Chickens are not “crammed” in houses. Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) live in growout houses, which – as their namesake implies – provide enough space for chicks to literally “grow out” into full sized chickens. In fact, the houses are built in a way that each bird can eat, drink, rest and move around freely.

By nature, as the old saying goes, birds of a feather tend to flock together – a behavior that can sometimes give the impression that the birds are crowded, when in fact they’re just following their natural instincts.

If chickens did not have adequate space to move around, then they would not be able to eat and drink – and ultimately go to market. Not only is adequate space for each bird a basic welfare requirement, but it is also in the farmers’ best business interests for their birds to have space to grow and go to market – so that they can earn their living.


How much space do the birds have in an average chicken house in the U.S.?


According to the National Chicken Council’s Broiler Welfare Guidelines, birds must have space to express normal behaviors such as dust bathing, preening, eating, drinking, etc.

The number of birds in a chicken house (also known as “stocking density”) is based on a few factors, including the overall size of the barn, the size of the equipment in the house, and the target market weight of the birds – and is measured to ensure that chickens when fully grown have space to access fresh water and feed throughout their life.


It’s important to note that no broiler chickens are raised in cages.


As the birds age, they grow into this space.


When baby chicks are first delivered to the farm, they are small (about the size of baseball). In fact, because they are so small, farmers have to section off parts of the house so that the baby chicks don’t stray too far in the house!


As the birds grow larger, they start to fill up the house.


It is not until the birds reach market weight (around 7 weeks) that they fill up the space of the growout house. The birds are only at this size for a few days, and then they are transported for processing.


Why do farmers raise so many chickens at a time?


It’s true, 20,000-30,000 chickens is a lot of chickens! Advances in farming and technology have allowed farmers to raise more chickens and keep up with consumer demand (chicken is the #1 protein consumed in the US).

In addition, raising more chickens in one space has not only helped make chicken the affordable and accessible protein that it is today, but it has greatly reduced chicken farming’s environmental footprint because it makes farming more efficient and streamlined.


Why are chickens raised inside? Isn’t it better for chickens to be raised outside?


The majority of broiler chickens in the U.S. are grown in enclosed barns, also known as growout houses, to keep the birds safe from extreme weather, predators, insects and the possible introduction of diseases, like bird flu. Having an enclosed shelter also gives chickens a strong sense of security.

Broilers are grown on loose litter (which can be wood shavings, rice hulls, or some combination of plant materials) and can freely move within the enclosed barn.

Consumers have choices when it comes to how their chicken was raised. Free range chickens have some degree of access to the outside, and some chickens are raised outside on pasture. In most cases these birds are brought inside at nighttime to keep them safe from foxes, coyotes, etc.

One system is not “better” than the other. Each have different challenges when it comes to the health and safety of the chickens, and the safety and affordability of the product.

To download a PDF of this FAQ on broiler chicken housing, click here.


For an inside look at chicken houses, visit our Day in the Life videos.


Chicken farmers and producers take pride in the care of their broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat), and the fact is that chickens are as healthy as they’ve ever been. But we know it’s on us as an industry to do a better job of providing more information about how our chickens gets from farm to table and the welfare guidelines for broiler chickens – so we wanted to provide information on a few topics that you may have questions about:

Chicken Size & Growth Rates

ChickensIt is a fact that today’s chickens grow bigger and faster than the chickens from years past. It is also a fact that today’s chickens are healthier, more affordable, and feeding more people than ever before, while having less impact on the environment. Through a number of improvements in breeding, nutrition, veterinary care and bird health, today’s chicken farmers are able to raise bigger and healthier birds faster. All of the measurable data show that chicken’s health continues to improve.

Broiler chickens grow at different rates, depending on the breed and genetics of the birds. Farmers may choose to raise slower or faster growing birds, depending on several factors – and shoppers can also choose to purchase meat based on what aligns with their preferences and budgets.

Number of Chickens per House (also known as “Stocking Density”)

The number of birds in a chicken house is based on a few factors, including the overall size of the barn and the size of the equipment in the house – and is measured to ensure the chickens have space to walk around and ready access to fresh water and feed throughout their life.

