Thursday, July 8, 2010

Week 1: Acquisition

So, I guess the first question is how did I get shacked up with 10 broiler (meat-type) chicks? Well, on Tuesday, June 29 John Michael and I traveled to Live Oak to a broiler hatchery and harvesting facility. We were there for a couple of reasons, but primarily to pick up some broiler chicks and fertilized eggs for our poultry lab section we would be coordinating that week. In this particular lab, students in the class would have the opportunity to see chicken embryos at various stages of development, candle eggs and grade them, incubate and hatch out the fertilized eggs as well as feather sex the day-old chicks we picked up that morning.

While at the facility, we had the opportunity to tour the hatchery before we picked up our cargo. It was absolutely fascinating! The first thing that surprised me was the size of the hatchery building, which wasn't nearly as big as I had imagined it would be since this facility is one of the few large-scale poultry facilities left in Florida. The facility we visited sources poultry for companies like Publix, Sam's Club, and Costco located within Florida, which requires them to hatch out over 1 million broiler birds each week! Despite this scale of production, the building itself was not what one would consider to be enormous nor did it have a plethora of employees working there. Such a situation is characteristic of many large-scale facilities in the poultry industry because, as a whole, the industry is highly integrated and produces an extremely uniform product. Combine that with the fact that handling a product as small as eggs and day-old chicks doesn't require a lot of infrastructure and wha-la! A facility smaller than I had imagined!

As we got out of the car and went to enter the building we walked through a sanitizing mat that works to keep out any contaminants someone might carry into the building on the bottom of their shoes. We then visited with the hatchery manager for a few minutes, and then moved into the break room where we were given one-size-fits-all biosecurity coveralls and shoe condoms - I looked DEAD SEXY if I do say so myself - just check me out! These suites are just one of the many precautions such a facility would take to keep foreign materials or diseases at bay, especially since the little fellas we would be visiting were so young and therefore extremely susceptible to pathogens.

One of the othe
r ways the facility worked to protect the embryos and day-old chicks were through vaccinations. Each chick is given two vaccines while at the hatchery - a respiratory vaccine while it's still an embryo in the egg and a coccidiostat on the day that they hatch, before they are sent to the grower houses. For birds that qualify for natural programs like Publix's Greenwise brand, this is all the health product those chicks will ever receive throughout their lifetime.

Watching the embryo vaccinations was utterly amazing - the fact that an engineer can design a machine that will vaccinate 100 plus eggs at a time without damaging the developi
ng embryo or cracking the shell is mind boggling to me. In addition, this same machine scanned each egg and recorded which eggs were fertilized and which were not fertilized. This allowed the hatchery to conserve valuable vaccine as well as keep a running record of how well each breeder's flock was producing. Such information becomes valuable to the company as they track each chick from hatch to harvest, collecting production information like hatch rates and feed conversion ratios, which directly impact their bottom line and help them make future breeding decisions.

Once the birds have hatched, they are taken out of the incubator, sexed, and prepared for shipment to a local grower. These growers are contracted to raise these day-old broilers for appr
oximately the next 6 weeks before harvest. Prior to shipment, the birds are given their coccidiostat vaccination, which is actually died red and sprayed onto them. Since this vaccine needs to be ingested, the red dye works to encourage neighboring chicks to nibble the vaccine off of the other chicks. It also made the yellow chicks a lovely shade of pink!

At the conclusion of the tour, we thanked the manager, packed up our recently hatched broilers and their unhatched counterparts for the drive back to Gainesville. Which leads me to answering the question as to why I now have ten of these broilers at my house in Newberry. Well, you see, at the conclusion of the lab on Wednesday we needed someone to take these fellas. With no students stepping up to the plate, and approval from the hubby, I took my newly acquired broilers home in a cardboard box. Armed with a light for heat, newspaper for make-shift bedding, a little feed and water, and a craving for chicken and rice, I drove home with ten biddies in my backseat.

Once home, I borrowed a brooder from my mother-inlaw and set-up the chicks in our shop by the house. I'm amazed at how fast these guys are growing, and their ability to eat, poop, and then pass-out before waking up to start the cycle all over again.....hmmmm
, sounds a lot like what some of my friends are about to get themselves into in about 9 months or so.

At the conclusion of this week, I removed the heat
lamp since they should have started gaining the ability to regulate their own body temperature, plus it's July in Florida. They've also started to put on white feathers at the tips of their wings and tail. Unfortunately, as with any agricultural endeavor, we had a casualty at the end of this week - so we are coming into week 2 with only 9 remaining chicks. So with the advice from our neighbors and fellow backyard broiler growers, the Simmons, hopefully we can get these remaining birds through the next 6-8 weeks - who's hungry for some fried chicken???

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