Production and processing of chicken for meat and eggs became an extremely intensive high-volume operation in the United States. Low profit margins and the low product prices do not leave much room for errors or inefficiencies. To operate under these constraints, companies must continually increase their scale and efficiency. This trend started in the 1920s and 1930s when successful breeding turned broilers and laying chickens from seasonal into year-round egg and meat producers. It exploded during the 1980s and 1990s, taking advantage of the marvelous developments in computers and automation and the dramatic increase in consumer demand. The twenty-first century is expected to bring even greater efficiencies.
To supply a modern processing plant with 3.5 million crossbred broilers per week, a huge production pyramid system is required. At the top of the pyramid is the breeding company, which develops the male and female lines of the grandparent breeder lines. The grandparent males and females produce fertile eggs or live chicks of the male and female lines of parent breeder lines. These are sold directly to parent breeder farms, which belong to very large broiler companies or to their contracted farmers. Fertile eggs are produced and shipped to hatcheries, which generally belong to the broiler companies.
The standard broiler is raised for about 6 to 7 weeks. Therefore 22-25 million broilers at different ages must be raised at the same time to provide a steady supply of 3.5 million birds per week to the processing plant (projected broiler mortality is included). About 275,000 grandparent chickens and 750,000 parent breeder chickens are needed to maintain the steady stream of broiler chicks needed. The grandparents and parent birds are replaced at around 15 months of age when egg production decreases. A standard production house (growing barn) maintains 20,000 to 25,000 broilers (Fig. 1). Fewer birds are housed in summer
to reduce heat stress. Therefore, 840 to 1,050 production houses are needed to support one plant. Around 36 plants of this magnitude will be needed to process the 6.3 billion broilers slaughtered in the United States annually (1997), although today many processing plants are smaller. Countries with smaller production facilities incur inefficiencies in their production systems, which results in higher production costs and higher finished product prices. Low standard of living, low local currency exchange rate against U.S. money, and low feed cost can improve prices in these countries when converted to U.S. dollars for comparison. However, when calculated as percentage of income spent on food, these prices are enormously high. Only highly vertically integrated large companies can have megaplants because large capital investment is needed. Smaller companies that are partially integrated need to buy part of their services from independent hatcheries or feed mills, which makes their operation more expensive. As a result the larger companies keep buying smaller ones and integrating them into their megaoperations. They also buy smaller food companies that further expand their processing and marketing capabilities. In many countries the rate of annual disappearance of poultry companies is 5 to 10% of all existing companies.
Incubation is also a vital part of a modern megapro-duction scale. The incubator was commercially developed around 500 b.c. by the Chinese, who improved the concept previously developed in what is now Malaysia. There, the jungle fowl eggs were gathered and incubated; because only cocks were wanted, all female pullets were sent free back to the jungle. The Chinese used a series of baskets that held about 1,200 eggs. Later, the Egyptians independently developed large hatcheries made from sun-dried mud bricks that held about 70,000 eggs at one time. The incubators were heated by burning coal or camel dung, and egg temperature was measured on the eyelid by an experienced operator. Controlling constant incubating egg temperature was an art passed down through families.
In the United States incubators started to be used in the late nineteenth century. During World War I a steep demand for eggs triggered the development of large incubators, as the hatching of eggs under sitting hens hit its limits. Among the most impressive developments was the million-egg room incubator developed in California. Incubation also substantially reduced the cost of chick production compared to mother hens. In 1928, 57% of all chicks were hatched in incubators; in 1959 96% of all eggs were incubated. Today incubators hold 80,000 to 90,000 eggs. They are fully automated and provide excellent control of temperature and other environmental parameters. Heating is done by electricity or hot water. Many modern incubators are of the tunnel type where the eggs are loaded into egg carts on one side and slowly move toward the hatcheries on the other. The chicks are hatched after 21 days. To supply the need of 7 million broilers per week, 10.5 million eggs must be incubated at any time. This requires 117 incubators. The efficiency of the hatchery is measured by hatchability percentage, which depends on parent breeding quality and also on the quality of the incubator operations. The average hatchability of broilers is 85 to 89%. The specific figures must be built into the pro duction schedule of each operation by the addition of more incubators.
Harvesting is one of the most laborious jobs left in poultry production. Crews of bird catchers operate by night when the birds are immobilized due to their poor night vision. The catchers place the birds in shipping crates and load the crates on flatbed trucks. The accuracy and care of the catchers' operations strongly affect the processing plant yield in that bruises and broken limbs are trimmed off by the inspectors and used for pet food. A mechanical broiler loader was developed in England where a slow rotating drum with long rubber fingers carefully moves the birds into a tunnel equipped with conveyors that place the birds in the shipping crate. This equipment is operated by one person. Mechanical harvesters have not gained wide acceptance, but the diminishing labor force will require mechanical solutions in the future.
Other aspects of production are described in the turkey section that are similar in principle to those used for broilers. Processing is discussed in the article Poultry meat processing and product technology.
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