How Electrification Distanced Poultry Farmers from their Flocks
Corn, but not Cob, was the 2020 beneficiary of the pre-Thanksgiving turkey pardon. In a particularly macabre turn for an already uncomfortable custom, the Trump White House had Americans vote for which of these two turkeys should be spared. While the Biden administration discontinued the use of condemnatory Twitter polls—pardoning both Peanut Butter and Jelly in November 2021—the tradition very much remains in effect today.
For many Americans, the turkey pardon serves as a yearly reminder that the meat they consume originates in a living creature. While this reminder may be disconcerting, the turkey pardon, sponsored by the National Turkey Federation, is staged to allay the public’s enduring ethical concerns about meat consumption. The turkeys delivered to the White House for the pardoning ceremony are in pristine health.
The reality for most turkeys, and for poultry birds at large, is radically different. Whereas the White House birds have full coats of unblemished feathers, most farmed turkeys have relatively meager plumage with muddied coloring. Raised under factory farm conditions, the birds pluck out their feathers from the stress of living in less than three-and-a-half square feet of space littered with their own detritus.
Yet just over a century ago turkeys and other poultry birds were raised in comparatively bucolic conditions. Permitted to forage freely outdoors alongside companions, these birds were provided ample opportunities to stretch their wings and exercise natural behaviors. Given the drastic changes to poultry birds’ material living conditions over the past century, an obvious question follows: who, or what, contributed to this draconian change in poultry-raising conditions?
One answer is rather unexpected: farmers responded to the increasing availability of electricity in the 1920s by making gradual changes to the design of their poultry operations that eventually culminated in the dismal reality that is modern factory farming. The rise of electrified farming also served to emotionally distance farmers from the birds they raised. This effectively authorized farmers—without legal or economic consequences—to adopt less humane methods for raising birds.
Electrified Farming and Poultry Production
To conceptualize the material and emotional evolution of poultry farming, it is perhaps most useful to examine the lives of turkeys’ close cousins, chickens. The United States has historically been, and continues to be, a prolific chicken producer. Chickens were the first victims of factory farming in the United States, due to their small size and potential for being housed indoors. Since the 1920s, the lives of broiler chickens—birds raised for meat rather than egg-laying—and other poultry birds have been thoroughly electrified.
Today, fertilized eggs are immediately removed from their mothers and placed within electric incubators that precisely maintain their temperature. Within ten days of their hatching, poultry workers utilize an infrared beak trimming device to cauterize the chicks’ beaks. The procedure is required to prevent the birds, under the duress of factory farm conditions, from cannibalizing one another. Following their mutilation, the birds are taken to broiler sheds where they will be housed for the totality of their short, six-week-long lives.
The sheds where poultry birds are raised—which allot each bird less than one square foot of space—often have no natural light, resulting in the birds’ immersion in conditions of near total darkness or artificial light for days at a time. Feed and water access for the broilers is similarly controlled to improve growth. The sole responsibility of the poultry farmer during this six week period is to ensure that automated systems are functioning and, more gruesomely, to remove birds that have perished from the bacterial and viral infections that proliferate within the sheds.
Engineered for rapid growth, poultry birds are often unable to stand by the third week of their lives, weighed down by their large breasts. The lameness of the birds makes their eventual slaughter easier. After a violent corralling procedure choreographed by farmers, broilers are slaughtered not directly by human touch, but by the touch of an electrified button. Slaughterhouse workers use shackles to hang conscious birds upside down on a moving chain that carries them to their deaths. The chickens are then stunned through submersion in an electrified water bath before their throats are slit.
In the twenty-first century, the rearing of chickens is mechanized, automized, and thoroughly electrified—the birds often only see humans as they take their first and final breaths. How, over the course of a century, did chicken rearing become so inextricably bound to electrical processes facilitated by indifferent farmers?
The Birth of a Chicken
In the early 1900s, raising chickens, beginning with their incubation, was a highly involved process in which farmers strove to honor the role of the mother hen. In 1908, Michigan Farmer published an advisory article on the topic, titled “Using the Sitting Hen to Best Advantage.”1 To yield healthy offspring, the article recommends that farmers permit hens to enjoy natural conditions. It assures farmers that mother hens will dutifully employ their maternal instincts to incubate their eggs under proper moisture and temperature conditions.
