Broiler Breeders

A Farm Animal Welfare Network Factsheet

'We cannot support your suggestion that parent stock birds are badly exploited; rather, to the contrary, they are reared carefully and sensitively and thereafter live long and healthy lives.'
(Letter to the Farm Animal Welfare Network dated 21st December 1992 from Peel Holroyd, then Director General of the British Poultry Meat Federation)
FAWN argues that the broiler chickens which make up the breeding stock 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. Through genetic selection the modern poultry industry has bred a bird with inherent health and welfare problems.


The Forgotten World of Broiler Breeders
- The So Called 'Broiler' Chickens' Parents -

'I would like to begin this paper by proposing a new scientific name for broiler breeders: Gallus neglectedus* . 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, USA, 'Problems Associated With Broiler Breeder Management', Fourth European Symposium on Poultry Welfare, Proceedings published by UFA, 1993.)
*Gallus neglectedus - neglected chicken

How many breeders are there in the UK?
2) Approximately seven million, supplying around 700 million fertile eggs annually. Eighty to 90% of these birds are female.

How are they housed?
3) In the UK breeders are housed intensively, in windowless controlled environment sheds, usually holding several thousand birds per unit.
4) There are no laws or MAFF codes of recommendations relating to stocking density for breeders, but they are not so closely stocked as young broilers.
5) Lighting must be bright enough to encourage laying, therefore it is impossible to control aggression in males via low lighting regimes. FAWN has been told of significant aggression among cockerels in breeding units, including aggression towards stockpeople. FAWN has been informed, by a reliable source, that some stockpeople feel the need to 'show who is boss' in ways which could lead to prosecutions for cruelty if their actions were reported.
6) The birds are kept on litter (wood shavings or chopped straw) and sheds contain nesting boxes. Some litter is eaten by the hungry birds.
7) The sexes are kept at a ratio of nine birds to one cockerel.
8) Hours of 'daylight' (in fact artificial light) are gradually increased from eight hours in the early weeks to 16 hours.

How do the parent birds differ from the young broiler chickens we see in the supermarket?
9) The supermarket bird*
Putting it simply, the modern broiler chicken has been selectively bred over the last five decades to consume large amounts of high protein food, and to put on weight rapidly. This process has been exaggerated by lighting regimes (to encourage birds to eat throughout the 24 hours) and by adding growth promoters to feed. The poultry industry has been so successful in its quest for fast-growing chickens that today's bird can weigh up to four times that of slower growing strains. (Information on birds' weight from 'Welfare Implications of Food Restriction in Broiler Breeders', Paul Hocking and John Savory, Roslin Institute Annual Report, 1994/5, p. 42)
* FAWN is using the term 'supermarket bird' to differentiate the young birds, reared for their meat, from the adult breeders. FAWN does acknowledge that some birds on sale in supermarkets and elsewhere are from free range birds of the slower growing kind, but estimates that some 99% of all commercially-sold chickens are from the type of parent stock described in this fact sheet.
10) The parent stock/breeders
The parent birds are just as 'greedy' as those slaughtered at 6-7 weeks (i.e. those that end up on the supermarket shelf etc.) but if fed to appetite many would die prematurely, from diseases associated with obesity (e.g. heart failure). Fertility would be dramatically reduced, since overweight males would have difficulty mounting the females, and females would suffer from a high incidence of multiple ovulations, and soft shelled eggs, all useless for hatching purposes.* Joint, bone and feet problems would also increase. All these conditions combined would result in an uneconomic breeding stock.
*Hocking, P.M. et al., (1987) 'Ovarian Follicular Structure of White Leghorns Fed Ad Libitum and Dwarf and Normal Broiler Breeders Fed Ad Libitum or Restricted Until Point of Lay', British Poulty Science 28: 493-506

Can chickens really be 'greedy'?
11) The modern broiler chicken is 'greedy', though the bird should not be blamed! Dr Mench of Maryland's Department of Poultry Science explains the 'greediness' as follows:

'The selection of broilers for increased growth rate has resulted in an increase in appetite (Siegel and Wisman, 1966) by modulating both central and peripheral mechanisms of hunger regulation (Lacy et al., 1985, Denbow 1989). The increased food intake causes obesity, which must be controlled in broiler parent stock in order to maintain reproductive competence.' (See fact 1 for full reference.)

