If you were to make a list of high-tech careers, it is doubtful that chicken farming would be among them.
Wayne Manning would tell you a different story — that technology has not only allowed him to get into the chicken business, it has allowed him to be successful, and to more than double the size of his operation over the last decade.
“As much has changed in the last 10 years in the business as changed in the previous 20,” Manning says. “I wouldn’t be in the business if it hadn’t.”
Manning has 10 broiler houses on contract with Perdue Farms out of Lewiston, N.C. He owns four houses and leases six others, all in or around the Momeyer-White Oak communities of Nash County, N.C. With the use of computers, Manning is able to look after over a quarter-million chickens at one time with just one other employee.
“When I started, there was a lot more physical work,” Manning says. “But I only had to do one flock the ‘old way.’ [After that] we had to put fans in the back of the houses, with openings in the front of the houses to recycle water, and use evaporative cooling, or ‘tunnel ventilation.’ ”
Manning says the further addition of computer-run controllers to maintain house temperatures was another huge step. “A lot of growers didn’t want to make the changes and chose to get out [of the business],” he says. “I wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for tunnel ventilation. It has been the best thing. Now I don’t have to worry as much. It was a big expense, but it was well worth it.”
• Computers have taken much of the labor out of raising chickens.
• Demand for chicken seems to be on the upswing for 2010, spurring production.
• Growers still face huge time commitment to produce high-quality meat birds.
Making the leap
Manning, 33, got into the business 10 years ago when he met a grower who was on contract with Perdue and was seeking a buyer. Manning left the family row-crop farm that he had grown up on and worked full-time since graduating from high school, to work the four houses.
Things went well, and soon his business expanded to six, then eight and finally to 10 houses in 2009. Each of the houses has 26,000 birds in the summer and 27,200 in the winter. With a five-flock-a-year rotation, Manning handles about 1.5 million chickens a year.
Meeting the challenges
With the struggling economy of the last 18 months, Manning saw a cut to four flocks a year, but expects a return to five this year. “The market has picked up, and I think a lot of that is how Perdue is marketing,” he says. “They are selling more cut-up pieces, ready-to-cook, parted out and strips now. And a lot of what goes through Lewiston now goes to restaurants. Every three or four years there is a cycle where things go down, but then they bounce back.”
Manning says that the automation/controller setup is on all but one of his farms. But his use of technology doesn’t mean his day is spent behind a computer.
“We start early in the morning and we check thermostats and fans and do maintenance work — there’s a lot of work every day. We spend four to five hours a day inside the houses,” he says. “You have to keep up with [power] gas usage and check when alarms go off.”
So while the operation is still labor-intensive, the computers allow two people to make the rounds of all the houses a couple of times a day.
While the basics are automated, that is just where the work begins.
“The controllers take care of keeping things going, but then we are able to spend time making little adjustments, whether to the air control, or adding a little more or a little less heat — the little things that make a good manager,” Manning says. “It’s air, feed and water; you want to make the chickens as comfortable as possible. It’s the same thing as with people.”
Perdue brings in day-old chicks that Manning keeps for 49 to 52 days — until the birds reach the target slaughter weight of 5.5 pounds. Each weather season brings its own challenges for growers. In the winter, the key is keep the chickens warm without burning too much gas, since growers are in competition on their costs. In the summer, the key is keeping the power on during storms. Manning says that at five weeks old, 90-degree-plus temperatures become a critical time — after 30 minutes without power, a grower will start to lose animals.
“I’m even hesitant to go out to eat if I see a storm is coming,” Manning says.
Manning takes pride in the fact that each of his expansions has had to be approved by Perdue, even in cases where he took over existing contract farms. His age is well below the average for growers in the business, but he says that is no mystery.
“Chickens have been good to me, but the reason you don’t see many young people coming in is that it ties you down. You don’t have vacations. You have to stay around, and even if you have generators lined up, there really are no safeguards,” he says.
“If you don’t move live birds out, you don’t get paid. A lot of people don’t want to make the sacrifice of doing this seven days a week, and it is hard to get help. It is no different from any other type of farming. You can be successful, but it takes hard work, and you’re gambling with what you do. It isn’t always easy. It can be stressful, but no job is perfect, and I never wake up dreading going to work.”
Like any profession, performance is the bottom line. Manning feels the upgrades to his facilities give him an edge.
“We sell a live product, not nuts and bolts, and that requires more responsibility,” he says. “It is a competitive industry, and anything I can do to raise a better bird — I’m going to do it.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.