On average, there are about 22,000 chickens in a house about the size of two football fields. The National Chicken Council Broiler Welfare Guidelines require that chickens have enough space to eat, drink, rest and move around freely.


To get another perspective on how large chicken houses really are, this aerial photo conveys their size.

Aerial Shot of Chicken Houses
Aerial shot courtesy of Brooks, a poultry farmer from North Carolina.

In addition, ventilation and housing equipment is continuously adjusted to provide a climate-controlled environment suitable to the bird’s age and needs.

For an inside look at chicken houses, visit our Day in the Life videos.



Lighting within chicken houses is customized so that birds are stimulated to be active during the day and allow for time to rest during evening hours. This also provides more ideal and stable lighting for the chickens throughout the entire year, to prevent injuries and ensure they are growing at a healthy rate.

Many studies have evaluated the ideal amount of light for each stage of bird growth. Click here and here for more information.



Today, the majority of broiler chickens in the U.S. are grown in enclosed barns to keep the birds safe from extreme weather conditions, predators, insects and the possible introduction of diseases. Broilers are grown on loose litter (which can be wood shavings, rice hulls, or some combination of plant materials) and can freely move within the enclosed barn.

It’s important to note that no broiler chickens are raised in cages. Ever.

Research is underway to determine the implications of adding “enrichments” in a chicken house, like straw bales or climbing equipment, to the health and wellbeing of the flock.

Ensuring Chickens are Relieved of Pain before Processing

When the time comes for chickens to go to market, the birds are transported to a poultry processing facility where they are rendered unconscious to prevent pain during the process.

There are two basic approaches to achieving unconsciousness —electrical stunning and controlled atmospheric stunning (CAS). Electrical stunning is achieved by wetting the birds’ heads in water or a mist and creating a mild electrical circuit. The second, CAS, exposes them to either a mixture of inert gases (nitrogen and argon) or concentrations of carbon dioxide, which causes them to lose consciousness.

If you would like to see how birds are stunned and processed, you can watch this this video on processing.

Research has not consistently demonstrated one commercially available stunning method to be superior to another. Based on current research, the American Association of Avian Pathologists, the American College of Poultry Veterinarians and the National Chicken Council believe that both low voltage and CAS systems are humane methods that uphold the welfare of broiler chickens. It’s important to note both processes are audited by third party auditors and customers as part of a company’s animal welfare plan, and are overseen by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information about stunning, click here.

To download a PDF of this FAQ on broiler chicken welfare, click here.

Antibiotics are just one of many tools farmers use to keep their flocks healthy, in order to contribute to a safe and wholesome food supply. Today, all chicken farms are under a health program designed by a licensed veterinarian. But just like people, animals sometimes get sick, and treating illness is a responsible part of animal care. When this happens, farmers work with animal health experts and veterinarians to determine if an antibiotic is needed. The vast majority of the antibiotics that we use are never used in human medicine, and we’re taking steps to phase out those most critical to human medicine.

Chicken producers are committed to innovation, and the work that farmers and veterinarians are doing to ensure the safety and health of their flocks – and thereby our food supply – creates a vast amount of choice for consumers. Whether consumers choose to spend their food dollars on traditional chicken, organic or chicken raised without antibiotics, they can be confident in its wholesomeness and safety. As this trend continues to grow, consumers will have more choice than ever in the chicken they choose to purchase, and through ChickenCheck.In, we hope to provide consumers first-hand access to the information they’re looking for in order to make informed purchasing decisions.

I read a report that the use of antibiotics on farms contributing to a rise in antibiotic resistance  and that animals raised without the use of antibiotics harbor fewer “superbugs”?  Is this true?

Superbug is an alarming word, but even the FDA has taken issue with it, stating: “it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antibiotics as ‘Superbugs’ if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.”