How has the poultry industry 'solved' the problem of over-eating by parent stock birds?
12) Both sexes being reared as parent stock are fed on severely restricted rations for most of their growing period (2-20 weeks, approximately). Males continue to be fed on severely restricted diets throughout their lives, females more moderately, since they must produce eggs.

To what degree is feed restriction practised on female breeders?
13) For females, who must produce eggs, the restriction is less severe. For example, a female breeder will receive 52 g of feed daily* at 7 weeks of age, while a 'supermarket' female of the same age will consume 182 g of feed. The amount of feed offered goes up gradually to reach 168 g daily by week 26-27, and is maintained at this level until slaughter (at around 60 weeks of age).

How does the female breeder compare in weight with a 'supermarket' female bird?
14) At seven weeks of age a breeder weighs 1.7 lb (780 g) and a 'supermarket' chicken (before processing) weighs around 5.38 lb (2440 g). 15) The female breeder's ultimate weight is around 7.2 lb (3260 g). When fully-grown, she will be consuming less feed than a 'supermarket' female chicken of seven weeks.

How severely restricted is the breeding cockerel's feed?
16) At seven weeks old, a 'supermarket' male broiler (before processing) weighs 6.39 lb (2897 g) and will consume 205 g feed daily. His breeding counterpart of the same age will weigh 2.4 lb (1100 g) and consume 78 g of feed daily - a huge reduction on what he would eat if fed ad libitum.

How much is a breeding male allowed to consume when fully grown?
17) On restricted feed, a mature cockerel weighs around 10 lb (4550 g) and consumes 120 g of feed daily.

How much would a 'supermarket' cockerel consume?
18) Sometimes, in the run-up to Christmas, broiler chickens are 'grown on' beyond the usual 6 or 7 weeks (the age at which most are slaughtered). A 'supermarket' male bird weighing 10 lb at 10 weeks of age consumes 253 g of feed daily.
*Figures in facts 13-18 are based on information published by The Cobb Breeding Company. Ross Breeders, UK, published performance objectives in 1995 which include the following figures:

Gender Feed consumption at 7 weeks
Weight at 7 weeks
NB Most 'supermarket' chickens are slaughtered at seven weeks, or earlier. See facts 13 and 16 for the approximate amounts of feed consumed daily and weights of birds destined for consumption at this age.

How do the birds react to feed restriction?

'These rations are usually provided daily from the second week of life onwards, according to programmes recommended by the commercial breeders, and amount to a reduction in consumption of some 55-75% compared with birds of the same age fed ad libitum (Katanbaf et al., 1989; P. Hocking and J. Savory, unpublished data, 1991). In contrast to ad libitum feeding, birds that are fed on such rations tend to be very active, and many of them spend much of their time pecking in a stereotyped manner at various non-feed objects (in the absence of food - Ed.), such as drinkers or pen walls.' (Kostal, Lubor et al., (1992) 'Diurnal and Individual Variation in Behaviour of Restricted-fed Broiler Breeders', Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 32: 361-374)

To sum up:

'Breeders are (therefore) fed only sufficient during rearing to reach about 50% of their potential body weight.' (Poultry Production Systems, Appleby, Hughes and Elson, CAB 1992, p. 162)
NB Eventually, breeding chickens achieve roughly two thirds of their potential bodyweight.

How are broiler breeders' rations given to them?
21) Up to 20 weeks of age (approximately) the birds are generally reared separately. This makes it easier for the farmer/company to administer the approved amount of feed to males and females. At this stage there are two methods for distributing the feed - either it may be scattered (in pellet form) on the shed floor, or fed in troughs. The first method is preferable, as it encourages birds to scratch around in the litter, thus keeping it in good condition. It also makes the birds' life more interesting, since feed will take longer to find, and aggression connected with competition at the feed troughs is minimised.

What happens when the sexes are put together, for breeding?
22) At this stage (around 20 weeks) although the birds are together, their feed is usually separate.

