Organic poultry production in the US

04-01-2019 | | |
Photo: Charlotte Cunningham
Photo: Charlotte Cunningham

Sustainable agriculture is a hot topic across the globe, with pressure mounting on farmers to ensure that everything from manure storage to using technology is as efficient as possible. Poultry World visits a pioneering US producer to find out how the farm operates.

Chicken is becoming one of the most widely consumed meats in the United States, with per capita consumption estimated at 41.6kg in 2018 – 4kg more than 10 years ago. With consumption predicted to keep rising, alongside growing interest from consumers about how their food is produced, there is a bigger drive than ever before for poultry producers to be as efficient and sustainable as possible.

Georgie Cartanza is an organic poultry farmer near Dover on the East Coast of the US. Despite having no background in farming, Ms Cartanza has had a long-standing career in the industry. After graduating she worked as a flock supervisor for Perdue – one of the biggest consumer brands in the US – and later went on to work for Mountaire Farms before building her first chicken house in 2006.

Organic production

In 2015, after noticing a change in market dynamics, Ms Cartanza decided to switch to organic production. “The main driver behind that was the real push in the US to go antibiotic free,” she says. “My thoughts were that if we were going to take on the additional risk of not using any antibiotics then why not try to move myself up in the value chain.”

Organic production costs 3 times more than a conventional system largely due to feed prices – particularly soya which has rocketed in price this year as a result of aggravated trade relations. So from both a consumer and financial perspective it is critical to be as sustainable and efficient as possible, she adds.

Chicks arrive on-farm at one day old and are grown to 7 weeks in four 65ft x 600ft chicken houses, each containing 37,000 birds. The farm rears five-and-a-half flocks a year on a vertically integrated contract for Coleman Foods, who are responsible for the sourcing of the chicks and the feed. Annual production levels equate to 2.3m kg of meat – enough to feed 59,808 people a year. “I think it is really interesting that as farmers we can be so efficient with our production to accomplish that.”

Implementing sustainable measures

Environmental stewardship plays a big part in Ms Cartanza’s sustainability goal and through grant funding from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) she has been able to implement a number of measures including heavy use concrete pads outside the chicken houses and manure storage buildings to reduce water pollution. She also has a vegetative buffer around the entire farm, has installed energy-saving LED light bulbs throughout the chicken houses and has a unique composting system for litter and dead-stock.

Poultry farmer Georgie Cartanza. Photo: Charlotte Cunningham

Poultry farmer Georgie Cartanza. Photo: Charlotte Cunningham

Re-spreading litter in the shed

“Litter is extremely expensive, so we grow chickens on built up litter, conditioning it in between flocks,” she explains. “We have 2 pieces of equipment to do this: One that we use to pulverise anything that tests over 30% moisture and then we aerate it to dry it out. The other heats the litter to kill off any harmful pathogens meaning we can then re-spread the litter in the shed.

“As we farm more antibiotic free, there are good bugs within the litter that can improve gut flora and immunity.”

Ms Cartanza has also installed a specially designed ventilation system to draw hot air out of the buildings rather than just cooling hot air. “This is probably the number one thing that has reduced stress – heat stress in particular – for birds in the summer months,” she explains.

The fans suck the air out of the house via a 6 inch cooling pad which filters moisture – this process is known as evaporative cooling. As the air is sucked through the pad it drops the air temperature by 10-12°C and pulls a wall of cool air through the house which creates wind chill. “That means if it is 30°C outside, it will feel cooler in the house than it really is.”

Good ventilation in the poultry house

There is one complete air exchange every 60 seconds and air is moving at 600ft per minute. “A lot of people ask why I don’t just use air conditioning to keep the birds cool but we are not just fighting the battle with outside temperature. For every pound of meat these birds put on they are creating more heat. Therefore, we have to get the heat out of the house and this is the most effective and efficient way to do so.”

While this no doubt incurs a higher cost than a curtain system – with electricity costs estimated at $ 35,000-40,000 (£27,000-£31,000) a year – it increases flock health; minimising losses and outweighing the greater expenditure, she adds.

As well as her poultry unit at home, Ms Cartanza also has a full-time job working as a poultry extension agent for the University of Delaware. This links the research carried out at university level with farmers. “I do outreach and education with farmers to try to help them be better neighbours and better stewards. I teach them about good ventilation within a poultry house – anything to do with poultry production.”

Her passion and drive for sustainability has been recognised on a global scale: In 2017, Georgie became the first American Nuffield International Farming Scholar. She spent 16 weeks visiting eight different countries, including the UK and China, studying production efficiency and farming technology – covering topics like consumer demands and organic poultry transitions.

“There have been many advances in farming and technology over the past 20 years, but we face challenges to maintain profitability and sustainability,” she explains. “It is critical that we understand new technology and that it is applied properly. It can be financially devastating for a farmer to make an investment and not see a return.”

The farm switched to organic production to improve margins. Photo: Charlotte Cunningham

The farm switched to organic production to improve margins. Photo: Charlotte Cunningham

Looking ahead

Looking to the future, Ms Cartanza’s main aim is to ensure she utilises the knowledge she has gained both as a Nuffield Scholar and through her work at the university, to ensure her business continues to run as efficiently and sustainably as possible. “Whatever I do, I want to do it really well. It’s all about managing what you have and I hope that I can continue to do that for the business as well as helping others to do the same.”