Chickens or hens? How many people know the difference?

Very few people really know anything about the poultry farming system and the poultry breeds destined for the food chain. Among them, those who are consumers of chicken meat and derivatives should try to refine their knowledge on this subject, at least in order to be able to understand which of the information that reaches them is true, true or false.

The curious thing is that there are many who, when asked ‘do you know the difference between chicken and chicken?’, do not know how to answer. And those who do answer are more likely to be grasping at straws.

Why? Because by now we are used to buying the products of the poultry chain (and not only) ready-made and we do not realise what needs to be organised to make life easy for us even when it comes to producing food.

Whether it is meat or eggs, we think we know something by reading the words ‘organic’, ‘free-range’, ‘antibiotic-free’, … but in reality we knew little before and we know little even after reading those brief phrases. The poultry world (but poultry farming in general) is constantly under siege by animal welfare or environmental associations, and consumer confusion is growing, despite the fact that they apparently receive more ‘information’ than they used to.

Misinformation, biased or partial information is always the cause of less conscious orientations than we think we have. The consumer’s choice is mainly directed by advertising which, more often than not, is limited to providing bland, superficial and sweetened statements on animal welfare. Welfare that is indeed taken care of and ensured in the poultry sector (which M.A.C. deals with), but it would be appropriate and useful if the definitions were accompanied by an explanation so that we would be prepared for the numerous fakes and misinformation that the poultry sector has been suffering from for some time.

There are many cases of deflection of information: for example, when the detractors of poultry farming address the issue of the use of cages, proving to confuse chickens and hens (probably for instrumental purposes) highlighting the particular misinformation of some journalists about this sector. This is why it is necessary to point out from time to time some information that might seem trivial, but which is not trivial.

Over time, man has selected poultry breeds in such a way as to obtain two main types:

  1. that of chickens proper, used for their meat
  2. that of laying hens, which the name itself indicates is the derivation of crosses dedicated to egg production.

Meat ‘chickens’ naturally develop breast and thigh muscle mass and are therefore also called ‘heavy breeds‘ (which breeders call ‘broilers’).

‘Laying’ hens, on the other hand, have leaner muscle masses and are therefore referred to as ‘light breeds’.

Broilers and layers have parallel lives that resemble each other but never meet. Farms that breed them tend to specialise and, with few exceptions, those who produce broilers do not produce eggs for consumption and vice versa.


However, the story always starts with an egg.

To be precise, a fertilised hatching egg, obtained in a breeding farm. This is done in the same way as it is done for other animals (dogs, horses, cats, etc.) that we are used to calling ‘purebred’. This is done to allow certain characteristics of the selected animal to be genetically passed on to its offspring… which is why, that animal is used as a ‘breeder’.

Once ready to lay eggs, the spawners are transferred to laying farms for the remaining 12 months.

Each hatching egg generated is transferred to a hatchery with several more eggs from which, after 21 days, the chicks are ready to emerge from the shell.

As in the human race, about half of the chicks are born male and the other half female… and this is where the first differences between heavy and light breeds begin.


For broilers, both males and females are used: when we buy a chicken at the supermarket we can therefore find both a male and a female.


In laying hens, on the other hand, the commercial interest is only in females because, need I remind you, only they lay eggs.

As written above, chicks hatched from laying hens grow very slowly and therefore males of these breeds cannot be used as broilers (for purely economic reasons). Exceptions are some special and niche products, such as cockerels or capons, where the reduced growth speed is not considered a problem, but a quality.


Chickens and laying hens, however, follow distinctly different and particular paths.


The chickens are reared on a bed of wood shavings in simple, well-ventilated sheds equipped to promote rapid growth, and after about two months they reach ‘commercial’ maturity, understood as the time envisaged for slaughter and transfer to the food chain. These chickens do not reach sexual maturity, which in poultry is reached at around five months. To be precise, it is good to know that sexual maturity is not reached even in so-called organic or free-range flocks.


Female chicks hatched from the eggs of laying hens have a more complex life span of around two years. They live for the first four months in weaning flocks where they grow to adulthood. Once they are ready to lay eggs, they are transferred to laying flocks for the remaining 16 months.

These breeding farms are organised in various ways: with enriched cages, with aviaries, with bedding and nesting boxes that the laying hens use to lay their eggs.

The different types of breeding and laying organisation give rise to the classification, which is recorded by law on the shell with codes identifying the type of breeding farm. (link to article “egg identification”)

Eggs for consumption produced on these farms are then sent to packing stations and from there directly to supermarket counters.


The Editorial Staff of M.A.C.