I will diverge from my usual blog style to examine something that is really important that we don’t always consider while raising our chickens. Don’t worry… the other Dave will be back in my next blog post. I just think it is important to talk about the real deal about chicken welfare and why you should care.
Before we start, I want to thank Hafez Mohamed Hafez and Youssef A Attia for their amazing studies. I could not have written this without them.
Hafez, Hafez & Attia, Youssef. (2020). Challenges to the Poultry Industry: Current Perspectives and Strategic Future After the COVID-19 Outbreak. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 7. 10.3389/fvets.2020.00516.
What’s the Big Deal?
So, how have we been breeding chickens to lay more eggs and grow bigger? Well, that’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While it’s cool that we get more eggs for our omelets and more meat for our BBQ, this genetic tweaking is causing serious issues for the chickens.
It’s important to note that chicken breeding has been around for thousands of years. However, the modern practice of selective breeding really took off in the 20th century with the advent of industrial agriculture.
Before that, chickens were primarily bred for traits like hardiness and foraging ability, which were essential for survival in a backyard or farm setting.
Selective breeding is the cornerstone of modern poultry farming. The idea is to identify the chickens that exhibit desirable traits—like laying more eggs or growing bigger—and then breed those chickens. Over generations, these traits become more pronounced.
- Egg Production: Chickens like the White Leghorn are bred specifically for high egg yield. These birds can lay up to 280 to 320 eggs per year, which is pretty incredible when you think about it.
- Growth Rate: Broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow faster and larger. The Cornish Cross, for example, can reach a weight of 4-5 pounds in just 6 weeks.
There is a downside to raising chickens that grow fast and lay eggs at an astounding rate.
The Downside of Super-Chickens
While breeding for high production has its advantages, it also comes with challenges. For example, broiler chickens that grow too fast can suffer from health issues like heart problems and leg weaknesses. There’s also the ethical question of animal welfare, which is increasingly becoming a consumer concern.
Imagine you’re a superhero, but your superpowers make you sick. That’s kinda what’s happening to these chickens. They’re laying eggs like crazy and growing super fast, but it’s taking a toll on their health, and even sudden death. Yikes!
It’s Not Just Genetics
Now, it’s not just the genetic stuff that’s the problem. How we care for the chickens—like what we feed them and how we protect them from diseases—also plays a role. But even with top-notch care, these “super-chickens” are still more likely to have health issues.
It’s not hard to understand really. We are genetically supercharging a lifeform to perform at a level the original model was not meant to perform at.
It would be like us drinking a hundred cups of coffee daily to work hard and fast. We wouldn’t last long, would we?
Freedom for Chickens?
You might be thinking, “Well, they’re just chickens. Do they really need freedom?” The answer is yes! Chickens like to roam around, scratch the ground, and just do chicken things. But when they’re bred to grow super fast, they can’t do all that, and it’s kinda sad.
I purchased two meatbirds by accident a year ago. They grew at an astounding rate, and as a result, it wasn’t long before they were hardly moving around at all.
They would lay about, then get up and move a few feet until they laid down again… all day. They never ventured more than a few feet from the coop after they were two months old.
What Science Says
Studies have shown that genetic tweaking and how we raise chickens can lead to serious health problems. For example, some chickens have weaker hearts and lungs compared to their old-school cousins. This can lead to conditions that are as hard to pronounce as they are to treat—like “pulmonary hypertension” and “deep pectoral myopathy.”
Pulmonary Hypertension (Ascites)
- What Is It?: Pulmonary Hypertension is often called Ascites in chickens. It’s a condition where the heart and lungs can’t keep up with the body’s demand for oxygen, leading to fluid accumulation in the abdomen and other tissues.
- Causes: This condition is often seen in fast-growing broiler chickens. Factors like high altitude, poor ventilation, and high-protein diets can exacerbate the issue.
- Symptoms: You’ll notice the chicken having difficulty breathing, a bluish tint to the skin, and possibly a swollen abdomen due to fluid accumulation.
