Tour gives insight into chicken farm proposal
Smaller Earleville farm mirrors controversial plan
— Inside a 63-by700-foot poultry barn, some 44,100 chickens ran about freely, some playing while others napped or watched.
The 3-week-old birds are being raised on the Meck Farm along Route 213 near Earleville. In four more weeks, the flock will be
rounded up and taken to Milford, Del., where they will be processed for shipment to grocery stores under the Perdue label.
As a similar operation proposed for the Horst Farm at England Creamery Road in Zion draws controversy from the surrounding community, the Meck Farm gives a glimpse of what the Horst Farm may someday look like if the project is approved. But while the Meck Farm has only two houses, the Horsts plan to build four.
“There will be 37,800 birds per house at the Horsts,” said Steve Cameron, manager of growouts for Perdue, the Salisbury-based poultry processing company. “There will be five-and-a-half growing cycles per year.”
Opponents of the Horst project fear air and water damage, lost property value, noise pollution and loss of quality of life if the proposal goes forward. Among their chief concerns is respiratory issues from dust and particulates, the ammonia produced from chicken waste
and contamination of soil and water from nitrate pollution leaching into neighboring wells.
On Thursday morning outside the houses on the Meck Farm, in a field surrounded by acres of corn, there were no odors. Huge exhaust fans were operating, but the sound was more of a hum that still allowed for conversation both inside and outside. A fine layer of dust from the fans coated a small area directly in front of the fans, however there was no evidence inside the houses of dust or other airborne matter.
Michael K. Levengood, vice president, chief animal care officer and farmer rela- tionship advocate, said the houses Perdue allows for its growers are temperaturecontrolled at each stage of a birds’ growth.
“It’s all designed to keep that bird comfortable,” Levengood said, adding that the control of temperature and moisture are why modern poultry operations have very little odor.
Levengood knelt inside the chicken house and picked up handfuls of the litter on the ground to show that it was dry.
“What makes it smell the worst is water,” he said. “Cool and dry reduces odors.”
Cooling pads and fans aid in drying out the manure. In modern houses, chickens drink from a drip feeder at a height that makes sure the water goes into the bird and not on the floor.
The Meck farm has already finished two cycles of chickens. While not yet officially organic — that certification is set to come next June — it is producing antibiotic-free birds for Perdue.
The birds arrive by truck a day after hatching at a grower in Hurlock. They travel in groups of 100 in temperature- controlled trucks. At the farm, the farmers themselves help unload the chicks into the poultry houses. Each basket is carried in by hand to the farm where the chicks scurry out.
Over the next seven weeks, the chickens are fed and watered with an automated system. The Mecks have large feed storage containers with augers that deliver the feed inside.
“The feed starts heavy on protein and light on energy,” Levengood said, noting that as the birds grow, the mix shifts with more energy added.
Several times each day, the Mecks walk through the houses to check on the birds and remove any not thriving, or any that have died.
“A 1.4 percent mortality in a first week is good,” Levengood said.
Dead birds are mixed into the compost, which becomes part of the fertilizer used on farm fields. The Mecks can use the fertilizer themselves or sell it to others. The worst smell of the day came from the compost bin.
Cameron, the Perdue manager of growouts, visits the Meck Farm weekly to check on progress. Now that this flock has reached its third week, he said the Mecks can add enrichment such as perches, which the birds will find entertaining.
Once the farm is certified organic, the Mecks will begin to let the birds outside.
“From 21 to 49 days, they are allowed to go out,” Cameron said, noting that in fact it’s required as an organic, open-access farm.
Each outdoor area provides the same square footage as the house with watering bowls, which Levengood said the chickens will play in a wading pool. There will also be shade structures outside, which allow the birds to get out of the heat and hide from aerial predation.
Neighbors of the Horst farm have been holding meetings and meeting with elected officials in an attempt to derail the proposal. The 220-acre property has been farmed for decades and the Horsts operated a dairy farm there until changing to poultry. The couple still offers customraised heifers to other dairies.
The Horsts’ plans put a lot of distance between the neighbors and the poultry houses — the minimum distance is 525 feet with 980 feet the largest. The elevation of the property will create even more barriers from residences.
“And they have their tunnel fans pointed toward their dwelling,” Cameron said.
Instead of removing the dirt from the property during construction, the Horsts plan to use it to build an earthen berm, further blocking the houses from the neighbors’ view, he added.