Recently, a video surfaced about the welfare of some chickens on a Certified Humane farm. As soon as the video surfaced, we sent one of our highly-qualified poultry inspectors to do an unannounced inspection of the farm.
Whenever Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) receives a complaint about a farm on the program, we immediately investigate. We address all complaints and concerns about every farm in the Certified Humane program. We rely on our farm animal experts to review the living conditions of the animals, file a report with us, and ensure the farm is complying with our Animal Care Standards. If they are not, their certification is revoked.
This was the inspector’s report:
“The scope of this inspection was to determine the welfare and living conditions of organically raised brown hens at this farm.
On first inspection, all hens were active in all levels of the aviary system and litter. Hens were observed foraging, perching, preening, resting, and dustbathing. The feather cover of the hens varied widely. Many birds were 100% fully feathered (about 25%) while others had severe feather loss (about 25%). The majority of hens exhibited some degree of feather loss, although this is normal for the age of the birds (68 weeks at inspection). Approximately 25 – 50% of the hens observed were in a heavy molt, evidenced by major feather regrowth. It appears the hens in this flock were undergoing a natural molt, accounting for some of the feather loss.
Hens were observed for any signs of aggression or cannibalism and no evidence was found. There were no aggressive interactions observed by the inspector, and no vent injuries were found while walking through the house.
The litter condition in the house was very good, litter was dry and easily movable. Hens were observed foraging and dustbathing in the litter. Birds were observed in all parts of the housing system with no crowding at any time during the inspection. The hens readily approached the inspector and staff (4 people in total) and explored around us by pecking at our boots. As I walked down the aisle, birds perched along the aisle did not leave the perches, but observed me in a curious manner. This strongly suggests the hens had no fear of humans, and are treated in a kind manner on a regular basis.
Overall, my assessment is that the birds were in good condition consistent with their strain and age. Housing conditions were excellent with good management, especially with litter condition.
I don’t see how they could have walked into the barn and filmed that many bare birds without having moved them into a group themselves. There were too many feathered hens in the house. There were some bare birds, but it was a minority of the flock.
Personally, I think a lot of that video had to be staged. The dead birds they claim were cannibalized, were not. One has a prolapse, but there is no evidence of cannibalism; the other was likely cannibalized, but post mortem (after death, which is common in organic flocks.) I looked really hard for vent injuries, and didn’t even see a single scratch.”
An explanation of molting
The poultry inspector said the birds he saw were molting, a natural cyclical process that sheds old feathers and produces new feathers over the course of several weeks to several months.
It can be shocking to see molting birds since they will often look very scruffy and some will look ‘oven ready.’ A partial molt can sometimes take place earlier in the year, but this usually just involves the neck feathers that fall off and are replaced. Most molting occurs in the fall.
Laying hens start laying eggs at about 20 weeks of age. They start the molting process between 60 to 65 weeks of age. The hen begins to shed old feathers, then pin feathers grow in to replace them. As the pin feathers become full feathers, even more feathers are shed. This is a natural cyclical process. Because feathers make up 4 to 12 % of a bird’s body weight, molting birds often look scraggy and very underweight, have a reduced immune system and are susceptible to disease. They sometimes peck at each other during this process too.
Molting is designed to give birds a rest from laying eggs. During this time, the bird builds up its body reserves of nutrients. It also contributes to a longer life for laying hens. Contrary to criticisms of cage-free hens, birds with more living space produce and molt better than conventional caged birds.
What we need to remember is that molting is a natural, regenerative process that gives the hen (or rooster) a whole new coat of fresh feathers every year. Their new feathers make them more resistant to disease. So, it’s a good thing, it’s a healthy thing for chickens – no matter how bad it looks to us.
To people who aren’t experts in chicken welfare (who is everyone who is not a poultry expert), their appearance can be shocking and concerning, especially when filmed in a barn in the middle of the night with artificial lighting. The intruder’s presence also likely terrified the birds who were not used to night time visitors.
As the poultry expert, who has a PhD in poultry science and who inspected the farm, told us, these chickens were in the middle of a hard molt – an already vulnerable time for laying hens. Our inspectors always follow biosecurity requirements.
Unfortunately, the DXE trespassers broke into the henhouse without respect for the careful bio security measures used to protect flocks from pathogens and diseases. These diseases can be easily transmitted to birds at all stages of their life, but hens are especially vulnerable during molting. Because the hens’ suppressed immune systems were compromised as a result of DXE’s nighttime intrusion, the farmer euthanized the chickens in this barn shortly after our inspection.
DXE’s claims it is an animal liberation organization. They have tried to discredit this program and any program that provides relief to the billions of farm animals raised for food. DXE does nothing to actually help farm animals. They would prefer to foster their own agenda by showing falsified scenarios of “cruelty” to farm animals. If there are organizations that are actually doing something to make a difference in the lives of these farm animals, it is against their agenda.
They ask for donations at the end of their videos to support this agenda. If they cared about farm animals, they would educate themselves on the life phases of a laying hen rather than break into a farm in the middle of the night, stress the chickens with their activity and lights, and shoot videos that imply animal abuse when it was chickens experiencing their seasonal molt.