The meat chicken farm sequence is as follows. The same general principles of caring for layer chickens also apply on a meat chicken farm but there are a few differences. Meat chickens are always fed pelleted feed, which is more efficient as less wastage occurs than when mash is used. Pelleting also improves the digestibility of the feed. The pellets may be broken down into smaller sizes, called crumbles, for very small chicks.
Chicks are transported from the hatchery to broiler farms, usually in ventilated chick boxes in specially designed, air-conditioned trucks. Although the remains of yolk sac taken into its abdomen at hatching contains nutrients and moisture to sustain the chick for up to 72 hours, it is important that chicks receive warmth, feed and water within a reasonable time of hatching.
On arrival at the broiler farm, day-old chicks are placed onto the floor of the shed, where they are initially confined to an area of between a half to one third of the total shed area (the ‘brooding area’) and given supplementary heating from gas heaters or heat lamps for about three weeks. This is called brooding and the heaters are referred to as brooders. Extra feed pans and water dispensers are provided in the brooding area, and the bedding may be partly covered with paper to stop dropped feed from getting into the bedding and spoiling. Both male and female chicks are reared as meat chickens. While the flocks are usually of mixed sex, some operations may grow male and female chickens separately, depending on market requirements. For example, one company grows out only male chickens in one area, allowing its operations and processing plant in that area to be geared up specifically for larger birds, while sending female chicks to another area.
The air temperature under the brooder should be about 35oC at first and should be reduced by 1-2oC per day until it reaches 23oC at about three weeks of age. In Australian meat chickens are all raised on litter floors, but some overseas companies use wire-floored cage systems. The number of chickens in a meat chicken shed is usually high. Some sheds in Australian contain 30 000 meat chickens. Sophisticated brooding systems have been developed which include gas-fired radiant heat sources, through gas-fired hot air blasters, and fully controlled environment sheds with special heated air being passed through ducts to the chickens. High protein (22%) starter rations are fed to young meat chickens to ensure they grow as much as possible early in life. This may be continued for 18-24 days. A medicine, called a coccidiostat, is added to the feed of meat chickens to prevent the intestinal disease coccidiosis.
At this stage, growth is still very important, but since feed is expensive careful costing is carried out to keep expenses to a minimum. Thus a lower level of protein (19%) is fed from about three weeks of age to slaughter, which is commonly at 42 days of age. When heavy weight birds are required for filleting, they are slaughtered at up to 56 days of age. A coccidiostat, sometimes a different one from that used in starter feed, is added to finisher feed. Some meat chickens go through a separate rearing stage, with a special rearing ration being fed to them before they are placed on a finisher feed, but most go straight from starter to finisher feed.
Getting finished meat chickens from the farm to the factory is a delicate business. Most catching is done at night as birds are quieter then, and this also gets them to the processor early in the morning with less delay before slaughter. Delay means stress and weight loss. Mechanical devices for harvesting meat chickens have been invented. Results are variable and most Australian meat chicken are still caught by hand. Birds are then placed into plastic crates or aluminium modules designed for good ventilation and safety from bruising during transport. These crates or modules are handled by specialist forklift equipment and loaded onto trucks for transport to the processing plant. In Australia, a percentage of chickens are harvested from most flocks on several occasions. Harvesting, also known as ‘partial depopulation’, ‘thinning out’, or ‘multiple pick-up’, may be done up to four times, depending on need for light or heavy birds. Thinning out sheds allows more space for the remaining birds and reduces the natural temperatures in the shed. The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.
When all the birds have been removed from the shed (after about 60 days), it is cleaned and prepared for the next batch of day old chickens. The next batch generally arrives in five days to two weeks, giving time to clean the shed and prepare for the next batch. The break also reduces the risk of common ailments being passed between batches as many pathogens die off. Many farms undertake a full cleanout after every batch. This includes removing bedding, brushing floors, scrubbing feed pans, cleaning out water lines, scrubbing fan blades and other equipment, and checking rodent stations. High pressure hoses clean the whole shed thoroughly. The floor bases are usually rammed earth and because low water volumes are used, there is little water runoff.
The shed is disinfected, using low volumes of disinfectant which is sprayed throughout. An insecticidal treatment may be applied in areas where shed insects such as beetles are a problem and may threaten the next batch. Disinfectants and insecticidal treatments must be approved by the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority as safe and fit for use in broiler sheds. Company veterinarians or servicemen may test sheds after a full cleanout to confirm sheds have been adequately cleaned and potential disease agents removed. On other farms, a partial clean up of the shed is done, including removing old litter and/or topping up fresh litter and cleaning and sanitising equipment. A full cleanout is done after every second or third batch of chickens.
When chickens arrive at the processor they go through the following sequence:
During the processing sequence, grading of carcasses is done at convenient times to remove poor quality meat which is used for cut-up (further processing) purposes or, if badly affected, might be used for pet food, or condemned and cooked to be made into meat meal for stock feed.
This term is used to describe any additional processing which may be done to carcasses. It includes cutting up into portion, deboning carcasses and preparing special ready-to-cook products. Cooking is an additional process which is carried out in some processing plants. Almost all chicken meat was once frozen and could be stored for a long time, but most is now sold chilled. Chilled chicken meat must be cooked before it spoils. The shelf life of chicken meat is usually eight to 12 days, depending on the processing, handling and storage conditions.
In Australia most chicken is sold under the brand name and market competition is very strong. The average amount of chicken eaten has risen rapidly as prices have fallen. These changes have taken place at the expense of the beef and lamb industries.
This unique presentation shows the fundamental structure and anatomy of the chicken
Now released in the App Store. Developed by the Poultry CRC. Have fun while learning about what makes a good egg.
Download for free in Australia
These lists contain organisations and individuals associated with the Australian poultry industry