However, we’re proud to say that chicken producers have been leaders in  proactively and voluntarily taking steps toward finding alternative ways to control disease while reducing antibiotic use. We all have a role to play – including doctors and farmers – in preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics, both in humans and animals. Antibiotics are used sparingly in the chicken industry, and The National Chicken Council believes medically important antibiotics should only be used on the farm to treat and prevent disease – not administered to promote growth. In fact, more than 50% of chicken production is now raised without any antibiotics ever.

The most important thing to remember is any possible bacteria, antibiotic resistant or not, is not resistant to the heat of your oven or grill and is killed by proper cooking. To learn about proper cooking and handling techniques, visit ChickenRoost.com.

What about antibiotics used for growth? Should I be concerned about those?

The majority of antibiotics used in raising chickens are not used in human medicine.  However, as of December 2016 antibiotics that are used in human medicine will only be permitted to be used to address disease and treat sick animals – not to promote growth – and even then they will be used exclusively under the supervision and prescription of a veterinarian.  We believe that medically important antibiotics should only be used on the farm to treat and prevent disease – not administered to promote growth, and are glad to report that many poultry producers are already far ahead of this deadline.

Of the antibiotics that are used to treat and prevent disease, a class of antibiotics called ionophores (and another group of medicines called non-antibiotic coccidiostats) is commonly used to treat the most important and potentially devastating diseases we have in poultry – coccidiosis. Not only are both of these medicines not growth promoters and have no FDA-approved use for growth promotion, they are not used in human medicine – ever.


So does the chicken I buy have antibiotic residue in it?

All chicken you buy is technically “antibiotic free” – federal rules require that if any antibiotics are used on a farm they must have cleared the animals’ systems before they can leave the farm.


Chickens today are in fact bigger and grow faster! As the demand for chicken as a protein has increased, especially chicken parts like breasts or thighs versus whole birds, farmers have worked to create larger and healthier chickens to meet that demand.

In the 1920’s, the average chicken at market weight was 2.5 pounds and the U.S. population to feed was 115 million. Through a number of improvements in breeding, nutrition, veterinary care and bird health, today’s chicken farmers are able to raise bigger and healthier birds faster – an average of about 6 pounds at market weight today, to feed the current U.S. population of approximately 320 million.

In raising broiler chickens, farmers and producers keep an equal focus on size and health. Animal care is of utmost important to farmers and the industry, and steps are taken at each stage of production and processing to ensure that chickens’ health has been well maintained.

Even before a broiler chicken is hatched, it has a healthier start on life than a chicken from even just 25 years ago, being raised larger and healthier through:

It’s also important to note what isn’t making your chicken bigger:

Once the chicken moves to processing, we continue to look for indications of health. All poultry meat is carefully inspected for quality, signs of disease, limb and leg problems and bruising – all good indicators of the bird’s health before it was processed. Chicken meat that does not pass this inspection is removed from the food supply. Even as chickens have increased in size, there has been major decline in the amount of poultry meat that has been rejected during this phase of inspection (the technical term for which is “condemnation”) – showing that bird health has been consistently improving over time.


% Whole Bird Field Caused Condemnation

U.S. Broiler Industry 1990 to 2015



Data provided by AgriStats

Another good measure showing improvements in bird health is the fact that today’s chickens are able to gain weight quicker, which means less natural resources are used and less waste is created in the process. Compared to 25 years ago, chickens now require seven percent less feed per pound to grow.

All of these improvements have led to chickens’ on-farm mortality rates dropping 450 percent, compared to only several decades ago. That’s a number we’re proud of, but we also know there’s still work to do to continue improving how we care for our birds.

If you want to learn more about why chickens are bigger today than before, check out this infographic on chicken growth over time.

To download a PDF of this FAQ on raising broiler chickens, click here.

A contract grower is an independent farmer working under contract with a chicken production and processing company to raise chickens. More than 90% of all chickens raised for meat in the U.S. (broiler chickens) are raised by contract growers.

The company with which the farmer contracts provides the chickens, the feed, veterinarian care and technical advice—removing about 97% of the economic risk from farmers, compared to independent growers. Meanwhile, contract poultry farmers provide day-to-day care of the birds, land and housing on which they’re raised, and utilities/maintenance of the housing. This mutually beneficial partnership (a key part of vertical integration) supports the economic viability and independence of the family farm while ensuring efficiency and consistency in modern poultry production. A March 2022 survey* from companies responsible for 83% of U.S. chicken production found that the partnerships are mutually beneficial, successful and profitable.


