Poultry Industry vs. The Bay

Sitting down at the dinner table after long day at work one of the last things you think about is, is where your food came from. Well it came from the supermarket right? Where did the supermarket get it from? Rarely do we think about the manual labor it took to grow our food. If a disease suddenly struck every farmer in the world where would our society be? I can tell you where and that would be a state of shear panic. Rarely do we consider that if it were not for these farmers we might not be able to feed ourselves. So isn’t it ironic that we blame the farmers for destroying the bay’s ecosystem yet we would be starving without them? For the past few months all we have heard is how farming and agriculture are the greatest polluters of the Chesapeake Bay. Rarely did I stop to think about how important the industry really is to our society.

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Allen and Ollen Davis, 58 year old identical twin brothers, are 6th generation farmers on the eastern shore of Maryland. The men have been farmers all of their lives but only began their poultry growing industry 17 years ago. Knowing what little I did about chicken farming I was excited to learn and experience firsthand. It did not take me long to learn that a lot than I would have thought that goes into maintaining a good level of health for all of the chickens. From day one at the farm they are put into a chicken house that is completely regulated by a system, which manages temperature, ammonia levels and humidity among other things. The control unit that Allen showed us was extremely complex. The technology has revolutionized the poultry growing industry as more stable conditions in the house lead to increased yield at the end of the period. The poultry industry is vertically integrated, meaning that the big companies like Perdue contract with poultry growers. The companies drop off the young chicks and are responsible for the amount fed, overall health and veterinary costs. The types of feed is also regulated by the contractors, it was interesting to learn that the companies own the chickens throughout their lifetime no matter how long they may live. The poultry growers like the Davis brothers simply provide the chicken house and maintenance of the flock during their development.

There are a number of things you have to know when you run a poultry growing operation like this, some things they have learned they say has been a result of trial and error.  For example they use kiln-dried shavings now as the basis of the bedding, because when they used saw dust it would degrade quickly and hold in bacteria, which could lead to spread of disease. They also have learned how to manage the bedding floor. They used to have to clean out the houses every 2 years but now they can go as long as 5-6 years, and for easier and better management clean and clear out waste along the way in smaller amounts. The Davis family farm also grows corn and soybean for poultry feed, they do not source their products to their own supplier because each contractor and company handles feed differently. It is an odd thing to think about but they might have to outsource from other farms to feed the birds on the farm despite having grains right there. The Davis’s grains are actually sold per bushel to Perdue for profit, which eventually is used for poultry feed somewhere else. This goes to show how regulated and complex the system of poultry production is.

Politics play a huge role in the industry, because while the contractors own the chickens throughout their lifespan, they do not legally own their waste products. The waste, poultry litter is actually owned by the grower, and must be managed by them in order to maintain their license. Poultry litter is considered by many as the top contributor to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the bay. The contractors have claimed that the farmers want the waste to spread on their fields as fertilizer and that is partially true. The Davis farm averages 6 flocks a year, with 5 weeks of growing time for the broiler chickens just imagine the quantity of manure produced per flock. The farmers who use the litter as fertilizer agree that it is great but they are often left with excess and face a lot of regulations when forced to dispose of it. There are fines in place for people who chose to ignore or otherwise disregard of the regulations implemented by the EPA.

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Our conversation with the Davis brothers was wide ended and brought up a number of controversial topics including genetically modified foods. So why did they decide to have us to their poultry farm? Why would someone in a controversial and heavily blamed industry open their doors to students studying the effects of poultry farming on the pollution in the bay? Ollen Davis said, “We are tired of someone else telling our story”. Allen picking up from his brother explains that they are “doing more than they are required, but I [he] doesn’t think they mind, the paper work is a burden and they have to agree with what the regulations are. We [they] can be audited and the state can send in anyone at anytime and we [they] have to be able to show them all records.” He continues to explain how volatile the system is, if they do not think you are doing something right you can face serious consequences.

The thread of politics that feeds into the existing confusion is a major factor in the lack of consistency in regulations. EPA has noted that agriculture in more ways than one has exceeded the goals for nutrient reduction. People often view antibiotic fed chickens as a bad thing, from the way the public makes it out to be it would be a chicken being constantly fed antibiotics to prevent any illness. Think about how costly that would be though? The Davis brothers explained that they are just used in the first two weeks of development and then rarely throughout the remaining growth period. Antibiotics in the early weeks make sense, and are crucial for survival; it is just like giving newborn babies antibiotics when they are most vulnerable to infections.

There are so many controversies and questions that surround the poultry industry and being able to experience an average size scale growing operation was a great opportunity. Opening up their doors to students like us was something notable and that speaks to the character of the Davis Family. They pride themselves in their work and the importance that it has on the food supply of the United States. It is important to thank them for their work and yet at the same time recognize the impacts that the industries have on the bay. One can only hope that one day we wont have to choose between a successful economy and a healthy environment.

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