Clearing the air

October 12, 2006

It's not often that we hear studies in the poultry industry described as revolutionary, as a Maryland university professor put it the other day. Average consumers care little more about chickens than that the ones they buy at the market or roadside barbeque be fresh and cheap. We have so many other pressing daily cares that, well, what happens in chicken houses stays in chicken houses.

That's technically not true - just ask any environmentalist or chicken-farm neighbor - and that's why the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's $3.3 million project to redesign the physical structures where broilers are raised may very well produce revolutionary results. That kind of money isn't exactly chicken feed, but if the study leads to a significant reduction in the amount of ammonia emitted in chicken houses, it will be more than worth the benefits to both birds and humans.

The broiler chicken industry, which got its start on the Delmarva Peninsula almost by accident more than 80 years ago, is not some fly-by-night operation, although its magnitude can be easily disregarded by passersby who stay on the main highways through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. Industry giants employ about 14,000 workers, and another 2,000 people earn wages as independent chicken growers.

The industry is valued at $1.7 billion annually, making it, next to tourism, the mightiest economic engine on Delmarva. Inside the long chicken houses that dot the back roads' farms, 300 million peeps are raised each year before they are trucked to the processing plants. That makes for a lot of chicken manure. And it makes for a lot of ammonia, an eye- and nose-searing chemical byproduct of moisture, heat and nitrogen, which is part of chicken waste.

Working with the federal, state and private industry sectors, the university will examine how effectively innovative floor and ventilation systems can limit the amount of moisture that naturally accumulates in chicken houses populated by many thousands of baby birds. By removing moisture and quickly drying the manure, less ammonia will be produced. Part of the experimental process involves the use of perforated plastic flooring. That could cut back the growers' traditional reliance on wood shavings and sawdust as chicken litter, which has to be cleaned from the houses and is often spread outside on open ground.

Lowering ammonia emissions should make for a cleaner environment for chickens and the workers who raise them. Not to be overlooked may be a major boost in the air quality for people who live near chicken farms. Maybe raising fowl doesn't have to be so foul after all.

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