The Journey of Chicken
From the moment they arrive on the farm to the time they're shipped to the consumer, the quality and welfare of our chickens is of the utmost importance to our farmers.
All Canadian chickens start out at what’s called a “breeder farm.” Here, each chicken lays approximately 150 to 155 fertilized eggs per year. These eggs are then taken to hatcheries and placed into incubators and kept at 37.5ºC for 21 days until they hatch.
The next step is determining the sex of each of the birds: farmers usually try to keep birds of the same sex in their barns because males and females grow at different rates. Before they leave the hatchery, the birds are vaccinated to prevent illness. The chicks are then placed in heated trucks and delivered to our farmers, all within 6-12 hours of hatching. The rules dictating how the birds are to be handled and cared for are called the Code of Practice for the care and handling of Chickens, Turkeys and Breeders from Hatchery to Processing Plant, or Code of Practice for short.
At the Farm
Raising chickens requires a high degree of commitment and knowledge: during the seven or eight weeks that it takes to raise a flock, farmers give constant care and attention to the health and feeding of their birds.
At the farm, the chicks arrive in large plastic trays, about 100 per, which are emptied out gently so that the chicks are placed directly on the floor of the barn in fresh, clean wood shavings or straw. The On-Farm Food Safety Assurance Program, Animal Care Program, as well as the Code of Practice, dictate the requirements farmers follow at all these stages in the barn.
The “brooding” temperature is kept high (28°C–32°C) to make the barn more welcoming to the birds and all their food and water is placed within easy reach. It stays that warm for about a week before the farmer begins to lower the temperature by two or three degrees per week as the birds start to grow and begin to give off their own heat.
The barn itself is completely cleaned between flocks and fresh litter is put down. Feed and water lines are cleaned and tested before the chicks are in place, and are monitored daily thereafter. As the birds grow, the lines are raised (by hand with a crank or with pulleys) so that the birds always have easy access as they roam freely in their large, well-ventilated and climate-controlled barns.
What Chickens Eat
What chickens are fed has a direct impact on both the flavour and nutrition of the meat, so it’s important that all chickens are fed the right stuff. For this reason, what chickens eat is the single most important aspect of raising them.
The make-up and amount of feed given to chicken is very important to their growth cycle. In fact, it’s a science. Farmers are very careful about what they feed their flocks at different times of their growth cycle. Feed can be too high, or too low, in nutrients, affecting the birds’ growth.
What’s in Chicken Feed?
Chicken feeds are mostly prepared in specialized feed mills and come under the jurisdiction of the Canada Feeds Act, making them subject to government inspections.
The main ingredient of all chicken feed (over 88%) is grains and grain by-products, protein-producing seeds, and meal made from them such as canola or soybean meal. So, in essence, all chicken is “grain fed.” In much smaller quantities (around 10%), various other protein sources such as meat and bone meal/vegetable fats are added to improve the nutritional content, taste and texture of the feed. In much, much smaller quantities (1.5%), mineral and vitamin supplements are commonly added to prevent any nutrient deficiencies.
Chicken feed may also contain minute levels (less than 1 per cent) of additives such as enzymes and antibiotics to prevent disease and digestive problems. All of these additives are subject to strict regulations and are used in conjunction with good management, vaccination and hygiene practices. As for the myth of using of hormones and steroids in the poultry industry, it’s been banned in Canada since the 1960s.
Sending the Birds to Market
After 5 to 6 weeks in the barns, depending on the size of bird required by the customer, the chickens are transported to the processing plants in trucks designed for shipping poultry. Chicken catchers, working in crews that sometimes work directly for the farmer or are hired by the processor, then gather the birds from the barn and place them into crates for transport. The Codes of Practice mentioned above dictate the rules and methods used for catching and crating the birds.
At the processing plant, the chickens are checked as they arrive by an inspector who makes sure the chickens are healthy, safe and are ready to be sold to the consumer. They check each flock against the flock sheet sent by the farmer to ensure that everything is on track. There are also random tests to ensure that medications, if used, were given properly and that withdrawal times were adhered to. Before it is put on the market, chicken meat is checked for quality, absence of disease and antibacterial residues.
There are many participants in the journey of chicken and they each have strict guidelines to follow to ensure that food safety and the proper care and handling of the birds is done by all members of the industry. Our farmers are proud to play such an important role in the production of safe and healthy chickens for Canadians.