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Poultry farming is a part of the United States's agricultural economy.
In the United States, chickens were raised primarily on family farms until about 1960. Originally, the primary value in poultry keeping was eggs, and meat was considered a byproduct of egg production. Its supply was less than the demand, and poultry was expensive. Except in hot weather, eggs can be shipped and stored without refrigeration for some time before going bad; this was important in the days before widespread refrigeration.
Farm flocks tended to be small because the hens largely fed themselves through foraging, with some supplementation of grain, scraps, and waste products from other farm ventures. Such feedstuffs were in limited supply, especially in the winter, and this tended to regulate the size of the farm flocks. Soon after poultry keeping gained the attention of agricultural researchers (around 1896), improvements in nutrition and management made poultry keeping more profitable and businesslike.
Prior to about 1910, chicken was served primarily on special occasions or Sunday dinner. Poultry was shipped live or killed, plucked, and packed on ice (but not eviscerated). The "whole, ready-to-cook broiler" wasn't popular until the 1950s, when end-to-end refrigeration and sanitary practices gave consumers more confidence. Before this, poultry were often cleaned by the neighborhood butcher, though cleaning poultry at home was a commonplace kitchen skill.
Two kinds of poultry were generally offered: broilers or "spring chickens," young male chickens, a byproduct of the egg industry, which were sold when still young and tender (generally under 3 pounds live weight); and "fowls" or "stewing hens," also a byproduct of the egg industry, which were old hens past their prime for laying. This is no longer practiced; modern meat chickens are a different breed. Egg-type chicken carcasses no longer appear in stores.
The major milestone in 20th century poultry production was the discovery of Vitamin-D (named in 1922), which made it possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round. Before this, chickens did not thrive during the winter (due to lack of sunlight), and egg production, incubation, and meat production in the off-season were all very difficult, making poultry a seasonal and expensive proposition. Year-round production lowered costs, especially for broilers.
At the same time, egg production was increased by scientific breeding. After a few false starts, such as the Maine Experiment Station's failure at improving egg production, success was shown by Professor Dryden at the Oregon Experiment Station.
Improvements in production and quality were accompanied by lower labor requirements. In the 1930s through the early 1950s, 1,500 hens was considered to be a full-time job for a farm family. In the late 1950s, egg prices had fallen so dramatically that farmers typically tripled the number of hens they kept, putting three hens into what had been a single-bird cage or converting their floor-confinement houses from a single deck of roosts to triple-decker roosts. Not long after this, prices fell still further and large numbers of egg farmers left the business. This marked the beginning of the transition from family farms to larger, vertically integrated operations.
Robert Plamondon reports that the last family chicken farm in his part of Oregon, Rex Farms, had 30,000 layers and survived into the 1990s. But the standard laying house of the surviving operations is around 125,000 hens.
This fall in profitability was accompanied by a general fall in prices to the consumer, allowing poultry and eggs to lose their status as luxury foods.
The vertical integration of the egg and poultry industries was a late development, occurring after all the major technological changes had been in place for years (including the development of modern broiler rearing techniques, the adoption of the Cornish Cross broiler, the use of laying cages, etc.).
By the late 1950s, poultry production had changed dramatically. Large farms and packing plants could grow birds by the tens of thousands. Chickens could be sent to slaughterhouses for butchering and processing into prepackaged commercial products to be frozen or shipped fresh to markets or wholesalers. Meat-type chickens currently grow to market weight in six to seven weeks whereas only fifty years ago it took three times as long. This is due to genetic selection and nutritional modifications (and not the use of growth hormones, which are illegal for use in poultry in the US and many other countries). Once a meat consumed only occasionally, the common availability and lower cost has made chicken a common meat product within developed nations. Growing concerns over the cholesterol content of red meat in the 1980s and 1990s further resulted in increased consumption of chicken.
Today, eggs are produced on large egg ranches on which environmental parameters are controlled. Chickens are exposed to artificial light cycles to stimulate egg production year-round. In addition, it is a common practice to induce molting through manipulation of light and the amount of food they receive in order to further increase egg size and production.
On average, a chicken lays one egg a day for a number of days (a "clutch"), then does not lay for one or more days, then lays another clutch. Originally, the hen presumably laid one clutch, became broody, and incubated the eggs. Selective breeding over the centuries has produced hens that lay more eggs than they can hatch. Some of this progress was ancient, but most occurred after 1900. In 1900, average egg production was 83 eggs per hen per year. In 2000, it was well over 300.
In the United States, laying hens are butchered after their second egg laying season. In Europe, they are generally butchered after a single season. The laying period begins when the hen is about 18–20 weeks old (depending on breed and season). Males of the egg-type breeds have little commercial value at any age, and all those not used for breeding (roughly fifty percent of all egg-type chickens) are killed soon after hatching. Such "day-old chicks" are sometimes sold as food for captive and falconers birds of prey. The old hens also have little commercial value. Thus, the main sources of poultry meat a hundred years ago (spring chickens and stewing hens) have both been entirely supplanted by meat-type broiler chickens.
Traditionally, chicken production was distributed across the entire agricultural sector. In the 20th century, it gradually moved closer to major cities to take advantage of lower shipping costs. This had the undesirable side effect of turning the chicken manure from a valuable fertilizer that could be used profitably on local farms to an unwanted byproduct. This trend may be reversing itself due to higher disposal costs on the one hand and higher fertilizer prices on the other, making farm regions attractive once more.
From the farmer's point of view, eggs used to be practically the same as currency, with general stores buying eggs for a stated price per dozen. Egg production peaks in the early spring, when farm expenses are high and income is low. On many farms, the flock was the most important source of income, though this was often not appreciated by the farmers, since the money arrived in many small payments. Eggs were a farm operation where even small children could make a valuable contribution.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends cervical dislocation and asphyxiation by carbon dioxide as the best options, but has recently amended their guidelines to include maceration, putting non-anesthetized chicks through a grinder.
The 2005–2006 American Veterinary Medical Association Executive Board held its final meeting July 13 in Honolulu, prior to the 2006 session of the House of Delegates and the AVMA Annual Convention. It proposed a policy change, which was recommended by the Animal Welfare Committee on disposal of unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs. The new policy states, in part, "Unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs should be killed by an acceptable humane method, such as use of a commercially designed macerator that results in instantaneous death. Smothering unwanted chicks or poults in bags or containers is not acceptable. Pips, unwanted chicks, or poults should be killed prior to disposal. A pipped egg, or pip, is one where the chick or poult has not been successful in escaping the egg shell during the hatching process."
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The Illinois River, which flows between Arkansas and Oklahoma, has had a high level of pollution due to water runoff contaminated with chicken manure.