chickens, the so called broiler chickens parents, suffer both mentally and physically. Bred to be 'greedy', the parent birds must be kept for extended periods on severely restricted rations if they are to survive and reproduce successfully.

In order to control their body weight there are 3 main feeding systems: 

  • daily but reduced feeding,  
  • skip-a-day feeding in other words feed is given every other day and no food is given on the 'skip' days and 
  • five days per week feeding.  

Skip-a-day programmes are prohibited in the UK but are practised widely in the USA and probably in many countries worldwide, perhaps including members of the EU.

The food is often provided once a day, early in the morning hours shortly after the lights are turned on. Normally fowls spend a considerable portion of their day foraging around for food and when given a choice prefer to work for at least part of their daily intake of food rather than eating it all from a free supply. Result is that these birds are not only chronically hungry but also bored and frustrated. Many of them spend much of their time pecking in a stereotyped manner at various non-feed objects and sometimes they even eat their own litter. Very often they compensate by drinking more. In order to maintain litter quality it is not uncommon that not only food intake is restricted but water intake as well.  

Because this improves their mating behaviour, semen count and foot and leg health, males are continued to be fed on severely restricted diets throughout their lives. The females more moderately, since they must produce the eggs. To make sure cockerels will eat less, grids are fitted to the feeding troughs and allow females to feed, but males, which have wider heads, cannot gain access.  Badly-designed troughs have already caused horrific suffering. Another solution is to stick a plastic rod through their delicate nasal cavities to prevent them from eating the females' food.

Food restriction makes the males more aggressive to each other and also to the caretaker. It is not a surprise that under these modern commercial conditions, the usual gentlemanly cockerel behaviour has grossly degraded.  Normally a cockerel will seek out food for their female friends, drawing their attention to desirable titbits, and then stand back to allow the hens to eat first. You will not see this in a breeder farm.  

For approximately 60 weeks, both hens and cockerels live in windowless controlled environment sheds, usually holding several thousand birds per unit, 9 females to one male. The sheds are not cleaned until the next flock comes in, which makes the air humid and dusty and the smell very overpowering. Someone told me that it took a week for their rescued hens to get rid of the strong smell that had impregnated their skin.

To reduce injuries, both males and females undergo beaktrimming. This involves cutting off around a third of a chick‚Äôs beak with a red-hot blade or an infra-red beam. The birds are not given any painkillers to ease the agony. This is a serious and painful mutilation which fortunately is banned in some member states of the EU but not in all. It is due to be banned in the UK in 2011.

Another problem is overmating of females which can cause severe feather loss, resulting in scratched and torn skin. To avoid injury to the  hens during mating, male broiler breeders are despurred and the last joint of the inside toes are often removed without an anesthetic. Needless to say this causes a lot of pain but also can lead to serious diseases.

A last form of mutilation is dubbing: the removal of all, or part, of the male's comb. The operation is usually performed when the chicks are one day old using sharp scissors. It was first carried out to avoid damage to the comb by other birds, house fittings or from frost bite in open, cold environments. Now very few rearing companies in the UK require chicks to be dubbed. But it is still done for some overseas customers who request dubbed chicks for reasons of habit, which is unacceptable.

Back to poultry

Ammonia from the large amount of faeces in the shed burned the feathers off this chicken and caused a massive skin lesion.


Male broiler breeders have plastic rods stuck through their delicate nasal cavities to prevent them from eating the females' food.