Farm Horizons, February 1997

Raising chickens - 66,600 at a time

By MAGGIE SCHUETTE-VOSS

Chickens grow up in RoseAnn and Roger Fiecke's chicken barn. The mother and son team contract raise pullets for Sparboe Summit Farms, Inc. at a farm north of Winsted owned by RoseAnn and her husband, Philip.

For 30 years, laying hens have spent their first 18 weeks at the Fiecke farm.

Sparboe Summit Farms, Inc. pays Fieckes to raise the hens and the company provides the birds' vaccinations, feed, and a service person. The Fieckes provide the barn and electricity.

Raising chickens and hogs provided a living for RoseAnn, Philip, and their five children: Roger, Rodney, Leon, Julie, and Laurie.

RoseAnn made the decision the family would raise pullets because "We were milking cows and the barn needed remodeling and I was deadly set against it," she said. She also didn't want to work outside the home. Chickens provided the best option.

About 10 years ago, they stopped raising hogs, but RoseAnn, the manager and mastermind of the chicken barn, continued to raise the hens.

Last April, Roger joined her in the business.

Back in 1967, the Fieckes were approached by Robert Ernhart about raising the pullets. Doing so would be beneficial for both sides - income for the Fieckes and Ernhart could sell more seed.

Ernhart took care of all the details. The Fieckes' responsibility was to build a barn for the chicks.

The first barn was 300 feet long by 40 feet wide and the chickens roamed loose on the floor.

"We found this was quite profitable, so the next year we built another barn, 150 feet by 40 feet, and we used the first barn as a brooder house," RoseAnn said.

Day-old chicks were delivered by Sparboe Summit Farms, Inc. and put in the brooder house until they were nine weeks old. Then they were caught and moved to the bigger barn. This allowed the Fieckes to get new chicks every 10 weeks.

To catch the chickens "we would put a net by the door and chase the chickens into it," she said. "That took 15 people and we would have all the neighbor kids over."

RoseAnn would watch the small barn and Philip was in charge of making sure all went well at the large barn.

In later years Sparboe provided the catching crew, but this method went on for 20 years until RoseAnn decided it was time to remodel the large barn for more efficiency.

Over the years she had gathered much information on poultry barns and knew what she wanted.

"Our service person helped us and we visited poultry conventions and saw lots of other barns," she said.

RoseAnn also worked on the Sparboe debeaking crew for 17 years and saw many types of barns first hand. "I worked in all kinds," she said, from the best to the worst.

The contract raising of chickens is nothing like the old picture of birds scurrying while seed is tossed on the ground. There are rows of cages, stacked four high and the barn can hold 66,600 chicks. The barn is also fully computerized.

Feed is carried through a tube and the amount is determined by the number of birds in each cage. The incorrect number of birds per cage throws the system off.

Each feeding takes seven minutes and additional, smaller feedings can be added if needed.

Several thermostats monitor the temperature all around the barn. The heat can also be programmed to change automatically. RoseAnn said the heat starts at 97 degrees. It is lowered one degree every three days until the temperature reaches 75 degrees, about when the birds are six weeks old. The air conditioning works in the same manner.

The barn also has a security system monitored by Wright-Hennepin Electric. Temperature sensors are located throughout the barn. If the temperature rises or falls two degrees from where the thermostat has been set, Wright-Hennepin calls RoseAnn Fiecke, or one of five other family members. Wright-Hennepin also calls if the system is operating on the generator and it fails.

The chicks are a day old when they arrive from Spencer, Iowa. They are hauled up in heated or air-conditioned trucks.

At the farm, all the chicks start out in the two uppermost rows of cages. A piece of newspaper is put at the bottom and they are fed one scoop of feed. In this manner, the chicks learn to eat on their own.

At a week old, the chicks are debeaked. This saves food and the chicks then have no weapon to pick at each other with.

Although it sounds painful, RoseAnn said debeaking really isn't. The entire beak isn't removed, just the tip is clipped off, much like clipping a toenail.

During the debeaking, the birds are spread throughout the cages.

The birds are fed once or twice per day, depending on their weight. If a bird is too heavy it doesn't lay well, but it needs to be heavy enough or it won't start laying.

Chickens usually reach their optimum weight at eight weeks.

Another weight control technique is done by using the lights. If the chickens need to gain weight, the lights are dimmed and they become calm and sedate. If they are too heavy the lights are brightened, making the chickens more active.

Sparboe has standards the chickens must meet. If the pullets are a tenth under or over the optimum weight, the Fieckes lose their bonus. No leeway is given if the chicks supplied to Sparboe are a "bum batch."

The service person, who comes once a week, weighs the bird and measures the chicken's hock - from the leg joint to the foot - this determines how well the chicken is growing. She also keeps tabs on the cleanliness of the barn.

"By the time the pullets are six weeks old, there is very little work," RoseAnn said - mostly just sweeping the aisle once a week and cleaning the barn twice a week, which consists of turning on two large scrapers that removes the chicks' droppings.

At 18 weeks, the pullets are shipped to laying barns, most to the Sparboe facility near Litchfield, but also to a farm in Glencoe and one between Howard Lake and Cokato.

The chicken's lifespan is determined by the integrity of the shell. A chicken's life is measured in "moltings" - when a chicken loses its feathers. Sparboe chickens molt two or three times. The old chickens are sold to Campbell's Soup.

After the chickens are shipped, Roger gives the barn a major cleaning, the service person comes and checks things over, and in a week 66,600 more chicks arrive at the Fiecke's farm for the first 18 weeks of the life.

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