"The Sound We Heard Was Singing"

Country Fair Farms, Westminster, MD 21158

by Karen Davis
To prepare for the Third Annual Spring Mourning Vigil for Chickens on May 1, UPC toured Country Fair Farms in January 1993. Manager Wayne Fleischman showed us through one of the four windowless buildings in which 125,000 hens live nine to a cage, dropping eggs onto a moving conveyer belt in a constant noise of bird cries. Wearing plastic "biosecurity" suits and shoes, we walked down gloomy isles stacked with cages on both sides stretching into a dusty ammonia haze farther than we could see. Cages occupy 580 feet by 60 feet divided into six rows with four levels of cages per row. The hens we saw were young, 20-week old pullets just starting to lay. Fleischman said their feet have never touched ground, in keeping with industry's trend away from "floor birds" at every stage of the hen's life. The hens were small white startled wistful-looking birds with intent dark eyes, large pale combs, and clipped beaks. There were sudden frantic movements and crawlings over and under each other inside the cage. Hens stacked at the bottom saw only our feet.

Fleischman said it used to take 24 lbs of food to feed 100 hens per day; now it takes just 22 lbs. Industry is working on developing strains of birds to lay the same number of eggs on even less food. 100 hens drink 4 1/2 gallons of water a day from overhead nipples, one nipple per cage. The hens are debeaked at the hatchery and again at the pullet house, because, Fleischman said, "First, chickens are cannibalistic. Second, beak-trimmed birds can't throw their food from the troughs because their beaks can't grasp it."

Asked if the birds are ever force molted, he said only if prices were down. He said, "It's mean and it's not mean." The birds get a "rest" from laying. They are taken off food for a week till they stop laying, then put on reduced rations. They lose their feathers, which look bad at the end of a year anyway. Tightly caged birds lose their feather cover.

There are two strains of artificially bred birds at the farm: Hy-Line W36, designed for "livability" and to lay medium to large eggs; and DeKalb Delta, designed to lay very large eggs fast. As a result of their added burden, twice as many DeKalb Deltas die each day--10 to 12 per house compared to 5 to 6 Hy-Lines. Laying is based on lighting as well as genetics. The initial 12 hour day is increased 15 minutes every week up to 16 "henday" hours. Beyond this, the hen's system breaks down.

Downstairs in the manure pit we saw two escaped hens running around the piles. Manure is supposed to be scraped out twice a year. It falls onto metal "drop sheets" behind the cages avoiding the hens below. The hens are trucked to slaughter in New Jersey where they are shackled and decapitated for "Campbell's Soup." Amazingly, two or three crows rose out of this hell.

Fleischman said they keep a few cockerels in the cages "to hear a different sound." He said "the birds are better cared for in a cage. They're like humans--They need fresh water and food. They're not uncomfortable. They can lie down at night. The sound we heard was singing. The hens sing in their cages."