Independent contract poultry growers deal with dead chickens every day, disposing of hundreds of birds that don't make it to the slaughterhouse.
Some poultry operations correctly compost carcasses, incinerate them or render them.
Others toss them into open sheds used for manure storage. It's an issue among growers new to the industry in Arkansas, said county officials. While not illegal, the practice can be a problem, if the sheds leak.
Casey Dunigan, a resource conservationist for the Washington County Conservation District, has seen it in his jurisdiction. And if habits don't change, he said area growers could face fines or be shut down by regulatory agencies.
"We don't want to create problems for people, but we don't want people to get in trouble either," Dunigan said. "We don't want someone to put in a facility, build a very tiny stacking shed, and fill it so full of dead birds that [it] ... contaminates the soil."
If the trend of using manure storage sheds for composting chickens persists, there will be a contamination issue caused by rainfall runoff, the Washington County Conservation District warns.
In a recent report, the district referred to multiple chicken farms growing 150,000 7-pound birds per flock without proper on-site disposal operations. In response, the conservation district has notified the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission of its findings.
"We're not trying to ring alarm bells, but we're trying to point out -- hey, there's potential here for a problem," Dunigan said. "And nobody to my knowledge is holding the companies accountable."
There are many ways to dispose of dead chickens, and the approved methods vary by state. In Arkansas, a leading chicken-producing state, there are six ways growers can dispose of carcasses.
Acceptable on-site methods include incineration, composting, extrusion (a heating method that makes the carcasses pathogen free), rendering, cooking for swine feed and on-farm freezing, according to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. Permits are needed for extrusion, cooking for swine feed and rendering. Permits are not required for incineration, freezing or composting.
For composting, however, the end-product must meet certain state requirements: The process must be practically odorless, pathogenic bacteria must be destroyed and only feathers and bones can remain. Composting must also be done so that flies are not a problem.
Stacking sheds that hold poultry litter can be used for composting dead birds. The government-approved method involves a layering process that includes a base of litter, layers of rice hulls, straw, sawdust or wood shavings and chicken carcasses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The compost must also meet a target temperature of 130 degrees to promote decomposition.
"If black liquid is seeping through the sides of the bin, poor carcass placement may be the cause," an official said in a USDA instructional video for composting. "Carcasses need to be placed in layers, not in a pile."
Dunigan, 52, of Springdale, first noticed the piles cropping up last summer while inspecting a farm in Washington County. Since then he has repeatedly reported cases to the county conservation board where new poultry growers with large growing operations stack dead chickens in inadequate 40-foot-by-50-foot sheds.
"If you're spending millions of dollars to build your facility, this should be factored in," Dunigan said. "I've gone out to some folks, and I feel so bad for them, because they've spent everything they've got to build their farm and then they don't have any more money to put in a dead-bird disposal facility."
The board has informed the Livestock and Poultry Commission of the "increasing problem" and is awaiting notifications of any proposed rule changes, according to meeting minutes for May 24. With full sheds, a report said growers may be forced to pile manure outdoors, which does not pose a problem until it rains.
Dunigan did not identify a specific chicken company allowing its growers to improperly dispose of birds.
"It's across the board, there's no pattern," he said.
Arkansas chicken companies with a grower base in Washington County include Simmons Foods, George's Inc. and Tyson Foods. George's Inc. did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman with Simmons did not immediately provide comment. A spokesman for Tyson said in an email that the company requires farmers to comply with all local, state and federal laws and have service technicians whose job is to check the growers' compost bins.
"We're not aware of issues related to this with any farmer who grows for Tyson Foods," the spokesman said.
MORTALITY EVERY DAY
Richard Shumate, board chairman for the Washington County Conservation District, said the issue stems from how poultry companies operate.
Shumate, 67, of Elkins, remembers when growers could make a living with three or four poultry feeding barns on a single plot of land. Back then capacities reached 10,000 to 12,000 birds per house, or upward of 40,000 birds per farm.
"A farm that had 100,000 chickens was huge 20 years ago, huge; three houses of 36,000 to 50,000 chickens was more normal," Shumate said after a conservation meeting last month. "Now you'll have 10 houses out there and you've got maybe 30,000 each."
In the poultry industry, the birds are owned by the company. Contracts with independent growers stipulate that properly disposing of dead birds is the grower's responsibility.
"So the population has been condensed so much that the amount of dead birds to get rid of has just went 'phhhth'," he said shooting his left thumb in the air.
According to poultry data from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, average bird capacities in the region have risen year over year, though with fewer farms.
In fiscal 2017, there were 184 farms registered in Washington County, totaling 903 houses, which was down from fiscal 2016, when 194 farms with 845 houses were registered, totaling 845 houses. Meanwhile, bird capacities increased to 17.3 million, from 16.1 million a year ago. Data for fiscal 2017 are based on calendar year Jan. 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2016. Calendar 2017 data are still being compiled.
Along with increased volume, growers are raising heavier birds. In the past 20 years, the market size of a broiler has increased by 1 pound on less feed, national averages show. Mortality rates, meanwhile, remain about 4 percent the past 10 years with a slight decline between 2011 and 2013.
"You have mortality everyday," Dunigan said. "And as your birds get bigger and bigger and bigger, you may be picking up the same number of birds, but the volume you are going to be composting is much bigger."
The Washington County findings are based on the number of USDA-required on-site visits for the state's fiscal 2018, which ended June 30. In that respect, Dunigan has not seen the trend's full scope.
State poultry data show that Arkansas is one of the leading producers of chicken in the country with 3,062 farms reported in the state, totaling 11,870 poultry houses. The latter figure is down from 12,556 houses 10 years ago.
"I haven't noticed anything widespread, but then again I only do seven inspections a year," Dunigan said. "I'm not looking at a bunch of different facilities for all types of issues. We try to stay away from them as much as we can."
The state was not investigating farms in Washington County for improper bird disposal as of last week, according to the Arkansas Agriculture Department, which includes of the Livestock and Poultry Commission. However, a spokesman said investigations based on similar complaints recently occurred in surrounding counties.
"We closed a case in Benton County, and we have a Madison County situation that is ongoing," said Adrian Barnes, communications director for the state Agriculture Department. Barnes noted that an investigation by the commission is not uncommon and "doesn't mean anything was wrong" at the visited site.
Gail Sparks, an administrator for Benton county's conservation district, said there have been no complaints or reports related to improper disposal of dead chickens. However, Sparks said "there could be some of that going on, and that may be due to lack of education, but we're not a regulatory entity."
If a formal complaint is made to the Livestock and Poultry Commission, it responds with an investigation. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency follow the same policy.
"When they have a complaint, and there's evidence of animal waste of any kind entering the waters of the state," Dunigan said, "you're going to have a problem."
SundayMonday Business on 07/15/2018
Print Headline: Dead-chicken disposal hard chore on farm