Poultry Farmer  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotPoultry farmers feed and care for many feathered animals. They keep barns, pens, coops and other farm buildings clean and in repair. They also oversee breeding, slaughtering and marketing activities.

dotVirtually the entire chicken industry in the U.S. is based on contracts between large poultry processing corporations and poultry farmers. This is known as "vertical integration" of the poultry industry. It is most visible in the chicken sector.

Richard Lobb is the director of communications for the National Chicken Council (NCC). He says integrating the production of poultry with the needs of the consumer industry makes poultry farming less sensitive to market fluctuations than other commodities, such as hogs.

dotThe work of farm operators and managers is often strenuous. The hours are long and days off are infrequent. Of those who work full time, half work 60 hours or more a week.

But to those who farm, living in beautiful rural areas outweighs these disadvantages. They also enjoy working outdoors, being self-employed and working hard.

"You have to be committed to the chickens because you have to be available 24 hours a day," says Gerald Smith, a chicken farmer who runs a farm in Delaware with his wife, Janice.

"Anything can happen and you must be prepared to make the adjustments, corrections or repairs necessary for their survival," he says. "Without electric power, you can lose a flock due to heat or ventilation within one hour."

dotInclement weather can be disastrous to poultry farming, especially when combined with power outages. For example, a heat wave in the summer of 1999 killed millions of chickens across the southern U.S., sending poultry farmers reeling with the losses.

Lobb says heat-related chicken deaths have been much worse in the past. But modern ventilation systems help farmers keep chicken houses cool today.

dotJanice Smith advises young people to think carefully before choosing poultry farming as a career. Areas of concern are physical strength for lifting and carrying, the stress of being on call around the clock, maintaining equipment and picking up and disposing of dead chickens.

"Is this a job that you'd be happy doing?" she asks. "Be very sure that your answer to that question is yes. Unlike a job in which you agree to work for an employer, you can't just decide to look for a different job if you decide you're not happy with this one."

dotFarm work can be hazardous. Farmers can be subject to illnesses and diseases from improper handling and breathing of dangerous pesticides and chemicals.

In a lot of cases, the farm owner has a job off the farm, Lobb says. "There's not that much to it -- you check them every day, make sure the equipment is working, that they get their water and feed at the right time....They don't need to be taken out for a gallop every day."

dotFinances are very important in starting a poultry farm. "You'll need some substantial money for capital layout," says chicken farmer Waldie Klassen.

It can cost $250,000 to build a single chicken grow-out house. "It takes about four chicken houses to really make a good go of it," says Lobb. "That's a million dollars right there, just to get it started. As with many forms of farming, it is a real commitment. "

He notes that there is no open market for chickens. "You take a contract to the bank and they're usually quite willing to make a loan because they feel it's a pretty safe investment -- it's a fairly low-risk form of agriculture."

dotCapital costs are much higher in the north than in the south because of the weather. "We have to have chicken houses that can handle the hot summers and cold winters," says Klassen. "Most of the chickens are produced in the South and they have only the heat in the summers to contend with."

At a Glance

Raise birds for their meat value

  • This work is often strenuous
  • The U.S. is the world's leading chicken producer
  • Farming is getting more sophisticated, so a good education is important