Imagine 20,000 to 23,000 feeder calves arriving at once and the coordination it would take to get them processed, penned and eating. It's a scary thought, but the arrival of that many chicks is an ongoing occurrence on broiler grower operations - unloading takes about 10 minutes.
And while there's no vaccinating, dehorning or ear-tagging, there's still plenty of things to get flowing in the right direction.
Carla Hurn, owner of Hurn Poultry near Verona, MO, says detail management is what ensures the survival of a new flock. Her eight growing houses have a combined capacity of 187,000 birds.
"There are no two flocks the same," Hurn says. "Each one is different and has to be handled as such. For example, some may eat better and quicker, while others get going more slowly."
Can't Miss A Beat Hurn's son, Quinton Bauer and friend John Onken, help manage the poultry business as well as their Angus operation.
"Everything has to run on track to keep the flock growing," Bauer says. "House temperature is critical. If birds get chilled for as little as 30 to 45 minutes, you'll quickly lower the rate of growth. On the other hand, if it's a really hot day with high humidity and the houses aren't cooling, death loss can run 1,000 to 3,000 head per day."
There's constantly something to attend to, including house maintenance, upkeep of an automatic feeding system that doles out 1.3 million pounds of feed to get a flock to maturity, watering systems, and a booster vaccination at 16 days post-arrival. And almost like a chicken pen rider, watchful eyes look out for sick ones.
"As long as we stay on top of things, it's a good situation," Bauer says. "But, there's really little room for foul-ups."
There is a strong financial incentive to get chickens to slaughter with a minimum of deficiencies. Growers are paid on a settlement, or comparison to other growers in a poultry complex. Those who achieve higher feed efficiency, have lower death rates and healthier birds get paid the most. For example, a 0.003-lb. advantage in finishing can make several hundred dollars difference in a settlement payment.
Cattle Fit Chickens Adding a growing operation to their cow/calf operation was a natural for Ron and Christine Campbell of Monett, MO. Ron put six years of turkey hatchery management to work and built four houses six years ago. They've since added two more.
"It was a good fit for our business," Campbell says. "One of the biggest costs for the cattle operation is fertilizer. We recycle some of the chicken manure onto the soil and the grazing has substantially improved."
From a management perspective, the Campbells say it's a constant challenge to keep birds growing, meet budgets and maintain the houses. And, it can be a strain when chickens are ready to be sent to the processor. That's because the processor determines when the chickens will be picked up and the loading process can run more than 24 hours. Afterwards, there's a two-week window to prepare growing houses for a new load of chicks.
While a poultry grower doesn't have control of every operational aspect, Campbell says the positives far outweigh the negatives at marketing time. Plus, feed is formulated and delivered by the poultry company and, to date, there's been a steady demand for his product.
Though the compensation is generally fair, Campbell points out that a poultry grower in 1999 is paid roughly the same as in 1938. However, the average grower in the '30s raised 10,000 chickens per year. In contrast, the average '90s grower sends about 130,000 birds to be processed every two months.
Adjustment to the poultry business worked for these growers. Hurn, Bauer and the Campbells agree they're better prepared to adjust to beef industry changes because of their adaptation to the poultry business.