Beyond relying on the maternal instincts of the hen, Colman’s Rural World highlighted the paternal role that the farmer should have in aiding the incubation process. The 1914 article instructs farmers to frequently bathe hens and to carefully monitor the hatching of the birds so they may help the chick “more easily find its way out.”2
Taken together, these early twentieth century periodicals reveal two key attitudes held by poultry farmers prior to electrification of the industry. First, agricultural experts believed that mother hens played a critical role in the raising of their offspring. Farmers practiced deference toward natural life cycle processes, rather than believing that technology could better raise chicks. Second, there once existed a symbiotic relationship between farmers and mother hens: the farmer would work to provide chickens (and their eggs) with the best conditions possible so she may in turn produce healthy offspring for the farmer’s later use.
The emergence of electrically-powered incubators during this time period led to a radical shift in farmers’ attitudes. One of the first articles promoting the benefits of incubators appeared in 1912. The article disparages the role of maternal hens in the chick-rearing process, arguing that incubators will reliably hatch all eggs in its care, without the inconvenience of eggs “being broken by hens” in the natural process of incubation.3 It also praises the incubator as a time-saving device. Rather than performing manual egg inspections or working to ensure the best conditions for nesting hens, farmers could simply turn on incubators to perform these time-consuming but innately relationship-building tasks. As a consequence, farmers began to doubt the intrinsic chick-rearing capabilities of their hens and to practice a greater technological arrogance, moving to exclude birds from the process of raising their young.
The rise of incubators to hatch chicks severed the symbiotic relationship that existed between farmers and their laying hens, replacing inter-species care with electric technologies.
The Life of a Chicken
Prior to the advent of electrification, the lives of domesticated chickens, although standardized, bore a far greater resemblance to the living conditions and preferences of their wild counterparts. Two farmers profiled in a 1910 article in National Stockman and Farmer, Nora Trench and Sheila Marryat, prided themselves on the care they afforded to every animal. They “attended to every detail of handling housing, feeding and marketing” themselves, which included providing the chickens varied diets and reasonable roaming space.4
Farmers retained natural conditions in part due to the high mortality rates typically associated with subjecting chickens to cramped and otherwise miserable conditions. Raising the best chicken stock required that farmers provide the best conditions for their animals. The proliferation of air conditioning and ventilation systems in the mid-twentieth century, though, served to reasonably rectify the problems of illness and chronic heat stress that normally increased mortality rates. In turn, poultry farmers no longer concerned themselves with maintaining natural conditions for their birds.
Living, breathing chickens thus were viewed and treated increasingly as commodities. By 1935, Baltimore’s The Sun was calling attention to changing agricultural attitudes and the appearance of farms that closely resembled factories. In his article, author Avery McBee detailed the opening of a new poultry farm in Maryland that had attracted international attention following its utilization of contemporary air conditioning and ventilation technologies. McBee stated that the factory impressively “condenses into an acre of ground which should… require 610 acres.”5
But McBee was disturbed by the living conditions of the so-called “mechanized hens” and lamented the liberties that were disallowed by Mr. McManus, the owner of the factory farm. McBee wrote that chickens were denied “succulent worms, the tainted grains, the exhilarating scratching and the joys of the nest” in an effort to increase poultry production.
Profound material changes in chicken rearing were coupled with a new lust for control amongst contemporary chicken farmers. In the words of McBee, the chickens living in the factory farm were under “mechanical and thermostatic supervision,” whereby all that the chickens experienced—“their food and water, the air they breathe, the light they see”—was decided and fine-tuned by the farmer. McManus seemed to relish the power he had over the birds, praising the unnatural outcomes achieved by factory farming. He described to McBee with pride that his five-year-old hens, as a consequence of their near-complete immobilization in small battery cages, “would be as tender as a [nine-week-old] broiler” upon slaughter. In pursuit of profits, it appears that farmers began to delude themselves into believing that their chickens—free roaming animals just decades prior—were content to be subject to the conditions of absolute control that would yield maximum profits. In other words, electric technologies permitted farmers to ruthlessly commodify their animals and trivialize the lives of sentient beings.
The Deaths of Chickens
Because electrified farming enabled a far larger bird population, farmers were soon overwhelmed with the task of slaughter. To expedite the process, farmers came to electrify the deaths of chickens, too. The electrification of slaughter not only solidified birds’ status as commodified objects but led farmers to absolve themselves from the moral responsibility associated with both the creation and extermination of millions of lives.
