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Tyson Foods Inc. and Auburn University have developed what they call the largest stand-alone solar-powered poultry house, with the goal of raising farmer profits while curbing carbon emissions.

The 54-foot-by-500-foot poultry house in Cullman County, Ala., can hold up to 36,000 broiler chickens and operates off the electric grid, a news release said Wednesday.

It is one of two identical poultry houses on a farm owned by Tim and Selena Butts, where broilers will be grown to 5.5 pounds. For research purposes, one house will be the control while the other will run only on solar power.

Researchers at Auburn University's National Poultry Technology Center plan to collect data from both houses to help identify sustainable practices and energy sources for the poultry industry. Tyson and Southern Solar Systems are working closely with the technology center on this, officials said.

"Ultimately, this project will allow us to identify how solar houses might improve farmer profitability and bring increased efficiency to the poultry industry," said Chip Miller, vice president of poultry live operations for Tyson, in remarks to reporters.

Three components power the house: a photovoltaic panel or solar cell, a battery set and a generator. On-site researchers plan to compare its energy use for 12 months and share their findings.

"We are creating a model for the future of the industry -- one that is more sustainable and brings critical value and insights, previously unavailable, to poultry farmers," Miller said in his remarks.

This effort aligns with Tyson's overall sustainability goal of reducing its carbon footprint 30% by 2030 throughout its supply chain.

In his remarks, Dennis Brothers, an extension specialist with Auburn's poultry technology center, said electricity drives all functions in poultry houses and is the largest cost for poultry farmers.

Contract poultry growers have struggled in recent years to make a profit from their operations as input costs such as feed, electricity and propane continue to rise.

In another study by the University of Arkansas, researchers took data from a test farm and found that from 1991 to 2000, propane costs accounted for less than 10% of the settlement check, but between 2001 and 2005, they ate into more than 20%, according to the UA System's Agriculture Division. Even with increased usage rates, electricity costs ate at most around 5% of the settlement check for the period.

If Tyson and Auburn's project is successful, Jason Apple, a professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said he could see companies trying to cut a 50-50 deal with farmers to get their operations off the grid. Apple said it limits the company's carbon footprint and probably is safer for growers in the long run.

"If you look at Arkansas ... the vast majority of all the broiler operations are heated by propane," Apple said. "It's not that propane's not cheap, it's relatively inexpensive, but you're filling tanks every two months" to keep birds warm.

"I think it's a big plus," he said; then again, "it could be a complete failure."

A spokesman with Tyson said the company will be collaborating with Auburn throughout the experiment to make sure everything is on track.

The Butts family raises chickens for Tyson and there is a financial component to the solar-powered project, spokesman Caroline Ahn said Thursday. She did not disclose how much.

Ed Milliken, a contract grower for George's Inc., said most of the settlement checks he receives for each flock go toward utility expenses.

"Without utilities my farm would probably make $50,000 a year, but with expenses and utilities, I would be doing good to make $12,000 a year," he said.

When asked about Tyson's solar project, he had concerns that this meant growers would not see raises any time soon or be urged to upgrade their houses to all-solar, which may yield savings up front but be costly to replace if the equipment went kaput.

"It may save you a dime here, but cost you a dollar down the road," he said.

Business on 06/07/2019

Print Headline: Solar poultry house gets try

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