Recent news that Tyson Foods, Inc., is interested in building a $320 million poultry complex in Kansas is bringing a range of reactions from community members where the plant might be located. Two Kansas State University extension specialists answered questions about what such a complex might mean for a community and surrounding area.
Tyson and the Kansas Department of Agriculture on Sept. 6 announced that Tyson would build a $320 million poultry complex near Tonganoxie in Leavenworth County. The complex was expected to employ about 1,600 people and contract with farmers and ranchers in the area to raise chickens. Tyson said the payroll and payments to farmers from the new operation, along with its purchase of grain and utilities, were expected to generate a direct annual economic benefit to the state of Kansas of $150 million. Community backlash in Leavenworth County after the announcement, however, has Tyson looking for other locations. Sites in Cloud, Montgomery and Sedgwick counties are now under consideration.
K-State Research and Extension poultry specialist Scott Beyer wants to make people aware of modern poultry production practices at farms that typically contract with a major processor such as Tyson. He and extension agricultural economist Dan O’Brien answered commonly asked questions recently:
What about odor from poultry waste? How is that controlled when raising many birds?
Beyer: Waste from poultry falls onto bedding, such as pine shavings and sometimes straw. Because poultry houses have high ventilation rates, the waste dries and the lack of water stabilizes it. This prevents decomposition, minimizes odors and keeps flies from using the waste to reproduce. Upon cleanout, the dry waste is piled and composted in a facility where it reaches a high temperature to destroy microorganisms, very much like any home composting bin. Poultry growers never use water or lagoons that are associated with the waste of other farm animals. This prevents the growth of odor-causing microorganisms.
How would this affect the water supply and quality in the region?
Beyer: An actual poultry farm doesn’t use much water. A bird consumes about a quart of water for every pound of feed consumed which is far less than the average irrigation pivot. All poultry farms operate under a nutrient management plan. This requires analysis of the nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, in the compost. The composted litter is then spread on farm fields, based on the soil nutrient content and the needs of the plants grown on the farm. In most cases, supplemental chemical fertilizers are still required because some nutrients are not high enough in the litter to adequately feed the plants. So, any litter used simply offsets some of the chemical fertilizers used by farmers to grow soybeans, corn and sorghum. In the end, no additional nutrients are used by anyone, and the total amounts of nutrients remains the same before chickens came to the area. In fact, with the organic content, and with micronutrients in the litter, plants actually grow better with litter compared to crops grown with only the major chemical fertilizers. In some ways, you can consider compost to be essentially recycled corn and soybeans (that were fed to chickens) to grow the next crop.
Can you describe, in general terms, modern poultry production? Are the chickens raised in a controlled atmosphere?
Beyer: Broiler chicks need heat for a few days, then the temperature is dropped to reach their most comfortable temperature at around 75 degrees. The houses are long and narrow so that air can flow easily through the building. Most people don’t know that birds don’t sweat, so it’s important to move the air so that as they breathe, the air can remove respired moisture which allows them to cool. The buildings will have solid sidewalls, and it will be difficult to even know if there are any birds in the house. Air is moved by exhaust fans which pull air through an evaporative cooling system during warm weather. Because the litter must be kept dry, the airflow not only cools the birds, but it also removes the moisture from the litter and building, which prevents odors. Many people think the birds are crowded but what they are observing is the gregarious nature of birds. No matter how much space you give them, birds want to flock together, so they will all end up in one place in a barn anyway. They are never in cages so the birds can move about wherever they want in the entire building.
The buildings are 100 percent computer controlled, and sometimes through apps on a phone, managers can use cameras to check the birds. You can literally go to a Friday night ball game and check your birds over your smart phone. I consider a typical broiler farm to be a part-time job, with a few full-time days here and there. Most poultry growers also are teachers, grow crops, run cattle, etc.
What economic impact might a complex like the proposed Tyson plant have on a community or region?
O’Brien: There are always pros and cons when considering a business of this size coming into a community, but for grain growers and some agri-businesses in the region, the impact is a net positive. It’s very possible that this processing plant will have a positive effect on the regional grain demand for livestock feed, and regional grain prices. In addition, a business of that size has the potential to provide additional local employment and retail business volume, increase agricultural land values in the area as a result of higher grain prices, add to the local tax base to help fund local government services, and to increase home real estate values because of increased residential housing demand.
What types of employees will be required for this enterprise?
Beyer: An integrated farming operation of this size will require employees with a wide range of skills. The contract farms will hire family help, while providing on-farm employment growing the birds or producing hatching eggs. There will be USDA inspectors, quality-control personnel, and people working in food safety. Besides the independent, family-owned farms, there will need to be flock supervisors who travel to all the farms in an area and check the birds. There will be construction jobs for the grow-out buildings. The automated equipment and robotic processors typical on these farms will need people skilled in technical abilities. More than likely, there will be at least one outfit that will open an office in the area to sell commercial equipment and parts for poultry houses. Because the houses are heated mostly by propane, gas companies will need to hire additional crews to deliver gas. The job base will require high-school grads, tech-school grads, university degrees and probably advanced degrees in areas like management and veterinary care. There will be specialized jobs in grain handling and feed manufacturing. And don’t forget all the IT and accounting people required in payroll. There aren’t many enterprises that will offer jobs with the breadth of skills and educational levels than integrated poultry production.
What else do you think people should know?
Beyer: People don’t realize that the farms needed to supply birds could be spread sparsely over several counties. These houses won’t make noise, nor will they have any lagoons that produce odors so it’s likely that most people who see one won’t even know it’s full of birds. And for those more interested in the breeding operations, some growers will have hens and roosters naturally producing hatching eggs that will be moved to a hatchery where things are so automated that the chicks are even vaccinated while still in the egg. The broilers for meat are then scheduled for processing at market weight and they will be moved via a truck to a plant where the truck will move right into an area for unloading. There are no holding pens for birds around poultry plants and, besides an occasional truck moving birds, most folks won’t even know if birds are being processed.