Here are some interesting facts about contract farming:


More than 50% of farmers have been with their current company for 10 years or more. Almost three-quarters have been with the same company for 5 years or more. These results are almost identical to the 2015 version of this report.

Elam, Dr. Thomas (2022) “Live Chicken Production Trends.” FarmEcon, LLC


Chicken companies remove approximately 97% of the economic risk from growers, compared to independent growers who bear all of that risk on their own.

Knoeber, C.R. and W.N. Thurman (1995), “’Don’t Count Your Chickens…’: Risk and Risk Shifting  in the Broiler Industry”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol.  77(3), p. 486-496


The integration of the chicken industry and this performance based structure has saved consumers well over $1 trillion since 1980.

Elam, Dr. Thomas. (2010)  “Proposed GIPSA Rules Relating to the Chicken Industry: Economic Impact.”  FarmEcon LLC 


How are contract farmers paid? What is the “tournament system?”

Farmers are paid under contract with a chicken company based on their performance in raising the healthiest chickens, which would be clearly outlined in the farmers’ contract. This performance-based or incentive structure is sometimes referred to as the “tournament system.” Farmers are paid according to both the quality and quantity of their flock, as well as how efficiently the chickens are raised.

This structure—based on the most fundamental elements of any business atmosphere—is the best way to ensure that chicken farmers are rewarded for producing quality chickens in a sustainable way. It also ensures that the welfare of the birds is the farmers’ top priority. While the term “tournament” implies that there is only one winner, there are quite literally, hundreds of millions of winners who enjoy a safe, wholesome, and affordable supply of chicken you can feel confident was raised responsibly and sustainably.

While all contract farmers are provided the same quality of chicks, the same feed, and access to veterinary care, farmers who invest in more advanced facilities and farmers who put the most effort in to the best management practices will likely produce higher quality chickens more efficiently. This independent farmer contract structure is credited with not only saving farming operations, but helping those farms thrive in what was once a struggling industry.


“Having been poultry producers for the past 24 years we have witnessed the highs and the lows in the farm economy and the poultry industry in particular. The integrated production contract has provided us with a regular source of income while significantly shielding us from the adverse impact of low commodity prices…. Our family farm is helping to provide Americans with a safe, affordable and environmentally responsible homegrown supply of wholesome protein. This would not be possible without our contract with a vertically integrated poultry processing company.”

–Dan & Janet King, Zenda View Farm, Virginia


Chicken companies want their farmers to strive and to prosper, and they do everything possible to help the farmer raise the healthiest birds possible. The ultimate success of the chicken company, and the entire industry, depends on it.


“I am a farmer, a businesswoman, and have been a poultry grower for over 20 years. I have been successful in this business by staying ahead of the competition. Is that not how a business should operate?”

–Denise Callaway, Mardela Springs, Maryland


So, how exactly does this system work?

Consider this: Two professional baseball players are vying for a new contract in the major leagues. Player A has worked hard throughout the off-season, investing in a new hitting coach, daily workouts and countless hours watching game film, resulting in a season hitting .314, with 25 homeruns and 100 runs batted in. Player B coasts through the off-season, is happy with the status quo and bats .269, with 10 homeruns and 60 runs batted in. Which player deserves the better contract?

Just like in the MLB, the farmers who invest the time and money to better their operations are going to be compensated accordingly. Some critics will argue that all chicken farmers should receive the same base pay, but we don’t necessarily agree. We see how hard some farmers work to ensure they’re producing the safest, most wholesome chickens, and feel that they should be rewarded for their efforts. We employ a performance-based structure in the hope that everyone will be motivated to bring their “A” game.

