Ventilation system almost cost him the flock

February 28, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin and Dan Fesperman | Kate Shatzkin and Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

Among the demands for updated equipment that poultry growers routinely hear about from their companies, none is so popular, costly or controversial as "tunnel ventilation," a system of high-powered fans designed to keep air moving on hot days.

Some processors, such as Perdue, are so convinced the system improves performance -- both for them and for the growers -- that they pay for half the cost. But even then, farmers often need a new loan for the equipment. Company reimbursements don't include interest, and a grower's contract can be cut off before reimbursement is complete.

The price can be steep: up to $20,000 per house for fans and generators. And the system can double the monthly electricity bill.

In Stockman, Texas, grower Gail Hancock found out -- nearly disastrously so -- why some poultry engineers say tunnel ventilation isn't a proven asset.

At the urging of his company, Pilgrim's Pride, Hancock spent an extra $20,000 to install the system in four chicken houses he built in 1990 on the farm where his father grew broilers before him.

But on a hot day in 1991, Hancock noticed that the system in one of his houses failed to work. Inside, he found a sea of weakened birds sitting on the floor. They were minutes from death.

Legs shaking, he frantically got the air moving again, and barely saved the flock.

On warm days after that, Hancock was too worried even to leave his farm for a loaf of bread. Soon afterward, he dismantled the expensive new system, spending $30,000 in the process. Pilgrim's Pride followed suit, suggesting that its growers remove tunnel ventilation after recommending installation just a few years earlier.

On Delmarva, however, tunnel ventilation is still the rage. Perdue has made it mandatory in new or renovated houses.

Michael Czarick, a University of Georgia extension engineer, said that managed correctly, the ventilation system is a boon. But "if you have a tunnel house and it's not designed right and you don't manage it right ... I will guarantee you, you will do worse," he said.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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