So, you may have seen photos of a chicken farm – even driven past one at some point – and seen the large sheds…maybe even a sign at the farm gate advising that there is no entry…that you need to call the farmer first, and you may have thought “but where are the chickens?” and “why can’t we see them?”. Some people have taken that further to think that this means there is some big secret hidden behind that farm gate and inside the grey shed walls…the more imaginative have even gone so far as to suggest that there must be something sinister going on inside.
The way chickens are farmed today is because it is the safest, most efficient and chicken-friendly way to produce the 580 million plus chickens needed to fulfill Australian consumers’ ever growing demand for chicken meat. Why? Consider two key facts that distinguish chicken from virtually all other livestock species that we farm for food in Australia:
- They are birds; and they are susceptible to a wide range of diseases that are carried and transmitted by other bird species. Wild and feral birds are not contained by fences; they don’t respect boundaries or state borders…they can even enter Australia freely, avoiding our strict border quarantine arrangements, because they can fly! Strict biosecurity precautions are therefore needed to make sure that commercial chickens do not come in contact with other birds (or their droppings) which are potentially carrying diseases to which they are susceptible.
- After they hatch, and for up to three weeks thereafter (at which point they have lost their fluffy ‘down’ and have developed their full feathers which keep them insulated against the cold) they need to be brooded – that is, they need to be provided with a constant (relatively hot) thermal environment which is generally not achievable outdoors under Australian climates. For example, a day old chick is most comfortable and likely to survive at a constant temperature of around 31 – 33oC. This can be provided inside a warmed chicken shed, not outside. In fact, even chickens which have access to an outside range are generally not allowed outside until they have reached an age at which they are fully feathered.
Baby chicks need to be provided with extra heating. Heaters are either located in the shed or located along the shed wall.
For these two primary reasons, chickens are grown in sheds or barns and there are very strict procedures in place to minimise their contact with wild birds.
So, is it possible to visit a chicken farm? Yes – so long as a range of protocols are followed to ensure that biosecurity precautions aren’t breached and the health and welfare of the flock isn’t compromised.
Clearly, it is not going to be possible or practical for everyone to see inside a chicken farm, so to try and give the public an idea of how a chicken farm operates and what it looks like inside a chicken shed, the ACMF provides detailed information, photos (http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=200) and even video footage of chicken farms on its website.
Over the last few years, the ACMF has also organised and hosted farm tours for interested media, nutritionists, dieticians, bloggers and more recently, teachers, to provide an insight into what goes on inside a chicken farm. Attendees on these tours must meet and adhere to strict biosecurity precautions (including a declaration that they have had no contact with birds or live poultry prior to the visit, donning protective overalls and booties at the farm so that any dust or other material on their clothing or footwear can’t be deposited in the shed and potentially be the source of infection to the flock, using disinfectant footbaths and washing their hands before entering the shed), and vehicular entry to the farm is controlled.
This requires careful coordination, so isn’t something that is done every day, but the hope is that, over time, an increasing number of members of the public will have had the opportunity to see and experience for themselves what happens on a chicken farm, so it’s a great start to opening up an industry which is so often perceived as being closed and/or accused of being ‘secretive’.
The last farm tour hosted by the ACMF was held just last week, with a group of nine able to visit a farm at Peats Ridge in NSW. Here are a couple of images from inside the shed; more will be uploaded on the ACMF Facebook page in the coming week.
The next farm tour, involving teachers and media, is being run next week. Photos from some past farm tours can be also be found on the ACMF website: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=200&gallery=Media%20Tours)
For those of you who can’t join an organised visit to a chicken farm, I invite you to take a virtual visit to a chicken farm: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=155&issue=1…you don’t even need to put on ugly oversized overalls to do that!