According to Atsushi Nodera, Manager of the Chick Sexing Department of the Japan Livestock Technology Association, it is also the dream of more than a few young women. This year’s class at the Zen Nippon Chick Sexing School in Nagoya includes three women and two men. The school is planning to move to Fukushima next year due to declining student enrollment and to save costs.
After a rigorous five-month course the five students of the class of 2011 will be eligible to take an examination to see if they can become certified chicken sexers. The test is difficult and only three out of ten students pass it on their first try.
Aspiring chicken sexers are given four hundred chicks to check – 300 pullets (for producing eggs) and 100 cockerels (for meat). To get their certification the students have to identify the gender for pullets with 99% accuracy and for cockerels with 97% accuracy. All 400 chicks have to be sexed within 36 minutes. Failed students can take the test again; it’s given every six months, and it may take as long as three years of practice before a chicken sexer is able to pass the test. In commercial settings, when one is sexing thousands of chicks per day, accuracy is usually closer to 95%.
Why would anyone want to spend their days looking at 8,000 to 10,000 chicken cloacas per day? (A cloaca is the anal vent that serves as the opening for the intestinal and urinary tracts as well as the sexual organs of chickens.)
“It’s because of the opportunities they have to work overseas and travel,” Nodera said, who was a chicken sexer for 35 years before taking his current post six years ago. “The students are also the sort of people who aren’t satisfied with a traditional education and want to become specialists in some field of work.”
Many graduates of the school are hired to work in Europe. Nodera said there are 17 women and 50 men working in Europe at this time. That compares to 100 active chicken sexers in Japan. Salaries in Europe can range from 50,000 euro to 65,000 euro (nearly $95,000). Not a bad return for their school tuition of 1 million yen (about $12,500) and another 500,000 yen (about $6,250) or so for living expenses during the school term that runs from April through August.
Few Japanese chicken sexers work in the US now due to a variety of factors.
“The difficulty of obtaining a work visa is one reason,” Nodera said. “Cost is another. With the abundance of corn for chicken feed in the United States the level of accuracy isn’t so relevant.”
He added many in the profession in the U.S. come from Mexico and have been trained by Japanese chick sexers or trained by others who were originally trained by the Japanese.
With no mandatory retirement age, chicken sexers can work as long as their eyesight remains good enough for them to determine if the bumps they are seeing in the cloaca mean boy chick or girl chick. Nodera noted when chick sexers leave the business most move into a completely different field, although he didn’t specify what sort of jobs ex-chick sexers might be qualified for.
Why is it even important to know the sex of baby chicks, which are sexed at the tender age of one day old? If baby chicks aren’t sexed it takes about 30 days to determine if they are a rooster or a hen, according to Nodera. It takes about 200 days before a chicken’s eggs are of a decent enough size, at around 60 grams (2 ounces), to be sold in supermarkets.
Meanwhile, those chickens have to be housed, kept warm, cared for and fed. Since a chicken can eat 100 or more grams of feed per day that can add up to a lot money, especially in Japan where most chicken feed has to be imported. Chickens can eat crushed rice, but if that’s their only diet the yolk of the eggs will be nearly white, which is unappealing to most consumers. It’s necessary to feed them corn and since Japan is not a corn producing nation that means feed has to be imported. Some of the cockerels are kept to become food for the table, but the majority of them are disposed of by turning them into pet food or fertilizer.
In 1969 a new method for determining a chick’s gender came onto the scene with the advent of feather sexing. This method came about as a result of cross breeding which causes the primary feathers of a hen to be noticeably longer than their secondary feathers. Feather sexing is said to produce an accuracy level of nearly 100%, which means lower labor costs.
However, in Japan, the vent sexing method will remain, at least as long as there are students willing to learn the techniques and skill required to sex those chicks.