'As the potential growth rate of the breed improves with each new generation, it is even more important to control the bodyweight of the parent stock . The basic principle of separate sex feeding is to exclude the males from the female feed track and provide a separate male feeding system. The normal method of exclusion is a grill placed on top of the track which controls access by the horizontal distance between the bars.' (Cobb 500 Breeder Management Guide, p. 13)
Whatever method is used, the principle is to make access to the females' feed too narrow for the males' (bigger) heads. The males' feed is suspended out of reach of the females.

How often is the rationed feed given?
23) There are three main feeding systems/programmes for broiler breeders:

Daily feeding

24) In the UK the law states that livestock must be fed every day. The 1994 Welfare of Livestock Regulations (Schedule 4, Part 1, para. 5) state:
'Livestock shall be provided with an adequate supply of fresh drinking water each day and shall have access to food each day, except where a veterinary surgeon acting in the exercise of his profession otherwise directs.'
A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Agriculture has informed FAWN that MAFF does not know whether the Schedule's requirements apply in other EU countries. Skip-a-day programmes (see following fact) are practised widely in the USA and probably in many countries worldwide, perhaps including members of the EU, hopefully with the exception of the UK.

Skip-a-day feeding

25) Feed is given every other day. No feed is given on the 'skip' days.

Five days/week feeding

26) The Cobb Breeding Company describes this as a 'compromise' between everyday feeding (which it recommends) and skip-a-day feeding. The system involves omitting all feed on two days out of every seven. A spokesman for the Cobb Breeding Company explained to FAWN that in suggesting the five days/week programme, the company is trying to encourage farmers in the direction of daily feeding. Ross Breeders state: 'Every day feeding is preferred whenever volume permits'. This company also describes systems which omit 'complete feed' on one or two days a week but include a scratch feed on the 'no feed' days.
Why skip-a-day?
27) Broiler breeders' rations are so restricted that birds are extremely hungry for long periods. In units without sufficient feeder space it was found that some birds rushed to feeders and, in the overcrowded conditions, consumed more than their 'fair share', leaving others truly starving. One 'solution' to this problem is to give twice the birds' daily ration every other day, on the assumption that during the time taken to eat 'double rations' all birds will have the chance to get enough to eat to ensure survival.

Which system involves the least suffering?
28) FAWN believes that the severe feed restriction practised throughout the industry, for boiler breeders, is unacceptable in welfare terms, but clearly skip-a-day and five days/week programmes represent the worst options. Stress, from chronic hunger, is clearly present in all three systems:

'Broiler breeders are reared on feed restriction from about two to 18 weeks to avoid them becoming too fat for laying. They are therefore under considerable stress, especially at about 12 weeks of age.' (Mark Pattison, MRCVS, writing in Poultry Practice, Ed. Edward Boden, Bailliere Tindall, 1993, p. 12)

When is the feed given?
29) Usually in the early morning - birds finish their daily ration within 10-15 minutes. (Information on time taken to 'eat up' from Roslin Institute 1994/5 Report - see fact 9).

How do the birds react to rationing?

