Poultry 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.
Virtually 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.
The 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
"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."
Inclement 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.
Janice 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."
Farm 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."
Finances 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."
Capital 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."