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Poultry Production Phases

Poultry production encompasses a number of different species, including the chicken (reared for laying eggs-"layers", or meat production-"broilers"), turkeys, ducks, and other waterfowl and gamebirds. Each species and particular type of production is uniquely different. We will primarily focus on laying hens, broiler production, turkey production, and duck production.

Breeding Flocks

Lighting and Housing Types

Lighting plays a very important role in bird growth, development, and maturity. Most commercial poultry specie are photosensitive animals. For example, a constant or decreasing amount of daily light (as occurs during the fall and winter months) will delay sexual maturity in growing birds. An increasing amount of light (as occurs in the spring) will stimulate sexual maturity. Since lighting plays such an important role in the development of sexual maturity, adolescent birds are generally reared in black-out houses. This allows the producer to have complete control over the lighting cycle of the birds by providing artificial light.

Breeder Houses - Slat Floor

Housing for breeder broilers
Source: J. Sell, Iowa State University

Once birds reach the age of sexual maturity, they are moved to the laying house. Breeder broilers and ducks are generally be kept in a barn with a slotted floor or with a wire floor with litter in the middle of the house to act as a mating area. Breeder turkeys are generally reared in all litter houses. Clean, nesting boxes are provided so that the birds may lay their eggs without being disturbed by other birds and so that the eggs may be kept clean and easily collected.
Restricted Feeding

Adolescent broilers (especially), turkeys, and ducks, when given the opportunity, will eat until they become obese. Therefore, restricted feeding is necessary if the birds are going to be used as breeder stock. Otherwise, the obesity severely limits the numbers of eggs laid and the fertility of those eggs. For this reason, restricted feeding is necessary. There are two main types of restrictive feeding programs. The first of these is every day feeding of a limited amount, or lower nutrient content diet. The amount fed will ensure adequate growth but not result in obesity. Another type of restrictive feeding is an every other day feeding program. where birds are fed a specific quantity of feed every other day. Since male broiler chickens grow faster, they often are reared separately from the females until they are moved into the breeder house. Specific ratios of male-to-females are kept in the breeder house (typically, broilers-1 male :15 females, turkeys and ducks-1:8 to 10) to ensure fertility of hatching eggs.



Hatchlings destined for grow-out facilities
Source: Purdue University

Eggs are typically collected from breeder farms, taken to a hatchery and stored from 0 to 10 days prior to being set in an incubator. These eggs will be stored at temperatures between 55-68° F, depending on when they are to be incubated. When the eggs are placed in incubators, embryonic development begins. Different species of birds require different incubation times. Chickens hatch in 21 days while turkeys and ducks need 28 days. The hatchlings (chicks, poults, or ducklings) are processed (vaccinated, gender sorted, and/or other procedures) then transported to commercial grow-out facilities. Transport typically will take anywhere from a few hours to one day.

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Laying Hens

The modern laying hen is a biological marvel. She begins laying eggs at approximately 18 weeks of age and by the end of her first year, she may have produced upwards of 200 eggs - nearly 25 pounds. The hen reaches peak egg production (95 + %) within 4 to 6 weeks after she begins to lay eggs. In order to produce such a hen, it is critical that the hen be carefully managed during her first 17 weeks of life.

At the beginning of a pullet's life in the hatchery, she is vaccinated to prevent future diseases. On the farm, pullets will be grown in cages until they are moved into the laying house at 16 to 17 weeks of age. Pullet chicks will typically be beak trimmed during their first three weeks of life in the pullet house to minimize cannibalism.

Lighting programs are very similar to what was described for breeding flocks.

Induced molting

Molting is the process of the bird shedding and re-growing feathers. Molting occurs naturally in the wild, as seasonal daylight shortens and females stop laying eggs. Laying hens are generally molted once or twice during their productive lives. Molting usually does not affect egg size, but allows for an improved egg laying rate, improved shell quality, and increased albumin height. It also allows a producer to keep the birds longer than they might otherwise be kept. To induce molt, a producer may use a period of fasting and a reduced amount of daylight, giving the birds water and allowing them to lose a proportion of their body weight. Daylight length will then be increased, and the hens begin laying eggs again.

