Truth or Fiction: Baby Chicks are Being Ground Up Alive
May 16, 2016
Recently a friend of mine forwarded this to me on Instagram, and asked me if I could explain if it’s true or not:
It’s an upsetting image, and an upsetting message, no doubt. There is some truth in it, and I noticed there was a lot of confusion in the comments on the Instagram post itself, so I wanted to dive in and explain.
The sad truth is, yes, some baby chicks are killed when they are only a day or two old. Male and female chicks are separated when they are only a day old, and most of the males are destroyed. This practice is known as chick culling and may be done by cervical dislocation, asphyxiation, or (as the image above suggests) maceration.
Here’s a clip from a Discovery Channel show that gives you a (censored) peek inside a commercial hatchery. The sorting of males from females takes place around the 2:50 mark, but thankfully they don’t show the culling of any male chicks:
When it comes to egg laying chickens, the females are most valuable (obviously). One rooster can easily service a dozen or more hens, so very few male chicks are kept around to reach maturity and continue breeding programs.
Why don’t they let the males live and use them for meat instead?
This was the main question I saw posted in the comments on the Instagram image. It comes down to a difference in chicken breeds and the ever-growing demand and pressures put on factory farmers.
Let’s say you want to buy a dog to pull a dog sled. You’re much more likely to choose a breed like a Siberian Husky or an Alaskan Malamute over a Chihuahua or a Dachshund, right? Different breeds of dogs are bred to have physical characteristics to serve certain purposes.
Similarly, in the world of chickens, there are many breeds but most of them fall into one of three broad categories:
Egg laying breeds
Dual purpose breeds
(Arguably you could say some breeds are just fancy, show breeds, but we’ll ignore that for our purposes here.)
Meat birds are bred to have oversized breasts because Americans love chicken breast meat. They’re also bred to grow as fast as possible on as little feed as possible, to make them more cost-effective. On the other hand, industrial egg laying breeds are bred to lay eggs prolifically, don’t have large breasts, and take almost twice as long to reach their full size potential compared to meat birds. In general, their meat isn’t as “tasty” to the average American palate that’s used to grocery-store style chicken.
So when you ask why don’t they use the males for meat, the simple reason is: it isn’t cost-effective to do so. The breeds in question that are being ground up are male egg layers, not meat birds. To save those male chicks and raise them up would take twice as long (therefore using up more feed and taking up space that could be more profitably-used) and they wouldn’t sell as well because their breast meat isn’t as large and their flavor doesn’t match what is “expected” in US grocery stores. It costs less to destroy them when they’re a day or two old than what it does to feed them and sell them later.
So what can I do if I want to still eat eggs?
Here’s where that third breed-type comes in: dual purpose breeds. Dual purpose breeds (often heritage breeds) are the types of chickens that you would have found living on family farms and in backyards in your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations. They are good egg layers (but not quite as prolific as industrial egg layers), and have tasty meat (but don’t mature quite quickly as industrial meat birds). They tend to be healthier animals in general, with more “normal” body proportions than the inflated-breast bearing cornish-cross meat bird. Dual purpose breeds tend to be favored by homesteaders and hobbyists that want to have a self-sufficient source of meat and/or eggs. Many heritage breeds also are good foragers (meaning they’ll eat insects and vegetation in your yard, thereby offsetting food costs a bit), and some breeds will go broody and raise their own young very successfully.
If you want to eat eggs, your best bet is to purchase them from someone who raises heritage, dual purpose breeds. Male chicks of dual purpose breeds are rarely culled as at small or medium sized farms. They’re either raised up and used for meat later, or used in breeding programs. Hens, of course, are kept as egg layers and may be used as “stew hens” in later years when their egg production slows. Either way, the animals aren’t “wasted” as they are when they are culled as day old chicks.