Eyewitness investigator account
The chicken industry in Georgia is big, just like its birds. Hidden away from urban Georgia, the industry has hundreds of chicken farms dotted around its captivating countryside. Many of these are super-sized and each houses tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of fast-growing, heavy weight chickens that can reach a dinner plate in 0-60 days. Georgia produces more chickens than anywhere else in the USA, and the north of the state, where I was based, is its heartland. It even lays claim to being the pioneer of factory farming in the 1950s.
Tasked with getting the inside track on this industry, I began my investigation on the interstate highways. I heard stories from NGO’s and county residents that it was not uncommon to see helpless broiler chickens on the roads, having fallen off trucks en route to the processing facility. Sure enough it was not long before I found one.
The chicken was in the middle of the road – it was huge and its legs were fighting to keep its large chest off the ground. It could only stand for a few seconds before squatting back on the asphalt. Cars whizzed past and the chicken stayed rooted to the spot. I realised that this was probably the first time in its short life that it had actually been outside. The irony being that its first taste of freedom was en route to its final destination. It had little idea of the danger it was in, having spent its entire life inside a dark shed with 25,000 other chickens, many of whom – like this one – are struggling to walk in their final days. Not all chickens can cross roads, I thought. I watched a passer by stop and pick it up – she told me she was going to give it a home.
I soon learnt why it was not uncommon to find chickens on Georgia’s roads – for several mornings I trailed chicken juggernauts heading to the state’s chicken processing facilities. Chickens were crammed into small cages, piled high on the back of trucks. Feathers, feet and heads often jutted out at uncomfortable angles and it was now no surprise to me that some would fall off, when you imagine how they had been loaded. I’d often smell the trucks before I saw them, so they were not difficult to find. Trailing them was not difficult either – despite the heat of a Georgian summer I was driving in a snowstorm of white feathers, perhaps another indicator of the poor state of the birds’ health.
I’d heard that if the state of Georgia was a country in its own right it would be the 6th biggest global producer of chickens: a fact which stood up when you saw the sheer volume of chicken trucks backed up at the processing centre. Tiers of cages, crammed with lifeless bodies, were stacked up at the dropping off area. Others were in holding bays, where the chickens sat sweltering in the heat. All day the trucks kept coming – thousands of chickens no more than 8 weeks old about to become the key ingredient for a fast food nation.
Next stop was the farms. I was keen to see how they operated and what it was like to work on one. The industry is notoriously secret, so I had to have a good cover story to help me meet people in the chicken industry. It took some time but gradually doors began to open – and with that the sheer scale of the industry became clear.
It’s actually hard to see those tasked with running broiler chicken farms as farmers. They’re mostly under contract to a few big integrators and when the contractors say jump, they jump. Pretty much everything is controlled by the integrator – the breed of bird, the feed, the antibiotics given, delivering chickens, clearing them out. Many of the growers do little more than pick up the dead and carry out routine maintenance. In fact, for some of them growing broiler chickens under contract is often just for a second income, and it doesn’t always deliver. I met some farmers who wanted out after rearing just a few batches, others who’d been cut off by the integrator as they hadn’t met production targets.
Many of these growers had just a few sheds. But, tucked away in the countryside – out of sight, out of mind – there were gigantic farms with, 10, 12 or even 14 sheds on one site. Each shed could be 500 feet long – that’s one and half times the length of the average American football field – and stock as many as 35,000 broiler chickens.
Entering a shed from the bright light of a 95 degree day comes as a shock. The low light conditions take time to adjust to. I can hear chickens but I can’t see any – in front of me is just one long white carpet. Such is the lack of space in here that it’s really difficult to make out individual birds. But as you move slowly through the sheds, keen eyed workers begin to pick out the dead.
At this stage of the cycle, just a few days from slaughter, they can be busy. The chickens don’t really walk; their endless cycle of food, water and no exercise has put paid to that. Their bodies are simply too big. Much like the chicken I saw in the road, these birds stand for a few seconds, before slumping down into the litter. Others lie with wings or legs stretched out, clear signs of welfare problems. Some are dead. Workers carry buckets and, with these birds fast approaching 56 days old, they struggle to carry more than a couple of dead birds at a time – such is their weight. I sneak a peak at the mortality sheet posted up at the farm and 1400 birds have succumbed in this cycle, many with heart failure or from disease. With these birds fast approaching slaughter a worker tells me that they are basically built to live for 9 weeks – if they’re not out of the sheds by then it gets rough, real rough.
I learnt that on most farms dead birds are buried – they’re dropped into pits or, as I’d seen on other farms, added to poultry litter once sheds are cleared out. Peering down into a dead chicken pit is not for the faint-hearted, yet the cycle of picking up the dead three or four times a day is just routine for workers.
It’s actually the dust that got to me most in the chicken sheds – yet I only saw one worker actually use a mask. It can choke you right up and left me coughing overnight. I spoke to workers who complained of the dust and also heard stories about other workers getting sick from working in these units. Perhaps you get used to it, but I felt it can’t be good for you in the long term.
The sheer volume of waste produced from one of these sheds was staggering. The litter doesn’t get changed until a batch of chickens gets taken out to the processor. For almost 8 weeks the chickens stay put on this festering mass of shavings and chicken faeces and then it gets cleared out and trailered off to crop farmers, often in the south. In small amounts the litter can give something back to the soil but the industry produces 2 million tons of the stuff each year in Georgia. Finding a place to put all that is becoming increasingly more difficult and putting the industry under the environmental spotlight.
Whilst visiting farms I heard accounts of people who dumped chicken litter into lakes, causing damaging algal blooms. Some get prosecuted but it seems many don’t, with smaller farms ducking out of management plans to deal with waste and the EPA more focused on pollution from hog farms. I spoke to several environmental experts in the State and they all had concerns about the impact of chicken waste on the local environment – for them, this was their biggest concern about the growth of the industry in recent years.
The impact of chicken waste on land and water definitely worried me when you considered the scale of some of the farms, but it was also the use of water on the sites themselves that posed questions. Staggering amounts of water are used in chicken production, not just to feed them but to keep them cool in sheds that can easily turn into ovens with the intense heat experienced in this part of the States. Some mid-size farms draw on 30,000 gallons of water a day in summer – and if they don’t have a few wells on site a lot of this will be water from the county. I wondered what might happen to chickens in drought conditions or ventilation failures in searing heat – one grower told me he lost over 500 chickens through heat stress alone when water systems failed.
Water adds weight on chickens too; some workers explained that sugary substances and vinegar are added to the drinking water to help with this and also perk them up a bit if they’re suffering!
After a couple of weeks getting to know this industry it was time to move on and meet some of the farmers rearing chickens the right way. It would be a welcome relief to see some healthier chickens, ranging open pastures, because an intensive bird is far from healthy and is literally on its last legs when it reaches the processor. They can’t walk, they can’t breathe, they can’t scratch…they’ve literally bred the chicken out of the chicken.
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Every year, over 50 billion chickens are reared worldwide, mostly en masse in windowless, barren and overcrowded sheds.
About chickens farmed for meat
Chickens farmed for meat are called broiler chickens.
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