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Broiler Production and Management

24 April 2004

William A. Dozier, III, Michael P. Lacy and Larry R. Vest - Extension Poultry Scientists, Poultry Science Department at the University of Georgia - Broiler production has been the number one source of agricultural income in Georgia since 1956. During this period, the broiler industry has become vertically integrated. Vertical integration has developed because it is an effective and practical way to produce broilers.

It provides for the orderly flow of hatching eggs, chicks, feed and other supplies necessary for the efficient production and supply of processed broilers into market channels. For example, approximately 20 broiler complexes exist in Georgia. Each complex has its own feed mill, hatchery and processing plant. Contract growers are involved in producing approximately 1.5 billion broilers each year.

Traditionally, broiler production has been a part-time or supplementary enterprise on many Georgia farms. One or more members of the family may be employed off the farm or engaged in other farming enterprises. Economists estimate that fully-automated houses have labor requirements of approximately 4 to 6 minutes per day per 1,000 broilers. Typically, more time is required during early stages of the growout period; less time is required as birds get older. The time investment, however, may increase as the birds exceed 6 weeks of age with flocks experiencing a high rate of mortality. A family unit on a full-time basis is generally considered to be approximately 120,000 birds (6 houses). Recently, a trend toward larger operations that require full-time employment has been noted.

Contractual Arrangements

A typical contract is one in which the grower (usually a landowner) provides the housing and growout equipment, feeders, waterers, brooders and other inputs such as water, electricity, fuel, litter and labor. The contractor (the broiler company) provides the chicks, feed, necessary medications and supervision. The broiler company also provides labor and equipment for catching and hauling the birds to market.

The company retains ownership of the birds, and the grower is paid a return (usually about 3.5 cents to 4.75 cents per pound of broilers marketed) for labor and facilities. Contracts generally have incentive clauses for superior growers to earn extra money. These "bonuses" are earned by having lower mortality, producing more pounds of broiler on a given amount of feed, and having fewer birds condemned during processing than the average grower.

Cost of transportation is a significant factor and many companies specify a maximum allowable distance between a broiler farm and the feed mill or processing plant. Most contractors require a certain house design and size. They may also prefer certain types of equipment. Contract growers must learn what the housing and equipment requirements are before building. Before building or buying a broiler growout facility, growers must obtain written assurances from a broiler company that it intends to provide a contract.

Facilities

Housing
The first requirement for growing broilers is adequate housing. Because broiler production is essentially a chick-brooding operation, the house should contain equipment so that such factors as temperature, moisture, air quality and light can be controlled easily. It should also provide for efficient installation and operation of brooding, feeding, watering and other equipment.

All broiler companies require buildings with insulated roofs, side walls and end walls. Control over temperature, ventilation and air movement is necessary. Broiler houses should have planned air inlets, exhaust fans, heaters, an evaporative cooling system, thermostats and timers to provide environmental control.

Houses should be capable of maintaining appropriate temperatures during the entire growing cycle, regardless of outside temperature. Colder climates require additional insulation, whereas proper air speed becomes crucial in a hot environment.

The live production manager of the broiler company can provide information concerning broiler house designs, housing requirements and equipment recommendations. Again, it is essential to have approval from the broiler firm before you build.

Most broiler houses are built 40 feet wide. Houses 40 feet wide usually have two lines of lighting fixtures arranged so all areas of the floor are lighted. Place low-wattage bulbs 8 to 10 feet above the floor to provide 0.5 to 1.0 foot candle of light at bird level.

Brooding Equipment
Gas brooders are very common (L.P. or natural gas). Various types of gas furnaces are also used. The number of furnaces or brooders in the house is based on chick density and BTU output. Check with your contractor to see which brand or type heating system is preferred. Partial house brooding, a fuel conservation measure, is used by many producers. Chicks should not be restricted to less than a third of the house during the first 10 to 14 days. Additional feeders, waterers, etc., may need to be placed in the partitioned area where chicks are started. Increase feeding and watering capacity in proportion to chick density. With partial house brooding, proper ventilation is essential, as the additional concentration of chicks can rapidly cause condensation, caked litter and other problems. For additional information, please consult Georgia Extension Bulletin No. 893, Key Factors for Poultry House Ventilation.

Feeding Equipment
Mechanical feeders are a necessity. When properly installed and maintained, these feeders save labor and feed. Generally, two lines of pan-type feeders are installed. These are placed on winches with pulleys and cables so the entire system can be raised to the ceiling during catching and clean-out. If a controlled feeding program is used, pay special attention to bird density, feeder space, nutrient density and environmental conditions. The amount of time the birds are allowed to eat should increase with age.