That performance structure works like this:

  • Farmers are delivered chickens on the day that they are hatched, to be raised in the houses provided by the contract farmer. Feed, water, veterinarians and animal welfare experts are provided by the company, and farmers provide housing, maintenance and day-to-day care of the flocks.
  • Farmers and companies agree on a predetermined price per pound of weight gain built around an average, which guarantees the farmer a certain rate for all chickens that meet certain standards when the birds reach market age.
  • Farmers are paid based on the weight gained by the flock, meaning that farmers with greater skills and better management, combined with advancements on the farm, will earn a little more.
  • However, all farmers are paid a base, prearranged compensation, and all farmers are held to standards of animal welfare that ensure sound animal husbandry. Abuse of any kind is not tolerated, and if found, can lead to the termination of a farmer’s contract.

“The incentive program is a reward and makes my hard work worthwhile.”

–Winston Lee Kennedy, Glenville, Georgia


What is the benefit of contract farming?

The current system is beneficial to both the companies and the farmers, who like partnering with a company that can absorb most of the risk (chicken farmers get a “guaranteed market,” which means they avoid the risk of being unable to sell their products or having to sell at a loss).


Contract farming is an excellent supplemental income for farmers, helping farmers diversify their business while bringing in a modest income, which in turn has helped keep tens of thousands of families on small farms who otherwise would have had to get out of agriculture altogether. On average, almost 95% of all contract farmers are retained year over year by the same company, and most companies have waiting lists for farmers wanting to enter a partnership, as well as waiting lists for existing chicken farmers looking to increase capacity by building more houses.

The cost of feed—mostly corn and soybean meal—is about 65% of the cost in raising a chicken. These costs fluctuate a lot, but contract chicken farmers are insulated from the volatile swings of the commodity markets. If there is a flood, a freeze or a drought, grain prices can easily double—driving up feed costs—but contract farmers will still receive the same pay rate in their contracts, and chicken companies would absorb billions of dollars in losses. During that same period, many independent cattle and hog producers would be forced to sell off animals early or drastically reduce their herds. In other words, chicken farmers are ensured of a stable compensation for their efforts, no matter what the feed or grocery markets are doing.


The system is also extremely beneficial to consumers, who are able to rely on a consistent, quality product. Discover more about how contract farmer and chicken company partnerships enable consumers to enjoy healthy, affordable protein.


Is there any government oversight of these poultry contracts?

The chicken company-farmer relationship is extensively regulated by federal law. Livestock and poultry procurement and marketing practices are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Packers and Stockyards Division (PSD), which administers and enforces the Packers and Stockyards Act to protect farmers, ranchers and consumers.


What do America’s chicken farmers have to say about contract farming?

If you’d like to learn more about life as an independent contract poultry farmer, watch this video.


For more information on how U.S. chicken is produced, check out this infographic:

Typical bedding materials in a chicken house may include: rice hulls, straw, wood chips or peanut shells. These dry, absorbent materials help keep the ground dry and soft for the chickens.

How does the bedding stay clean and dry?

Highly advanced heating and ventilation systems in a chicken house play a primary role in keeping the bedding dry and comfortable for the flock. Although the heating and ventilation systems are highly automated, chicken farmers still make sure to walk the chicken house multiple times per day to ensure the flock is not too cool or too hot, but also to ensure the litter is ‘friable’ – easily broken up/crumbled. If the litter becomes too cakey or is not moist enough, it can affect the health of the flock and must be replaced.

If the moisture content is kept under control, litter can be reused between flocks through a process called “windrowing” which pasteurizes the poultry litter. The heat from composting process kills unwanted pathogens.

Is bedding the same as poultry litter?

No, poultry litter is the mixture of bedding, excrement, spilled feed and even feathers. Poultry litter is also in high demand after it is removed from the chicken house. Traditional uses of litter include use as an organic fertilizer or potting material, and even fuel. This video shows how farmers remove poultry litter and reuse it on the farm.

Is poultry litter replaced with the introduction of each flock?

Unless there is disease or a biosecurity issue, total replacement of the poultry litter is not required for every new flock. The litter can be recycled over several flocks so as to minimize impact on the environment due to waste disposal.

