The life of a chicken raised for meat starts at the breeder farm. The most common breeds used in the poultry meat industry in New Zealand are the Cobb (developed by the Cobb Vantress breeding company in the US) and the Ross (developed by Aviagen in Scotland), both of which are white. New Zealand imports eggs from these two companies.
There are strict biosecurity regulations for importing the eggs, which are incubated and hatched in quarantine. The hatchlings become the great-grandparent flock, which produce grandparent stock, which in turn produce parent stock – it is the offspring of the parent stock that are raised for meat production.
All together now!
The synchronised hatching of commercial chickens is important to ensure they are all the same size and reach maturity together. This is achieved by having similarly-sized eggs and uniform incubation conditions for egg hatching. In some bird species, hatching is naturally synchronised. Before ducklings hatch, for example, they communicate with each other by making clicking noises, signalling when to start chipping their way out of the egg. The ducklings then hatch simultaneously, so they can follow their mother together and reduce the risk of predation.
Eggs from the parent stock are sent to a hatchery, where they are incubated for 21 days. After hatching, day-old chicks are transported to meat-chicken farms.
Meat chickens are not housed in cages, but are kept in large barns. They have access to food and water, and are able to move about inside the barn on wood shavings or paper litter. Each shed generally contains 25,000–45,000 chicks, depending on size and planned processing weight. The chickens are raised until they reach the ideal weight (in 32–42 days).
About 1.4% of meat chickens in New Zealand are raised in free-range production systems, where chickens have access to an outdoor area or range. There are no legal standards for how much outside space each hen must have, but the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2005 recommends 11 square metres for laying hens.
Poultry-meat processing companies contract farmers or growers to rear chickens from day-old chicks through to their processing weight. The processor maintains ownership of the flock – the contract farmer or grower provides land, labour and buildings, which must meet company specifications. The processing companies provide training, technical and veterinary expertise, feed, and the chicks. To minimise transportation costs, farms are usually less than 50 kilometres from processing plants.
Each grower is given a company manual, and personnel are available 24 hours a day to help where necessary. The grower receives a specified amount for rearing flocks of chickens, and payment generally includes a performance-based component. Growers generally rear around six flocks a year.
In 2009, 137,000 tonnes of chicken meat was produced, with carcasses averaging 1.74 kilograms each – more than 79 million chickens.
The New Zealand poultry industry has been dominated by chickens for many years. While other countries farm large numbers of other poultry such as turkey or duck, the market share of chickens in New Zealand has not slipped below 98% since the 1990s.
Frozen or fresh?
Frozen poultry once dominated the market, but now fresh meat is far more popular, with 75-80% of poultry being sold fresh. However, people often buy fresh poultry and freeze it at home.
The speciality poultry industry in New Zealand is growing, as international cuisines become more popular. Specialty poultry breeds grown for meat include turkey, duck, guinea fowl, goose, quail, poussin (young chicken), pheasant and squab (young pigeon).