From Egg to Drummies: 10 Weeks From Farm to Food

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2002-07-10 Print this article Print

The life of a chicken is short but jam-packed. Follow one bird's journey from the hatchery to the supermarket shelf.

Day -21
Eggs come from breeder farms and are placed in incubator systems for 18 days. The eggs are moved on day 19 to a hatchery where chicks beginning "pipping" process and hatch in three days.

  • Temperature controls keep air at 99.5 degrees, humidity at 86%. The eggs hatch in 21 days.

    Day 0
    Chicks are packed and transported to grow-out farms.

  • Onboard computers control truck tarps that cover and uncover birdcages to regulate heat and cold.
  • Tracking software determines number of chicks to be delivered to individual grow-out farms, instructions for length of time and size to be grown.

    Days 1-4
    Development begins
    Chickens are placed in chicken house and immediately begin eating feed and drinking water in 24-hour light.

  • Feed distributed through automated auger delivery system monitored by a software program that measures amount of feed dropped to feeding pans.
  • Automated Brooder/Heaters take temperature readings and adjust the heat needed to keep chicks growing rapidly.
  • Nipples disperse water to chicks as software monitors total water intake.
  • Ventilation fans and cooling pads automated to reach desired temperature.
  • Medicine distributed as needed either through the automated feed- or water-delivery system.

    Days 5-25
    Let there be less light
    Chickens continue to eat and drink but software system reduces light exposure to 15 hours a day to ensure the chickens don't grow too fast for their heart and skeletal structure.

  • Sensors on the house floor measure weight of chickens and then adjust feed and water rations according to desired growth size.
  • Heaters, brooders, feed and water delivery systems, ventilation fans all continue to regulate environment.

    Days 26-46 GROW-OUT FARM
    Breakfast by candlelight
    Lighting reduced to one candlelight for entire house 24 hours a day to limit chicken activity to prevent burning of calories and loss of body mass.

  • Sensors on the house floor continue to measure weight of chickens and then adjust feed and water rations according to desired growth size.
  • Heaters, brooders, feed and water delivery systems continue to regulate environment.

    Day 47
    Hour 1

    Factory, here we come
    Chickens are herded and gathered by hand or machine into trucks for delivery to processing plant during dark, early-morning hours to reduce stress on chickens.

  • Trucks are weighed as they arrive at the plant and after unloading to determine the live weight delivered from the farm.
  • Birds are transferred to a shackle transport system
  • Birds are electrically stunned and then killed by a high-speed revolving circular blade that cuts key veins and arteries.
  • The birds are scalded, de-feathered by machine and transferred to the eviscerating line.
  • USDA inspectors, who are hooked up by computer to main offices, check carcasses, which are trimmed and dropped into a chiller and cooled to reduce the risk of spoilage.

    Hour 2
    Packed and wrapped
    Birds emerge from the chiller and are graded. Some are sent to be packaged as whole birds, some to be cut up, and some to be de-boned.

  • Packing machines wrap birds individually and then bundle like-products into cartons. Computerized scales weigh cartons of birds, which are then labeled with bar codes for shipment tracking.
  • Chickens are de-boned and optically guided cutting machines slice the meat into precise sizes for portioning
  • Much of the de-boned product is further processed (marinated, battered, cooked and frozen) for shipment to market.

    Hour 4

  • Cartons are sent to distribution plants for storage
  • Warehouse management systems keep track of cartons with bar codes and laser scanners.
  • Fresh, whole birds shipped out in refrigerated trucks to grocery store customers.

    Day 48
    Truck fleets move cut-up chicken products to market, usually arriving within 24 hours of departure.

  • Food buyers' orders matched by processors' computer systems to existing inventory.
  • Trucks are dispatched and monitored by computer and satellite.
  • Electronic Networks track delivery of chicken products to customer.

    My life was short but I died knowing I'm still out there providing valuable nutrition to people, plants and animals.

    Short of a stray organ here or an unwieldy piece of skin there, every single part of me will be used and reused in the days and months to come. In a way, I guess you could say I'm immortal.

    In fact, experts tell me I'm in high demand and far more popular than any of the other animals that roamed the farm I used to call home; not that I did much roaming.

    Until now, that is, when I'm actually in a lot of different places.

    My breasts have been halved, breaded and shipped to their current resting-place on a shelf in a supermarket in Denver. My legs should be arriving in Moscow any time now. All my feathers have been processed and are now being eaten by cattle somewhere in Texas. My blood and bones have been rendered for cat food, fertilizer and who-knows- what else. My wings have been seasoned with barbecue sauce and served with a side of ranch dressing and celery at some bar and grill in New York City. My feet? Well, they're headed to Asia where I'm told they're something of a delicacy.

    Let me tell you how I got to this point.

    It all started nearly 50 days ago when I poked my egg tooth out of my shell. In just a couple of hours, I was on a truck from the hatchery to the grow-out farm where I would spend the next 46 days of my life.