Bulk feed storage bins are also a necessary part of feeding equipment. The bins are located outside the house. An auger is used to move the feed from the bin into the house. Check with your contractor to see what capacity bulk-feed trucks are used so you can buy the correct size bins. It is preferable that two feed bins be used for each house or three bins for two houses. This will allow you to change feed quickly if it becomes necessary to medicate sick birds or meet feed withdrawal requirements.

Watering Equipment
Water is an essential nutrient for broilers. It is used for heat removal, digestion and formation of body tissues. Broilers should consume approximately 1.5-2.0 times as much water as feed on weight basis. A decrease in water consumption is known to substantially reduce feed consumption, which in turn can adversely affect feed conversion ratio. Contract poultry growers acknowledge the importance of providing an adequate supply of water, but improper water consumption can often occur if detailed management is not exercised during the daily operation.

In the past, trough, bell and cup waterers were the primary types of waterers used in broiler production. Currently, almost all broiler houses are equipped with nipple waterers. Nipple waterers provide several advantages over other types of waterers. They reduce water wastage, litter caking and condemnations and they keep water cleaner. Broilers obtain water from nipple waterers by pecking the nipple, in turn activating a pin that releases water into the bird's mouth.

Nipple waterer height needs to be managed properly to ensure adequate water consumption. Optimum nipple height should be as high as birds are able to stretch their necks and drink from the end of their beaks. However, if nipple height is increased so the bird must first elevate its breast and then stretch its neck to reach the nipple, then nipple height is too high and inadequate consumption can occur. Proper nipple height becomes very important with high environmental temperatures. Water meters can serve as excellent tools to evaluate sufficient water consumption.

Miscellaneous Equipment
A tractor with front-end loader, a manure spreader and a small trailer are convenient equipment around a broiler operation. Small tools and miscellaneous equipment, such as a wheel-barrow, step ladder, water hoses, broom and brushes will be needed for maintenance. The tractor and spreader are needed especially at clean-out time.

Some contractors require a foot-bath at the entrance of each house. In this case, growers are expected to place the soles of their shoes in a foot-bath containing a disinfectant before entering the poultry house. A foot-bath helps prevent disease contamination from house to house.

Other companies may require special clothing and rubber boots, which are used and disinfected on the farm. Lock the doors to keep visitors out of the house.

Flock Management

Become completely familiar with your company's grow-out program. If printed copies are available, get one and study it thoroughly.

Cleaning
Some companies require that houses be cleaned out after every brood; others permit reuse of old litter.

Cleaning after Every Brood
Remove all old litter and manure to the extent reasonably possible. Brush or wash cobwebs and dust off walls and ceilings just prior to the clean-out. Ask your flock supervisor about a disinfectant to use on wall, sill and equipment. Spread 2 to 4 inches of clean, dry bedding on the floor. It may be necessary to dust off equipment after cleaning out or after new shavings have been added. Do not use wet, moldy or partially decayed material. The most commonly used bedding is pine shavings, but other materials are available. Check with your flock supervisor for recommendations.

Empty the feed bin by running the auger and collecting any remaining feed into bags or other suitable containers. Then remove the boot plate and clean the boot out. Clean the bin periodically.

Reuse of Old Litter
Litter can be reused if previous broods were relatively free of infectious disease. Remove all wet or caked litter. Sweep down dust and cobwebs. Some companies may require about 1 inch of new bedding to be placed on top of the old, or they may suggest that only the areas where the chicks will be started have new bedding added.

Water Quality
Adequate water quality is an essential component for optimum broiler performance since a chick's body contains approximately 80 percent water at hatching. Poor water quality can adversely affect bird performance. Water is not totally pure, and it contains substances that influence its quality. These substances include bacteria, nitrogen and minerals.

The goal is to provide birds with drinking water that has bacterial content approaching zero; however, it is often difficult to maintain this level. Total bacteria and coliform bacteria concentrations, however, should not exceed 100 and 50 colony-forming units/100 ml of water, respectively. A dead animal falling into a well or feces contamination can lead to an unacceptable amount of bacteria.

Nitrate and nitrite content of water should not exceed 25 and 4 mg/l, respectively. Nitrate is converted into nitrite by microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract. It is a well-established fact that nitrite decreases the bird's oxygen carrying capacity, and high nitrite consumption can result in mortality.

