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Chicken farmers go high-tech

When Tom Crenshaw posed for this photo more than two weeks ago, his first flock of hatchlings had just been delivered to the new tunnel-ventilated chickenhouses he has constructed just of Ridge Road in Butler County. Now, Crenshaw's flock is a little more than two weeks away from processing. With birds bred for faster, better meat production, and chickenhouses designed to keep them in prime growing conditions, the poultry industry is becoming the fastest growing agricultural endeavor in this part of the country.

Photo by Derek Brown

Butler County farmer Tom Crenshaw doesn't have time to get to know his chickens personally. With a growth period of just more than 35 days, chickens on the Crenshaw farm will develop from hatchlings to dinner-table ready before they've even had a chance to really look around.

Chicken farming is nothing new to Crenshaw or his family. His father, Lewis Crenshaw, retired from the business after 30 years. However, a new chickenhouse design is helping Tom and other farmers like him in the area provide optimum conditions for a new chicken that is bred specifically to develop quickly and produce a lot of meat. Things have changed, Tom says, on a family chicken farm.

"It used to be a lot more physical work," he said. "But now its just making sure everything is set up properly and the chickens do most of the work."

Crenshaw has constructed six tunnel-ventilated houses on family land just off Ridge Road that are almost completely automatic in providing the residents with the proper amount of food, water and ventilation to ensure a prime growing environment.

From the "nerve center" of each of his houses, Crenshaw can automate the growth of his chickens by setting the hours of light they get, how much food they receive, water flow and ventilation. All of these factors are set depending on the age of the chickens and what they require to achieve full maturity as quickly as possible.

Crenshaw grows broilers for Sylvest Farms, and he and other growers like him can produce up to six batches a year. Sylvest provides the farmers with the birds, feed and technical and veterinary support, and the farmer provides the houses and day-to-day labor it takes to mature the flock.

Sylvest Broiler Supervisor Morris Yeargan has been working with Crenshaw during the development of this, his first flock, and is responsible for making sure the farm gets off to the right start. He said the tunnel-ventilated houses are becoming the standard design for new chicken house construction in the area because of the benefits they provide.

"It is all about keeping the birds in their prime comfort zone," Yeargan said. "When the birds are comfortable their stress level decreases and they use less energy.

"We want the feed the birds consume to be used to produce meat," he continued. "We don't want them using unnecessary energy to keep themselves cool."

The feed provided by Sylvest is a corn and soy based product that is enriched with all the nutrients and vitamins the chickens need to develop properly, and an automatic, on demand feeding system makes sure the birds get all they need.

Water is pumped through the houses in a sealed system with feeding valves that allow the birds to take in water as necessary. The water system, Yeargan said, also aids in vaccinating the flock soon after they reach their new home.

Yeargan said that within the first few days of the hatchlings arrival at a farm, they receive their first vaccination through the house water system.

"We take away the water for about an hour to an hour and a half to make sure the birds are thirsty," he said. "Then we pump the vaccine into to water system and turn it back on."

Yeargan said the method makes sure no bird misses its vaccine. At 15 days of age, the flock is again vaccinated through a mist sprayed manually over the flock. The combination of vaccines helps Sylvest maintain the health of the flocks, and strict "bio-security" measures help make sure they do not come into contact with any foreign substance or disease.

Plastic booties must cover the footwear of anyone going into the houses as a preventative measure.

"The fact is we don't know where your boots have been," Yeargan said. "You might have just come from a house that had chickens in the yard and we don't want that residue in these houses."

For all the high-tech techniques and genetically superior birds, Crenshaw said people shouldn't consider chicken farming a get rich quick idea.

His $850,000 investment for the construction of the new houses will take about 10 years to pay for itself. And, while the operation of the farm does provide Crenshaw with a good income, he says it is probably not as much as one might think.

"The standard rule of thumb is that each house will earn $6,000 to $8,000 in profits each year," he said. "But this is my first flock in these houses so we will have to see what happens."

Crenshaw said he receives money based on the amount of weight the birds gain while they reside at his farm.

"They weigh next to nothing when they come in here," he said, "and each bird will weigh about four pounds when they leave, so they gain quite a bit."

He said he also receives bonuses based on what he calls "feed conversion," or how much feed it takes to produce a pound of meat.

Crenshaw said the lifestyle of farming fits him just right. The benefits of raising broilers over breeders, he says, allow him to spend more time with his family.

"Raising eggs is seven days a week, 48 weeks per year, and there is no time off," he said. "With the broilers I have a flock for about five weeks, and then get a two week break to clean the houses and take a little vacation."

Crenshaw said the work is time-consuming, but not physically demanding, and he can often spend 12 to 13 hours per day tending to his houses. However, he said the schedule does allow him the freedom to pick his child up from school, run errands and take a longer lunch if he needs to.

"It is still just a family farm and we try to run it like that," he said. "It's a good feeling to know you're working for yourself and still have the time to be with your family."