    At the farm, I was quickly unloaded and put into a house with about 20,000 other chicks. The house was very nice and modern with an auger-like feeding system that would systematically drop lots of feed onto about 240 feeding pans. There were another 2,860 nipple drinkers there, too, where I could drink to my heart's content. The curtains on one side of the house were always closed and all the fans, cooling pads, scales, thermometers and humidifiers were run by software that kept the farm owner apprised of our every move.

    At any time, the farmer could see just how much food and water we were consuming and adjust the amount automatically delivered to us by making a few keystrokes. When the room got too hot or humid, the computerized temperature gauges transmitted the data to the computer and to a personal computer that the farmer had at all times.

    The food tasted like corn with some subtle soy and salt flavors blended in. I'm told the salt was added to make us thirsty so that we'd drink lots of water. That helped us bulk up.

    For the first five days, the lights were kept on around the clock. There was nothing else to do but eat, drink and answer the call of nature, so when the lights were on we did lots of eating. From day five to day 25, the software system triggered the lights to go off for nine hours a day, giving us plenty of time to keep eating but not so much that we would overtax our hearts or bones.

    On and after the 26th day, we were basically kept in the dark. The software lowers the light to one candlelight for the whole room around the clock so that we don't burn calories and lose body weight. It's not so bad, really, because by this time we know can find the food and water in the dark. It also keeps us tame so we don't peck each other.

    During this 47-day period of growing out, we were constantly eating and hopping around on little sensors that would tell the farmer how active we were, how much we weighed and whether or not the air temperature was ideal for our growth. This data was transmitted back to the farmer's house over a cable- modem, where he could sit down in front of his PC and check our status.

    After a while, the house became a bit stuffy and started to smell. The farmer knew he had to keep the ammonia level from our dung down to below 40 parts per million or else we'd lie down and not eat as much. If we didn't eat, we didn't grow. If our owner's computer showed we were not eating as much food and drinking as much water as we were the day before, he had to come down and verify the data before adjusting our ventilation.

    Day 47 began as the previous 21 had but something different happened. Suddenly the door to the house was opened and we were awkwardly herded and—in most cases—tossed into the back of a large truck. Because it was dark, we weren't terribly agitated. Had they tried that during the daylight, it would have taken them forever to get us into that truck.

    After about a 75-mile drive, we arrived at the processing plant. This would be one of the few times that a human being actually put his hands on us. They grabbed us by our legs and hung us upside on something called a shackle.

    Think of it as an assembly line toward dismemberment.

    It was one continuous series of interconnected, automated machines all monitored by a computer using Windows software. If something went wrong, the software alerted the supervisor who would then shut down the line to re-attach one of us birds to the line or do a little maintenance on the machines. At this point, we were sized and weighed and the information was transmitted to a central computer. This data was used to determine how much money the farmer would get paid for us, as well as serve as the starting point for determining how much I would cost per pound.

    The first stop was the stun bath. The shackles carried me along and then dipped me into some salty water that was charged by a couple of hundred volts of electricity. The idea was stun us so that we were not conscious through the rest of the process, but not immediately kill us.

    From the stun bath, we were moved right into the neck cutter, which is calibrated to a specific depth and location. Then it was on to the scalding bath where we were dipped into very hot water that loosens up our feathers before we were sent through a machine with large rubber fingers that basically battered off the majority of our feathers.

    Next we went through a section where our organs were removed for USDA inspectors to examine for disease.

    Then we were washed inside and out in chlorinated, ice-cold, computer-monitored water tanks before getting examined by the inspectors who then transmitted their data to their home office.

    After chilling out for a while, we came to the fork in the road. The roughly 20% of us that were to be sold whole were sent to the packaging area. The rest of us destined to be chopped up into various parts were sent to cut-up areas for further processing. Computers channeled our carcasses to either a whole bird or cut-up operation, depending on the mix of products our owner figured the buyers wanted.

    I ended up on the fast track for parts. Automated de-boners and slitters sliced the meat off bones and processors turned other parts into various pieces, including Chicken McNuggets.

    Automated foreign body detectors X-ray our carcasses for any bone or cartilage fragments before our meat is finally sent to automated injectors that apply the barbecue or teriyaki or whatever seasoning we need before being shipped.

    It sounds tough, but it didn't take long. From the time I arrived at the plant to the time I was chopped up and marinated, only about two hours elapsed.

    At this point, I, and several thousand of my colleagues, were packaged and labeled for distribution. Based on the time and date that I arrived at the processing plant, any part of me sold anywhere in the world can be tracked back the exact flock and grow-out farm location from which I came.

    Based on the orders the processing form received—either manually or through the electronic ordering system—the destination for my various parts were assigned and the trucks and drivers who delivered me to the food-service distributors, restaurants and retailers were determined by the supply chain software used by the processing company.

    This software figured out whether or not we'd need refrigerated trucks or freezers, which distribution locations we'd be held at, and the exact date we'd be delivered to our final destination.

    They told me at some point that when customers purchased other chickens at the grocery store, the type and weight of meat sold would be transmitted to the distributor. He, in turn, would send the information back to the plant to determine how many of us would be needed for next week's delivery.

    Senior Writer
    Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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