Twenty-one students from “Understanding Today’s Agriculture” (AGRI 130) toured an organic poultry farm on Delmarva. The visit was the first of four Saturday field trips scheduled this semester. AGRI 130 is taught by Mark Isaacs, director of the Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown. He teaches from both Newark and Georgetown, alternately connecting from each campus through Polycom ITV-equipped classrooms, a high definition, distance technology that connects via IP addresses and uses multiple screens with the capacity to share and record video, computer screens and other media.
Now in its fourth year, the course includes four agriculture field trips that expose students to diverse career possibilities and provide an opportunity to network with agriculture professionals. Georgie Cartanza, Extension poultry agent, led the first tour and provided an overview of the poultry industry in the region and the unique challenges and rewards for poultry growers.
Students arrived at the poultry house in Kent County, DE on Sept. 22. The family-owned farm maintains four poultry houses, 65 feet wide and 600 feet long, retrofitted to be Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certified as an organic farm. When occupied, each house contains 37,000 broiler chickens. This single farm is responsible for feeding 59,808 individual’s consumption of chicken for one year, providing 780,000 families one rotisserie chicken meal.
Around the entire perimeter of the farm two rows of trees act as vegetative environmental buffers (VEB), serving as a dust and odor filter and as they grow and beautify the property.
Cartanza explained that steroids and hormone use in all commercial poultry production is illegal. In this organic farm, all birds are raised without antibiotics. Anything around or provided to the poultry must be certified organic.
The addition of tunnel fans, seen in the background, ushered a key innovation for maintaining comfortable temperatures inside each house.
As a biosecurity measure, all visitors to poultry farms must wear protective gear such as overalls, hairnets and shoe coverings. This measure prevents humans from tracking in contaminants which could harm the chickens. Delaware’s adherence to strict biosecurity measures has paid off with no serious disease incidences since 2004.
Danielle Mikolajewski, Morgan Chambers, Sam Moran and Morgan Tesznar suited up and are ready to examine the details of poultry production.
Before going inside the house, the class posed for a photo.
Timothy Mulderring and Taylor Nuneviller gave the thumbs-up before their first visit inside a commercial, organic poultry house. In front is Matthew Nemeth, and in the back is Christian Riggen.
As they approached the houses, students observed the access doors, watering vessels and shade structures required in order for poultry growers to be designated as a GAP and certified organic. Inside the house, the broiler chickens climb ramps and explore boxes and peck at small bales of straw for enjoyment.
As the students approach a recently vacated house, wooden structures known as “enrichments” are removed for cleaning. These structures serve as playground equipment, ramps, bully boxes, toys and items of interest for birds to explore. These enrichments are part of the GAP requirements for certification.
This broiler chicken decided to exit one of 15 exterior doors and check out the visiting Blue Hens! Despite outdoor access provided every 30 feet, most broiler chickens prefer to remain inside the poultry house. Each house also features 26 windows which provides natural light for the chickens.
Students visited both an occupied and recently vacated house (shown below). Georgie Cartanza explained how the house temperature is maintained at a comfortable level for the broiler chickens through a tunnel ventilation system. During the peak summer heat, the inside of the house is typically 20 degrees cooler. Air enters one end of the house via large evaporation cooling pads and the cooled air is pulled through the house by large tunnel ventilation fans located at the opposite end of the house.
Anna Riley holds a broiler chicken near its full market weight of 7 pounds. Maxwell Huhn looks on as Cassidy Best prepares her smartphone camera.
The students took poultry portraits of each other.
Christian Riggen poses outside with Extension poultry agent Georgie Cartanza.
Delaware agriculture is the largest economic driver to the state, with nearly $8 billion contributed to the state’s annual income. The poultry industry, Cartanza explained, drives nearly 70 percent of that economy, either directly, or indirectly through corn, soybean and grain production.
AGRI 130 students asked pointed questions and took notes during the visit. Cartanza said that a commitment to animal welfare is a high priority for all poultry growers. Technological advances in house construction and innovations in energy control and monitoring allow farms like this one to be maintained full-time with only two individuals. Energy costs are a persistent challenge for growers. With the decision to convert to growing only organic chickens, this farm accepted the higher costs of retrofitting the houses to meet strict organic standards, as well as incurring the higher cost and carbon footprint to obtain organic feed. Since the U.S. does not produce enough organic grain to meet demand, organic poultry ingredients are imported from Argentina and Turkey.
Consumer demand for organically-raised poultry is increasing and provides this farm family with a higher return for its investment.
After the visit, the class removed their protective gear and posed for another class picture before saying goodbye.
AGRI 130’s next class trip is on Oct. 6, to Fifer’s Orchard in Camden Wyoming.