Why buy straight run? Here's some straight talk on straight run, the sexing of chicks, and the common poultry industry practice of killing male chicks at hatch.
On our farm, all male chicks are grown out into beautiful roosters and have the opportunity to lead a quality life. At maturity, our extra boys are swiftly and respectfully processed. We often have friends and family over to help us with this, so that others may practice harvesting their own meat. It’s a powerful experience that has both challenged us and gifted us a completely new relationship with our food.
On our farm, humanely raised, pastured meat is a natural byproduct of producing hatching eggs and chicks. Because we are such a small farm, it’s easy for us to absorb our extra roosters, adding them to our freezer or sharing them with friends and family. But what happens in large scale hatcheries?
Across all areas of the poultry industry, chicks are sexed at hatch to determine whether they are male or female. Since all chickens have the same external genitalia, expert chicken sexers are employed to give each chick a squeeze, steal a glance at the chick’s insides, and decide its sex. (Note: don’t try this at home. It requires specialized training and involves some risk to the chick!)
If you’ve ever ordered chicks from a hatchery before, you’ve probably come across the phrases “sexed” and “straight-run.” If you order sexed chicks, they’ve been squeezed by an expert and found to be female. Straight-run chicks have not been sexed and are a mix of male and female in a roughly 50/50 split.
The practice of sexing was developed because there is a huge demand for female chicks in the poultry industry, whether it’s the commercial egg industry or hatcheries producing for backyard chicken keepers. So what happens to all of those unwanted male chicks?
It’s a common practice for male chicks to be killed at hatch, immediately after sexing. This is usually accomplished through grinding, suffocating, or gassing.
If your first reaction to this is surprise or horror, I'm with you. How can a living thing be treated like such...trash?
If your first reaction is skepticism, I am with you on that too.
I didn’t want to believe it either, and went immediately to Google for verification. It was easy to confirm that this was happening in the egg and meat industry. But what about companies that sell day-old chicks to small flock keepers? That information wasn’t easy to find on the web. I didn't feel comfortable claiming that our practices set us apart until I did more research.
Acting on a hot tip from another breeder, I made some phone calls to the larger hatcheries and I was able to verify that yes, male chicks are killed at hatch in this part of the industry. In some cases, efforts are made to give chicks away, but the sheer numbers of extra male chicks (tens upon tens of thousands) means that many are killed immediately after they are sexed.
After making my calls, I didn’t feel angry. In fact, I was struck with compassion for the person who has to do such a difficult job. I also felt called to dig deeper and ask questions that get to the heart of why this practice exists, even in an area of the poultry industry that supplies folks who love and adore their birds at home. Why are there so many extra male chicks that hatcheries are compelled to destroy them?
That answer is easy. Male chicks are destroyed simply because there is no demand for them. At the same time, there is an overwhelming demand for female chicks. As a poultry breeder, I am constantly fielding requests for sexed chicks, pullets, and hens, or inquiries from folks who would like us to take roosters back after they have grown (if not for our biosecurity and our NPIP certification, I totally would).
Why is there no demand for male chicks? Well, as we all know, roosters don’t lay eggs, and they are not a favorite for meat production. But the deeper answer to this question, in my mind, is the same answer to many questions about our current food systems: We are disconnected from our food, where it comes from, and how to produce it. This disconnect manifests in laws around food production and animal keeping in our communities, as well as in our discomfort in producing our own meat.
For some folks, they are simply not allowed to have a rooster in their community--as we've grown out of touch from raising our own food, local laws have made it more difficult to do so. Others, perhaps, are nervous to have one because they or someone they know had a badly behaved rooster (which is why we are so careful to breed for temperament).
But a huge part of the demand for all-female chicks is our collective discomfort with the realities of meat and the idea of processing our own. Straight run chicks are, on average, half male and half female. This is not a ratio that’s conducive to a happy, balanced flock. Unless you’re ready to house them indefinitely in a cushy bachelor pad, some of those roosters will have to be processed. If not by you, by someone else.
Reasons to Buy Straight Run
If you eat meat and are allowed to have roosters, I encourage you to try harvesting your own meat in addition to eggs. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of processing your own roosters, I understand. After being vegetarian for the better part of 20 years, I was too--but I’m really glad I pushed through the discomfort, for both myself and our birds.
Consider these two scenarios:
You decide to get 6 sexed (female) chicks for your flock. You grow them out and enjoy their eggs. Unbeknownst to you, your chicks’ six male counterparts were killed at hatch in order for the hatchery to fulfill your order.
You know that you want 6 hens for your flock, so you order a straight-run of 12 chicks, hoping for a solid 50/50 split (results may vary, especially with a small sample size!). You grow all 12 out. Six are hens, awesome! You decide to keep your favorite rooster. This leaves 5 roosters that you need to deal with in order to keep your flock happy and balanced. You're nervous as heck, but with some help from friends and a quality YouTube tutorial you process all 5. It's a powerful experience. They enjoyed a full life, and you learned something and fed your family healthy pastured meat in the process.
A lot of people want to buy sexed chicks because they are understandably uncomfortable with the killing of roosters and hope to avoid it. The reality of sexed chicks is that it merely outsources the killing, while at the same time hiding it from view. Buying straight-run is an opportunity to both offer male chicks a quality life and connect with your food in a powerful way.
My intent here is not to point fingers at anyone who purchases sexed chicks, nor is it my intent to rail against the hatcheries that kill at hatch. I think it’s more important and constructive to look at this situation and ask, why are things this way?
The first step is to understand that it's happening, and to understand that it's a result of supply and demand. It's a situation born of our laws around keeping livestock, our desire for convenience, our discomfort and disconnection around our food sources, and our unwillingness to partake in the process of harvesting our own meat.
If we’re not okay with this, can we change it? How can we create a future where animals are not treated this way, where the need to kill male chicks is lessened or eliminated?
Buying straight run if you can is one small way to do that. Raising and processing your own eggs and meat helps you close the loop on your protein and connect, deeply, with where your food comes from. It helps create a world where animals are valued and cared for.