'Despite its positive influence on health and reproduction, there is mounting evidence that food restriction has a negative effect on welfare. Fowls normally spend a considerable portion of their day in activities associated with foraging, 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. (Duncan and Hughes, 1972) Food restricted broiler breeders, however, consume their food ration in a very brief period of time. (Kostal et al., 1992) They may also be chronically hungry, since their level of motivation to consume food is approximately four times that of ad libitum-fed birds subjected to 27 hours of food withdrawal. (Savory et al., 1993). Food restricted broiler breeders show behaviour which is indicative of frustration of feeding motivation. (Duncan and Wood-Gush, 1971, 1972) Restricted males are more aggressive than fully-fed males (Mench, 1988; Shea et al., 1990, Mench et al., 1991), while restricted hens and pullets are more fearful and active and also display high rates of pecking stereotypes (van Niekerk et al., 1988; Savory et al., 1992). Overdrinking is also a common problem in broiler breeder flocks (Kostal et al., 1992), resulting in the need to restrict water intake as well as food intake in order to maintain litter quality.' (See fact 1 for reference.)
NB Overdrinking occurs when birds are chronically hungry, by way of compensation. (It is illegal to withhold feed for one day on UK farms, but establishments carrying out research on farm livestock are not answerable to farm animals legislation, but operate under Home Office Regulations.) A behavioural change brought about by hunger is highlighted by Ross Breeders:
'It is unlikely that male body weight can be maintained on less than 125g/bird/day. If less feed than this is allocated to the male feeder then the males will take feed from the female feeder to maintain an adequate intake or, if excluded from the female feeder, will begin to lose weight. Males stealing female feed . can significantly reduce egg numbers .' (Ross 308 Manual, p. 31)
Two points emerge from this: a) hungry males may damage their heads, in attempts to get through narrow grids (see fact 22) and b) cockerel behaviour has been grossly degraded by modern commercial conditions, as anyone who has witnessed cockerels' normal behaviour* will agree. *Under natural conditions cockerels will seek out food for female birds, drawing their attention to desirable titbits, and standing back to allow the hens to eat first. A spokesperson for the Cobb Breeding Company informed FAWN that cockerels' 'gentlemanly' behaviour can still be observed in breeding sheds.

Is physical damage caused by feed restriction?
31) Broiler breeders are culled when around sixty weeks of age, so long-term effects of severe feed restriction may not be known. Injuries may be caused, indirectly, by the birds' hungry state:

'(Staphylococcal arthritis) is caused by Staphylococcus aureus which invades the tissue or blood stream, following injury to the skin, especially the feet. Any environmental factor which may result in skin injury e.g. sharp projections, wood splinters in litter, or birds suffering injury when rushing to the feeders where feed restriction is practised (in broiler breeders particularly) will result in an increased incidence of this condition.' (G.S. Coutts, BVMS MRCVS, Poultry Diseases Under Modern Management, p. 53, Nimrod Press Ltd, 1987)
'At this time (twelve weeks of age) staphylococcal infection of the hock joint is an important condition (in broiler breeders) and can cause loss through culling. Treatment with broad spectrum antibiotics is sometimes effective, but must be started early and continued for two or three weeks. This hock condition can be almost eliminated by floor feeding without a trough (Dutchman type) feeder, on which birds appear to damage themselves. Traumatic injury, often not visible, seems to set off the staphylococcal infection.'(Mark Pattison, MRCVS - see fact 28 for reference.)
33) Poor feed trough design can result in severe damage to female broilers' heads.
'In broiler breeding flocks, separate sex feeding is being widely adopted as a means of controlling bodyweight gain in male birds with the objective of improving fertility. In breeding pens, grids fitted to the feeding trough allow females to feed, but males, which have wider heads, cannot gain access. (See fact 22 - Ed.) . From 45 weeks of age, a proportion of female birds were observed to have swollen heads, but only in that group fed from troughs fitted with grids. At 60 weeks of age, approximately 15 per cent of birds from that group were affected . In this flock, the head swelling was judged to be of traumatic origin and a consequence of fitting grids of incorrect size to feeding troughs.' (S.R.I. Duff et al., Head Swelling of Traumatic Origin in Broiler Breeding Fowl, Veterinary Record, August 5th 1989).
NB Before this research, Swollen Head Syndrome, a viral disease, had often been confused with the damage caused by too-narrow grids. A photograph accompanying the VR article shows a bird with severe facial/head swelling and closed eyes. A leading UK broiler breeding company has assured FAWN that 'lessons have been learned' and grid dimensions improved, but it must be a cause for concern that, worldwide, badly-designed troughs may still be in use, causing horrific suffering. Bearing in mind the date of the VR article (1989) it seems likely that 'old-style' equipment may not have been replaced in many broiler breeding units, where troughs, etc. might be expected to have a life of a decade or two.
34) Clearly, much suffering has been/is being caused to broiler breeders through trough feeding of scant rations. Floor scattering of pelleted food is much more humane, but does not answer the demands of single sex feeding, which is usually considered necessary once the sexes are put together in the same building.

