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.

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