Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993


A MEDLEY OF CHANGE IN OZARKS FARMING

The Chickens:

New Crop in Old Soil

by Donald R. Holliday



Two miles east of Omaha, Arkansas, across a deep hollow from Arkansas Highway 14, near the edge of some 200 acres of old ridge pasture and hay land, amidst a broad gouge of red clay earth bulldozed level sits a complex of shining new metal buildings. To one accustomed to traditional farming in the Ozarks--beef, dairy, horses and mules--the five one-story buildings appear to be the new seat of a large and prosperous farm operation. Large and prosperous it may be, but traditional it isn't. The buildings are chicken houses, the operation a grow-out business where baby chicks are turned from hatchery size into butcher size. This is the Seals beef and chicken farm.

Poley and Wanda Seals both are natives of near Omaha, he from Denver, Arkansas, on Long Creek, where his family grew tobacco before the Corps of Engineers destroyed the White River valley. Together they now run a cow-calf farm of about a hundred cows, and each contracts to raise chickens for Tyson. The cow and chicken endeavors are complementary.

Poley got into the chicken business first. Following a standard contract between the farmer and the Tyson company, Tyson would build the grow-out houses and equip them, would provide baby chicks, would provide feed, would buy the finished market-size chickens. Poley would provide the labor. Tyson would withhold a portion of their building costs as well as feed costs from each finished grow-out of chickens. Poley contracted for three houses. A year later, Wanda signed her own contract for two houses.

Each grow-out house is forty feet wide and two hundred feet long. All equipment inside the house is suspended from the structure overhead. Outside each house stands an elevated feed bin which is filled by a delivery truck equipped with an auger tube to transfer the feed from truck to bin. The bin has its own auger tube, or rather auger system, which delivers feed automatically from the bin through pipes which parallel the length of the house. There's a feed station at almost every chicken's beak. Water is just as close, through a system similar to the feed system. Large fans are installed in the side walls of each house to ensure adequate ventilation when the screen-and-shutter windows, running the full length of both side walls, aren't enough. The floors are concrete pads.

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Approximately every two months, Tyson delivers to each house about 20,000 baby chickens. Poley and Wanda' s job is to monitor guages mounted in the wall near the entry. They ensure that the feed and water never stop flowing, that the temperature in each house remains at an acceptable level. They also watch the chickens, a near dawn-to-dusk job every day. They walk through each house several times each day to look for sick or dead chickens. When they find one, they remove it immediately. Their profit margin--indeed, any profit at all-----depends on keeping the operation clean and disease free and a high grow-out yield. When the chickens are near three pounds, which takes about six weeks, it's time for the trucks to come after the chickens.

Before the trucks arrive, Poley and Wanda raise all equipment inside each house, using the electrically operated system of cables and pulleys on which the equipment is suspended. When the trucks arrive, large doors are opened at one end of each house, and the trucks drive in. Each chicken must be caught by hand--but that's the job of the catchers who come with the trucks.

A very good yield is anything over ninety percent grow-out yield. Both Poley and Wanda have operated well above this level in all grow-outs. During her first year of operation, Wanda won the company award for high yield of the year, almost ninety-eight percent. Wanda is, justifiably, proud of that achievement. Though a little healthy family competition inspires Poley's and Wanda's separate operations, Poley also appears proud of Wanda's record.

After the chickens are gone, the houses are cleared of a six-week accumulation of chicken litter. Although cattle feed companies have repeatedly tried to buy the litter, to recycle it as beef feed, all the litter from all of Poley's and Wanda's houses is distributed on their pastures and hay lands. It's worth more there, Poley says, than what it would sell for.

Their pastures and their beef cattle look good.

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