Chickens are very cute; they like exploring and are naturally curious. Most people think all animals should have the opportunity to express all their natural behaviours and live a life free from pain. Sadly, chickens on factory farms don’t get to live a natural life or a very long one.
The lifespan of chickens on factory farms?
When we think about raising chickens most of us picture a small number of chickens exploring a backyard, pecking at anything that looks remotely like food and returning to a perch either in the trees or in a coop to rest at night.
The life of a chicken bred for meat in sheds across New Zealand could not be further from this ideal. These chickens start their lives as eggs in a hatchery. They don’t get to hatch under their mother and are instead hatched with hundreds of thousands of others, in trays.
At just one day-old these chickens are put in crates and shipped, driven or even flown to local chicken farms across New Zealand, where they are tipped on the floor of a shed.
There are tens of thousands of chickens placed in the sheds initially, even on free-range farms. As they grow, they are given no more space and the litter is never changed throughout their life. They are forced to live in the excrement from thousands of birds, with no way to escape.
On free-range farms, ‘pop-holes’ are opened when the birds are about three weeks old. The pop-holes allow the more mobile chickens close to the walls, access to the outdoors. Those who are weak, or stuck in the middle behind thousands of chickens, may never get outside.
Chickens live to approximately six weeks old. Then they are captured by workers who put them in crates and clear the shed for the next shipment of day-old birds.
Farmed hens used for egg production have a longer life span than chickens bred for meat. They are kept on farms until they are 12 to 18 months of age.
What makes chickens grow so fast?
It all comes down to generations of selective breeding. And when it comes to the chickens that are eaten, the industry has spent the last 30 years breeding for maximum growth, with little regard for animal welfare.
The Cobb and Ross chicken breeds used in Aotearoa, double in size each week. They go from being just 300g to over 2kgs in just 42 days. This unnaturally fast-growth puts extreme stress on their chick-sized organs and legs:
- Their legs can struggle to hold up their bodies, especially due to their overdeveloped breast tissue.
- Many suffer heart disease, struggle for breath and can die of heart attacks just weeks after they hatch.
- Those that struggle to move around may not be able to reach the food and water.
In New Zealand, Government studies have shown that up to a third of these birds are suffering from painful lameness.
Sadly, every year about two million chickens don’t even reach six weeks old. The stress from the fast growth can cause their limbs and organs to fail completely. They may die slowly on the dirty litter as they struggle to reach the food and water. If they are spotted by a worker they will likely be captured and have their neck snapped.
Chicken farms are sheds full of thousands of baby chickens, suffering.
Do hormones make chickens grow fast?
It’s a very common misconception that chickens are pumped with hormones to make them grow abnormally fast. This is untrue. In reality, chickens are selectively bred to create breeds that grow unnaturally fast and then these breeds are used for meat production.
How long does a chicken live naturally?
Chickens came from their ancestor, the jungle fowl, who live between 10 and 30 years. But the modern commercial chicken breeds are hardly recognisable.
There is no one type of chicken, there are many different breeds and each can live very different lives. The brown feathered hens we often see photographed in cages, or in backyards as beloved rescue chickens have been selectively bred to lay as many eggs as possible for the egg industry. They are slaughtered by farmers at about 18 months of age. Hens that are rescued have been reported to live to five or six years old, or even older.
A chicken bred for meat can certainly live longer than six weeks, but the consequences of these unnatural breeds have very negative health impacts.
Bumble was rescued from a meat chicken farm at roughly five weeks of age. By two and a half months old she was so top-heavy that her legs struggled to hold her weight. Her carer ordered a special wheelchair to help her stand. Sadly, she succumbed to heart failure at just over four months old.
The chicken breeds used on farms exist because of generations of selective breeding by the egg and chicken meat industry to maximise profits.
How long does a broiler chicken live?
A broiler chicken is the industry term for a chicken that has been selectively bred for meat. They are usually only six weeks old at the time of slaughter.
Because six-week-old chickens are just chicks, they do not lay eggs. In order to keep breeding more chickens, there are hatcheries that keep ‘breeder’ birds alive to reach sexual maturity.
Living for up to a year in a body designed to be killed at six weeks, is a pretty awful ordeal. To slow the speed of their growth, the chickens are given very little food. They are hungry every day of their lives.
One chicken bred for meat got lucky when she fell off a truck on the way to a slaughterhouse. With the special care and attention of a vet, and a hint of luck, Pounamu (Pou for short) has lived to five years old.
How are chickens killed?
Hens from the egg industry are slaughtered at 12 to 18 months old; chickens bred for meat at just six weeks.
Slaughter of chickens in New Zealand involves a method called waterbath stunning First, the chickens are hung upside down with their feet in metal shackles. This is painful. They are dragged one by one through a bath of electrified water that is supposed to stun them unconscious before their throats are cut. However, larger birds may not receive adequate stunning, and smaller birds (or birds who struggle and flap, desperately trying to escape) may miss the waterbath completely. The result is having their throat cut while fully conscious.
Which chicken breed lives the longest?
It will be no surprise that the chicken breeds that live the longest are not those selectively bred for food and kept on farms or in sheds.
Some specific breeds, that are commonly kept as backyard chickens, live over 10 years, including bantams and the Plymouth Rock breed.
How long do chickens lay eggs?
How long the chickens lay eggs, varies depending on the breed. Most chickens bred for meat never lay a single egg, being slaughtered at just six weeks old.
Factory farm chickens who are rehomed after 12 – 18 months in an egg farm are reported to lay eggs for another three or four years.
The jungle fowl only laid about 15 eggs a year. By comparison, chickens used by the egg industry can have up to 300 a year 😲 This creates a heavy toll on their bodies, leaching calcium out of their bones and making them prone to fractures. Uterine infections and prolapses, and other problems with their reproductive systems are also common with commercially bred chickens.
Can a chicken live 20 years?
Amazingly yes. But is is rare.
Peanut, a bantam hen, received a new Guinness World Record in March 2023. She is now the oldest living chicken, having hatched back in 2002 – she is now 21. Bantams are smaller than most hens, and Peanut was lucky to be rescued when she was a chick and has lived her long life with a retired librarian.
On Wikipedia, there is a fascinating article about another long-living chicken – Matilda the chicken who lived for 16 years. She was adopted by a loving couple in the 1990s and spent her life with them, mostly inside and away from predators. She passed away in 2006, at 16 years old. RIP Matilda.
Pounamu (Pou for short) is a chicken bred for meat, rescued when she fell off a truck on the way to a slaughterhouse. Luckily the person who found Pou was an animal lover and quickly made sure Pou was taken to a sanctuary and received veterinary treatment to support her complex needs.
Currently, Pou lives on a sanctuary in Auckland with her friend Beluga, along with about 30 rescued hens, who started their lives in battery cages on an egg farm.
Pou is one of the oldest living chickens bred for meat that we are aware of. Sadly ‘oldest’ when it comes to chickens bred for meat is just five years. Her body was designed to grow meat and as a result she is about twice as large as her egg-laying sisters.
This makes it harder for her organs to keep her alive and her legs to hold her up. A combination of the best care and some luck has allowed Pou to live this longer life. But her body is failing and she’s currently on heart medication. Sadly, like all chickens bred for meat, Pou’s story won’t continue much longer.
Pou’s hobbies include being photographed so she can feature in all the best animal welfare campaigns and finding things to eat (she is very good at this, but sometimes she’ll try hard to eat something before realising it isn’t food).
She has her own large bed to sleep in at night, and has learned the bedtime routine, where she gets her own portion of food, so she doesn’t have to compete with any of the brown hens.