In-line vs. Off-line production

Eggs Refrigerated

In-line layer operation
Source: Purdue University

Laying hen farms are composed of two different types, in-line and off-line.

In-line production - Hen houses are placed side-by-side and linked by a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt leads to a centralized processing building, where the eggs from all houses are sorted, graded, either packed or broken and further processed, and refrigerated prior to shipping.

Off-line production - This is similar to the in-line production, but the eggs that are collected on a conveyor belt and sent to a main building are packed and refrigerated prior to shipping to another facility to be processed.

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Broilers, Turkeys, Ducks (meat-bird production)

Broilers - Anit-Spill Feeders

Source: Purdue University

Brooder Rings

Brooder rings keep broilers near heat, feed, and water
Source: Purdue University

Nipple or Cup Waterers

Waterer in broiler house
Source: Purdue University

Broilers are relatively easy to raise. To begin with, the whole house is heated and brooder rings are placed around each brooder (heating) unit. These rings create a "microclimate" relative to the rest of the room to prevent drafts and keep the birds near each other and near the feed and water. The nipple or cup waterers in each pen must be fully functional and supplemental jug waterers in the brooder rings must be kept filled. When the birds arrive, they are placed into the rings and introduced to the waterers and feed. Feed is placed in the feeders and on paper placed on the floor of the pen to encourage young birds to eat. Generally, broilers are brooded in a portion of the house until a certain age before being given access to the entire barn. These facilities, or "houses" generally have litter floors. Depending on the geographical location of the house, natural ventilation will be either provided by opening curtain-sided walls or large insulated door panels on the sides of the house.

Some farms separate male and female birds, a practice called separate-sex feeding. Separate-sex feeding accomplishes a number of goals. When birds are separated and fed according to gender (versus rearing males and females together), there will be more uniformity among males and among females in the flock. Separation of the birds also allows producers to feed diets that more closely meet the nutritional needs of the male and female birds.

Turkey Housing


Source: Purdue University

Turkey Toms - Age to 35 Pounds Chart

Source: Purdue University

In previous decades, turkeys have been mainly considered a holiday product. However, with advances of further-processing as well as an increasingly health-conscious population in the U.S., the turkey has become a popular year-round meat. Raising turkeys takes more time than raising broilers, as turkeys take longer to mature. Generally, a turkey is sent to market anywhere between 15 and 25 weeks of age. At 20 weeks of age, a male turkey should weigh about 35-40 pounds.

Poult (baby turkey) - Close-Up

Turkey poults
Source: Purdue University

Getting poults (baby turkeys) started is not as easy as starting broilers. Both benefit from brooder rings in order to keep them close to the heat source, food, and water and to prevent drafts. Additionally, the farm worker must physically show the poults where the water and feed are when placing poults into the brooder rings; otherwise, some birds will never manage to find it.

Poults are usually gender-sorted at the hatchery and the males (toms) and females (hens) are reared separately. They may also toe-trimmed, and beak-trimmed at the hatchery to prevent the birds from injuring each other.

Over their life cycle, turkeys may live in 2 or 3 different barns. The brooder barn, is used for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. After that, the turkeys may be moved to an intermediate barn. Lastly, they are moved into a grow-out facility. By having multiple barns for different ages, a farm is able to rear a greater number of birds in a shorter amount of time.


While broilers and turkeys may seem like fast-growing birds, the duck is the most rapidly growing animal of all poultry species. A typical duck will weigh 7 pounds in only 6 or 7 weeks!

Ducks can be raised in a number of different types of houses. Some are raised on all-litter floors while others have slats or wire for the flooring. Some houses contain a litter floor with a ramp leading up to raised-wire or expanded plastic flooring over a shallow pit. Since ducks like to play with the watering system (typically a nipple-waterer system), it is located over the raised flooring. Generally, ducks go through two or three stages of housing. Each stage would house anywhere from 13 to 20 groups of ducks per year.

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