- Treatment: Treatment is challenging and often not very effective. It usually involves improving living conditions, like better ventilation and lower protein diets. In severe cases, draining the fluid from the abdomen may be necessary, but the prognosis is generally poor.
- Prevention: The best approach is prevention through proper management practices like good ventilation, appropriate diet, and not overstocking your coop.
Pectoral Myopathy (“Green Muscle Disease”)
- What Is It?: Pectoral Myopathy is commonly known as “Green Muscle Disease.” It’s a condition where the breast muscle (pectoralis major) experiences necrosis, often turning the tissue greenish-black.
- Causes: This condition is also more common in fast-growing broiler breeds. It’s thought to occur when the bird experiences a sudden burst of activity, causing muscle tissue to die due to lack of blood supply.
- Symptoms: The most obvious sign is a greenish-black coloration in the breast muscle, usually discovered during processing. The bird may also show signs of lameness or reluctance to move.
- Treatment: Unfortunately, there’s no effective treatment for reversing the muscle damage. Affected birds are generally culled.
- Prevention: Reducing sudden bursts of activity and stress can help. Some farmers also adjust the diets to slow down the growth rate, thereby reducing the risk.
COVID-19 and Chicken Care
The pandemic made things even trickier. With fewer people available to take care of animals and restrictions on how we can raise them, chicken welfare took a hit. It’s like when you’re stuck at home and can’t go to the gym; it’s not great for your health.
The pandemic is pretty much over for now, but when something like it happens again, we should have taken steps to be prepared. In other words, we should prepare now for tomorrow’s disaster.
So, What Can We Do?
We’ve talked about the problems, but let’s not stop there. Here’s how you can make a real difference in the lives of your backyard flock.
1. Get Educated: Know What You’re Getting Into
Why It Matters: The first step in solving any problem is understanding it. If you’re new to raising chickens or even if you’re a seasoned pro, there’s always something new to learn.
How to Do It:
- Read Up: Many books, blogs (like this one!), and academic articles about chicken welfare exist.
- Take a Course: Some local agricultural schools offer courses on poultry care.
- Join Online Forums: Websites like Backyard Chickens have forums where you can ask questions and share advice.
2. Speak Up: Your Voice Matters
Why It Matters: Change starts with awareness. The more people know about the issues, the more pressure there will be to do something about it.
How to Do It:
- Talk to Friends and Family: A casual conversation can sometimes lead to big changes.
- Social Media: Use your platforms to share articles and studies about chicken welfare.
- Petitions and Local Government: If there’s a specific issue you’re passionate about, consider starting a petition or writing to your local representatives.
3. Be Mindful: It’s the Little Things
Why It Matters: Good care can mitigate some of the health issues that come from genetic selection. Plus, happy chickens are productive chickens!
How to Do It:
- Quality Feed: Ensure you’re giving your chickens the necessary nutrients.
- Regular Check-ups: Keep an eye out for signs of illness or distress.
- Safe Coop: Ensure your chickens have a safe and comfortable living place. This can help protect them from predators, one of the challenges your audience often faces.
4. Stay Informed: Knowledge is Power
Why It Matters: New research is constantly coming out, and guidelines can change. Staying updated can help you provide the best care possible.
How to Do It:
- Subscribe to Journals or Newsletters: Get the latest research delivered right to your inbox.
- Follow Experts on Social Media: Many veterinarians and animal welfare experts share valuable insights online.
- Regularly Visit Trusted Websites: Bookmark sites that regularly update their information and check them occasionally.
Wrapping It Up
We all want more eggs and meat, but not at the expense of our chickens’ health and happiness. So let’s be smart about this and make sure we’re doing right by our overachieving buddies.
That’s all for now, folks! I hope I didn’t ruffle any feathers with this rant. Stay tuned for more chicken information, and I promise I’ll avoid such meaty issues in future posts.
Catch ya later!