Published on 08/30/07

Poultry innovations give breathing room in summer

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Down-filled parkas and 100-degree August weather don’t mix. Just ask the average chicken in Georgia.

Twenty years ago, combining feather-insulated chickens and heat waves would spell financial death to most Georgia producers. Now, technology keeps the record hot weather from posing a problem.

“We used to know we were in a heat wave by the dead chicken stories on the nightly news,” said state climatologist David Stooksbury. “Because of the great work of University of Georgia engineers and poultry scientists, we don’t have those stories anymore.”

New technologies aren’t just keeping chickens alive. They’ve helped create a bird boom in south Georgia.

“The poultry industry in Georgia continues to expand 3 percent to 5 percent a year. And almost all of that is in south Georgia,” said Mike Lacy, poultry science department head at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Even with price declines in 2006, poultry is easily Georgia’s top farm commodity, with more than 40 percent of the total. Broilers had a farm sales value of $3.8 billion in 2006. Eggs were worth $447.9 million.

While chickens are still raised mostly in north Georgia, new facilities are adding to the southern boom.

In Moultrie, Ga., Sanderson Farms recently completed a new complex that will produce 60 million to 70 million birds a year. And in Perry, Ga., Perdue Farms is expanding with what will be that company’s largest facility.

Heat can still kill chickens. But losses are centered now in houses that aren’t properly equipped and when tunnel ventilation isn’t used correctly.

“Even now, houses with low wind speed will have high mortality rates,” said Brian Fairchild, a UGA Extension poultry scientist.

Tunnel ventilation came to the poultry industry in the late 1980s. In a tunnel-ventilated house, hot outside air is pulled through evaporative cooling pads that typically cool the incoming air by 20 degrees or more, said UGA Extension engineer Mike Czarick. Exhaust fans pull the air rapidly through the house, exchanging the air in a minute or less.

The wind chill created by the cool breeze can further cool the air by as much as 10 degrees.

“When it’s 100 degrees, the cooling produced by the evaporative cooling pads and the wind chill effect have the chickens feeling as if it’s in the mid to high 70s,” Czarick said.

UGA poultry scientists and extension engineers didn’t invent tunnel ventilation, Lacy said. But they’ve worked on it extensively over the past 20 years, continuing its development and promoting its currently widespread use. Through hundreds of newsletters, demonstrations and yearly workshops that draw national and international crowds, they keep spreading the word about the chicken-saving technology.

In the 1980s, 15-percent to 20-percent mortality was the norm that poultry farmers prepared for when hot weather hit. Now, even with heat waves such as those in Georgia earlier in August, heat-related deaths are almost insignificant.

“It was almost a psychological thing to have to pick up dead birds that you had worked so hard over,” Lacy said. “It was sad. And it was all just a matter of unlucky timing. If you had baby birds when a hot spell hit, you were OK. But if you had a few 100-degree days and your birds were ready to go to market, you were cooked.”

Add in other innovations such as evaporative cooling, migration fences and solid-walled houses that don’t have windows and chickens are even more comfortable.

“The better we are at raising birds, the better price we can give consumers,” Fairchild said. “Our chickens are being really well taken care of, even in hot-weather months. I’d much rather be inside those houses than outside this time of year.”

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.