Slaughtering animals was once an exceedingly intimate process, executed by farmers themselves. The Prairie Farmer ran an article in 1867 informing poultrymen how to kill their fowl, detailing how to provide chickens with an “instant death…by dividing [their] vertebrate” with a blade.6 This expectation of painless slaughter by chicken-rearers continued through the early twentieth century.
The act of slaughter changed radically after the commodification of chicken rearing. A single farmer raising thousands of broilers at once was no longer able to handle the slaughter of his chickens himself. Facilities designed exclusively for the slaughter of chickens began to appear in the mid-twentieth century. Perdue, the self-proclaimed “original premier provider of quality chicken,” opened its first slaughterhouse in 1967 in Salisbury, Maryland, in the same state as McManus’ much-celebrated factory farm. These facilities greatly expedited the slaughter and plucking process through the use of electric conveyor belts, stunners, and hot water baths. Modern farmers merely became responsible for packing birds into cages for transport to the slaughterhouses.
Perdue, along with other slaughtering sites, skillfully rebranded slaughtering facilities as mere “processing” plants. As sarcastically remarked in a 1987 New Yorker article, “One isn’t apt to hear Perdue people talking about chickens being ‘slaughtered.’”7 Perdue’s manipulation of language marked a significant turn in the rhetoric used to describe animals being killed for human consumption. It enabled farmers, as well as consumers, to exist in a state of comfortable ignorance.
In the era of modern, electrified farming, farmers need only interact with fowl to mitigate the probability of profit-harming events. For instance, farmer McManus commented on his need to intervene to prevent cannibalism amongst the birds. To deal with this nettlesome behavior, McManus installed ruby red lights to hide “the provocative stain” of blood that triggers cannibalistic behaviors amongst factory-farmed birds. The electric technologies provide a Band-Aid solution for the larger problem of poultry birds’ welfare within contemporary facilities, allowing the farmer to remain callous to the stress of his animals.
By the end of the twentieth century, farmers were thoroughly dissociated from the lives of their birds, and increasingly relied upon technological interventions to handle the unpleasant actualities of raising sentient animals, such as handling inter-bird conflict or performing their slaughter.
Thanksgiving and Beyond
This year, when Americans collectively cringe at Biden’s second turkey pardon, it may be worth taking a moment to consider the millions of other imperiled birds. Peanut Butter, Jelly, and Corn (but not Cob) certainly should not have faced an untimely death. The 45 million turkeys that will be killed for Thanksgiving this year deserve a similar mercy, not to mention the nine billion chickens that are slaughtered in the U.S. each year.
Those responsible for producing our poultry also deserve compassion. Although electrified farming was once adopted independently by farmers, modern farmers have little choice but to practice impersonal poultry rearing. Subject to a brutal contract system, farmers must expedite poultry production to earn a living. Slaughterhouse workers likewise face the consequences of an exploitative regime that prioritizes efficiency over the health of its employees.
Although it would be unreasonable to suggest that Americans should go cold turkey on Thanksgiving, a more humane poultry rearing system is attainable. It is high time to at least reinstate the connection between farmers and their flocks or, in the spirit of animal liberation, sever it entirely.
Featured Image: Two turkeys showing off their plumage. Photo by Magda Ehlers, 2021.
Zoe Robertson is a senior in Yale College, studying political science and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. She works with the Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School to combat the harms of factory farming. Contact
Edwy P. Reid, “Using the Sitting Hen to Best Advantage: Keeping Memoranda of Eggs and of the Hatches Some Reasons for Testing Eggs During Incubation,” Michigan Farmer, March 28, 1908. ↩
“In the Poultry Yard: How to Set a Hen,” Colman’s Rural World, May 21, 1914. ↩
Jos Wardin, “About Chickens: How Incubator Benefits Farmer,” The Atlanta Constitution, March 3, 1912. ↩
Currie Love, “Poultry: Two Girl Chicken-Farmers Raising Chickens on an Irrigation Farm,” National Stockman and Farmer, July 14, 1910. ↩
Avery McBee, “Eggs From Mechanized Hens: Poultry Farm Near Cockeysville Employs Factory Methods,” The Sun, July 14, 1935. ↩
“Killing and Marketing Poultry: The Way to Kill a Fowl,” Prairie Farmer, December 21, 1867. ↩
Thomas Whiteside, “C.E.O., TV,” The New Yorker, July 6, 1987. ↩