With recycled litter, the farmer is responsible for removing caked or wet areas of the bedding. The old litter is stirred in between flocks and generally 1 to 2 inches of fresh litter is placed on top of the old litter before the arrival of the hatchlings. The recycled litter is further sanitized through windrowing, which kills any pathogens in the poultry litter through pasteurization.

Learn more about chicken housing and bedding in these videos from our Day in the Life video series:

To download a PDF of this FAQ on bedding, click here.

What is bird flu?

Just like humans, birds can get the flu. Bird flu, technically known as avian influenza, is a disease that affects birds, including poultry like chickens, turkeys and ducks. First and foremost, consumers need to know that bird flu is NOT a foodborne illness, so you can’t contract it from eating poultry that hasn’t been cooked properly. And in the event a flock does test positive, it won’t enter the food chain. Bird flu is caused by a virus that is passed from bird to bird through their saliva, nasal secretions and/or feces. Other susceptible birds pick up the virus by directly touching the infected bird’s fluids or by touching a surface that has been contaminated by the fluids. 


There are two classifications of bird flu—low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Birds who contract LPAI sometimes do not exhibit any symptoms or show mild ones, like ruffled feathers or a decrease in egg production. Birds with HPAI exhibit more severe symptoms such as lack of energy or appetite, lack of coordination, coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions. HPAI may also cause high mortality.


Can people catch bird flu?

The risk of humans contracting bird flu is very low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Scientists say bird flu is not easily transmitted from birds to humans, and “sustained transmission” from human to human has NOT occurred. Despite the fact that millions of birds have gotten sick and died, there are no recorded cases of “sustained transmission”. 

In April 2022, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found an individual working on a poultry farm tested positive for bird flu. The question remains if this person was actually infected, or the positive result was due to exposure to the virus. No other human exposures are known at this time.


What is the status of HPAI incidents in the U.S.?

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) tracks confirmed cases of HPAI.

APHIS is working closely with state animal health officials on joint incident responses. State officials quarantined the affected premises, and birds on the properties were depopulated to prevent the spread of the disease.

Birds from the flocks will not enter the food system.


What are chicken producers doing to prevent bird flu?

Bird flu is a serious issue that chicken farmers closely monitor together with the USDA. The U.S. has the most robust monitoring and surveillance program in the world – and detailed plans in place to minimize spread among flocks and eliminate the virus completely. All U.S. flocks are tested prior to processing for bird flu.  If a single bird in a flock were to test positive for HPAI, then none of those birds would be allowed to enter the food supply.

Collectively, farmers, the USDA, and the poultry industry continue to monitor for the virus closely and have intense surveillance and comprehensive biosecurity measures to keep flocks protected. Strict biosecurity practices on the farm are key to preventing chickens from contracting bird flu.


See biosecurity practices in action and learn how farmers monitor the health of the chicken flock.


What happens if there is an outbreak of bird flu on a chicken farm?

In the event of an outbreak, the poultry industry has strict procedures and works directly with state and federal governments to identify and eliminate the problem and reduce the spread of the disease.

When bird flu is detected, the following 5-step response plan is carried out:

1. Quarantine

The farmer ensures the affected flock and any nearby equipment stays in one area.

2. Eradicate

The affected flock is quickly and humanely euthanized following methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

3. Test

USDA protocols and testing requirements are followed to ensure the farm is free of bird flu before a new flock is allowed to arrive.

4. Disinfect

The affected farm is thoroughly disinfected to ensure any traces of the virus are destroyed.

5. Monitor

Surveillance of wild birds in a broad surrounding “control” area.

No chicken from avian flu-affected flocks are ever allowed to enter the food chain.


What can I do at home to make sure my chicken is safe from bird flu?

Bird flu is not a foodborne illness, which means you cannot contract it from eating poultry that has been cooked properly. And in the event a chicken flock does test positive, it will not enter the food chain.

But as always, you should follow proper handling and cooking when preparing raw chicken. Get safe food handling tips at Chicken Roost.

For more information on bird flu, visit the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s webpage.


We help chicken growers of the Pacific Northwest supply families with locally grown, healthy, lean protein.