Several minerals are considered to affect water quality. Increased iron (>30 mg/l) and sulfate (>32 mg/l) can produce bad odors and a bitter taste, reducing water consumption. Maximum concentrations for calcium, lead, magnesium and zinc are considered to be 250, 0.2, 125 and 1.50 mg/l, respectively, to maintain optimum broiler performance. Both excessive calcium and sodium concentrations are known to affect production. Calcium content above 180 mg/l causes scaling of equipment. High sodium (>32 mg/l) content is known to increase water consumption, which increases litter moisture.

Waste Management
As previously mentioned, every grower will be faced with removing old litter from broiler houses. Broiler companies place the responsibility to properly dispose of broiler litter and bird mortality on the contract grower. The amount of manure produced annually for each broiler house can be substantial. It is a good rule of thumb to consider that 0.5 pound of litter is produced from every pound of meat produced. For example, a 4-broiler house farm marketing 4-pound broilers could generate approximately 340 tons of manure/year. The clean-out time may occur during the winter when litter is not needed for crop growth. As a result, the poultry grower should have an adequate storage facility for the litter until the spring and summer months.

Several litter-storing methods are available, but the method of choice depends upon length of storage, quantity of litter produced and input cost. Covered stockpile, stockpile with ground liner, and roofed storage structure are the three basic alternatives for litter storage. The primary goals of storing broiler litter are to prevent nutrient runoff and leaching and to minimize insect and odor problems. Estimate the amount of litter produced annually so you can calculate litter storage requirements to determine facility costs. Once these have been estimated, the grower can determine which method of storage is best for his/her operation.

Total flock mortality typically ranges from 5 to 12 percent, and it can vary due to factors such as bird age, bird health, ventilation and season of the year. Growers must implement a disposal method that is environmentally friendly while also being cost effective. Bird disposal methods currently used in Georgia are burial pits, incineration and composting. Burial pit is the preferred choice because it is the most economical. There are advantages for some of the other methods. Incineration is probably the safest biological method, and composting results in a useable end-product for fertilizer.

Georgia poultry growers have assumed a pro-active role in environmental stewardship. Nutrient management plans are being implemented on a voluntary basis. These plans include written records on litter storage, dead bird disposal, litter analyses, litter application rates and timing, equipment calibration, and the amount of litter and compost removed from the farm via sales. These records provide the grower with written documentation on implementation of best management practices. Your local county agent can provide assistance with the implementation of a nutrient management plan for your operation.

Be Ready!
Do all necessary cleaning of houses and equipment several days before the chicks are scheduled to arrive. All equipment should be in place and brooders should be checked at least 24 hours ahead of time. In conventional curtain-sided houses, brooder temperatures should be 90 degrees F (32.2 degrees C) at the edge of the hover and 2 inches above the litter. In environmentally-controlled houses, satisfactory results can be obtained with starting temperatures as low as 85 degrees F (29.4 degrees C). For more detailed information, obtain a copy of Georgia Extension Bulletin No. 855, Environmental Factors to Consider When Brooding Chicks.

Feed should be in place before chicks arrive. Chick guards also should be in place if they are used. Small feeder trays or box lids are often used to feed baby chicks until they are large enough to eat from automatic feeders. The grow-out program will indicate (or your flock supervisor will suggest) when to switch from feeder lids to the automatic equipment.

Keep accurate records of feed consumed and delivered, mortality, vaccination dates and medications given. The flock supervisor needs this information. It will also be very useful to you.

If a problem occurs, notify your flock supervisor. He or she will help you identify and solve the problem, possibly by getting birds to a diagnostic laboratory if disease is a possibility. Georgia has several diagnostic labs that render free diagnoses for poultry producers. If the trouble is not disease, the flock supervisor will know what channels to go through to attempt to solve the problem.

Experience and Know-How
Don't be content to follow a routine. Anyone can follow cookbook instructions. Learn all you can about physiological functions, nutrition (feed and water), ventilation, and stress factors of the broiler chick. By doing so, you will understand in greater detail the contractor's requirements in your grow-out program and will be more successful in producing broilers.
Learn as much as you can about the company with which you are contracting. You are a vital part of its operation. Know what the company's overall objectives are, what kind of product it is trying to market, and the challenges it faces in getting that product into market channels. Learn how you both can work toward your mutual benefit.

Records
Complete records are necessary. Broiler production is as much a business as the service station on the corner or the downtown merchant. Records are necessary for computing taxes, for checking flock performance, for determining profit or loss, for determining returns on investment, for locating excessive costs, and for establishing a manure management plan. The time you spend keeping records on which to base management decisions will be one of the best investments you make.



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