Are broiler breeders beaktrimmed?
35) A major breeding company recommends beak trimming at a day-old or at 4-5 days old should this mutilation be deemed necessary because of past problems (head damage etc).

'Beak trimming of both males and females is not recommended unless there has been a history of physical damage or when it is clear that more suffering would be caused in the flock if it were not carried out, (e.g. mating behaviour can sometimes be the cause of damage which may result in subsequent infection particularly to the head)'. (Ross Breeders, Ross 308 Manual, September 1995, p. 10)
NB The chick and adult chicken depicted on the manual's cover are both beaktrimmed/debeaked. The terms 'beaktrimming', 'debeaking' and 'partial beak amputation (PBA)' all describe the process of removing a proportion of the bird's beak, to minimise damage from aggression.

Are broiler breeders mutilated in other ways?
36) Male broiler breeders are despurred:

'To avoid injury to hens during mating, the last joint of the inside toes of male breeding birds may be removed. This must be done within the first 72 hours of life. A veterinary surgeon must carry out the operation if it is performed after the first 72 days of life.' (Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock, issued by MAFF, and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, dated 1987, para. 51)
'Acute necrotic enteritis* was diagnosed by Dumfries (State Veterinary Centre - Ed.) in six -week-old broiler breeder cockerels which were recovering from an earlier episode of staphylococcal femoral necrosis** associated with despurring.' (Veterinary Record, October 22nd 1994, p. 395)
*'A disease of domestic fowls . caused by the proliferation and toxin production of Clostridium perfringens type C in the small intestine.'
** 'Femoral - of or relating to the thigh or to the femur.' (Oxford Concise Veterinary Dictionary)

Frequent Matings
38) 'Optimum mating' by males can be judged by the vent colour - bright red indicates the most 'keen' (and therefore profitable) birds. Cockerels displaying paler vents are removed from the flock, and culled, on a regular basis. Overmating of females can cause severe feather loss, resulting in scratched and torn skin.

Apart from being chronically hungry, aren't the breeders better off than their offspring, since the parents don't suffer from diseases associated with obesity?

'Male breeders may still experience chronic orthopaedic problems which can cause pain.' (See fact 1 for reference.)
In addition to orthopaedic (hip and leg etc.) problems, broiler breeders also suffer from many of the viral diseases common in young chickens and respiratory diseases.

For how long do they live?
40) Most broiler breeders are slaughtered when about sixty weeks old, once past their peak of reproductive powers.

What about catching and slaughter?

'Males are heavy (up to 10 lb - Ed.) aggressive and very active, making them extremely difficult (and tiring) to catch . Orthopaedic problems can make shackling difficult and probably painful.' (See fact 1 for reference.)
Animal Aid has produced a video entitled 'Here's the Catch' which reveals the horrific cruelty meted out to young broilers at the time of catching. Heavier birds (breeders) are likely to suffer even more at this time, as catchers carry birds by one leg (and more than one in each hand - 4-5 in each hand is routine when collecting younger birds). NB 'Here's the Catch' is available from Animal Aid and FAWN.
42) Slaughter represents another area of suffering, since the conditions outlined in this fact sheet will ensure that acute pain is felt by many birds as they hang in shackles, awaiting slaughter.

What happens to broiler breeders, finally?
43) They are processed into pies, canned soups etc. Has there been an enquiry into the welfare of broiler breeders, in the UK?
44) The House of Commons' Agriculture Committee's second Report into the UK poultry industry makes no mention of the broiler industry's breeding stock under its Welfare Recommendations (p. xxxvi-xxxvii). (The UK Poultry Industry, Vol 1, ISBN 0 10 295594 8, HMSO #10.00)
45) The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), the government appointed body which reports on farm animal welfare, has investigated the broiler industry. Its Report on the Welfare of Broiler Chickens (April 1992) omits mention of the breeding stock, since the Council felt the problems associated with parent birds are so distinct from those found in younger birds. (However, in its January 1992 Report on the Welfare of Turkeys, the parent stock are included.) At the time of writing, FAWC is not engaged in investigations regarding the welfare of broiler breeders.


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