Chicken farmers are part of a growing industry that contributes to thriving economies and communities in Alberta.
Byron Ference, owner of Foothills Poultry, is a third-generation poultry producer just outside of Black Diamond in the Alberta Foothills. He grew up on a poultry farm, which is actually located just down the road from where his farm is today. Getting started at a pretty young age, Byron has been involved in raising birds ever since. Byron bought into the family business, and with the aid of his parents, Erna and Reg, expanded onto another property.
To be a chicken farmer in Alberta, you need three things: land, a barn, and you have to go buy quota (a minimum number of kilograms of chicken that you are required to produce in a cycle).
The majority of poultry production cycles here in Alberta (same for all of Canada) lasts eight weeks, with about 150,000 birds being raised at Foothills Poultry at a time. Chicks are hatched the morning of placement and arrive on farm in trays (about 100/tray) and will spend the next six weeks in the barn growing to be approximately 2.35 kilograms at the end of the cycle. The barns are fully temperature controlled, and the birds have the run of the space. They also monitor ventilations, CO2 levels, humidity, and many other variables to make sure that the birds are comfortable and healthy.
The birds’ behaviours will tell a lot about their comfort levels. For example, if the birds are crowding near the walls, that can usually indicate that they might be too warm, and if they’re huddled in groups in the middle of the barn, then they may be too cold. There are other indicators too, including panting, feathering, and general restlessness, that can help the farmer gauge barn conditions and animal welfare.
At the end of six weeks, they will be shipped to the processors, and the remaining two weeks of the cycle are spent cleaning and preparing for the next flock. This means that over a year, a poultry producer will typically see 6.5 cycles, meaning that around 1,000,000 birds will make their way through Foothills Poultry on an annual basis. The producers have some flexibility with whom they can sell their flocks, dependent on the ability to handle the size of the flocks. For Ference, they are currently supplying Sofina Foods (Lilydale), so if you see those brands in the grocery store, chances are that you have enjoyed one of the birds that Byron raised!
The Daily Life
Most of the daily activities of a chicken producer involve checking the feed and water lines for any issues and assessing the overall wellbeing of the birds. At the beginning of the cycle, they roll out paper all along the barn in between the feedlines and have them covered in feed. As new chicks, they don’t want the birds to have to search for food, so this helps them to quickly get situated.
There are four different types of feed that Byron uses, and it’s all dependent on where the birds are at in their cycle. The starter, a formulation for chicks, is a fine crumble, easy for them to digest and will typically last about eleven days.
As the birds start growing, they can handle bigger pellets, so they transition into a grower ration which is formulated for, well, growing birds. Around Day 20, they will switch to a finisher ration, which helps the birds to put on more weight. They will continue on that until about the final week, when they move to a different formulation of a finisher ration, which will help to prepare the birds for shipment.
Water, on the other hand, stays fairly consistent throughout the cycle. Near the end of their cycle, the 80,000 birds in one structure will drink upwards of 25,000 litres of water per day. Needless to say, sometimes the wells on the land can’t quite keep up with that amount of water, so they have extra cisterns of water on hand to make sure that they don’t run out. If shipping is delayed by even one day, this can result in a lot of extra water and feed being needed to make certain that the birds have what they need.
Before the water goes into the barn, it goes through a monitoring and input system to assess the levels of micronutrients in the water. A small amount of chlorine dioxide is added, which helps to sterilize the system and keep the water fresh that has been sitting in the cisterns. It then goes through a filtration system, and then a meter to see exactly how much water each side is using (it can help to identify issues like leaks quite quickly).
There is also a medicator, so if there are any treatments needed for the flock (as determined by a veterinarian), it can be dispersed to all the birds quickly via the water supply rather than administering it by hand to 150,000 birds individually. They will also check the water lines manually, taking various samples to ensure that the quality is what it needs to be.
Chicken in Alberta
The Alberta chicken industry operates under supply management, which means that producers have to raise a specific volume in order to meet their requirements. That also means that Albertans have a consistent supply of locally produced, affordable, high quality chicken products, thanks to the over 8,000 workers in Alberta’s chicken sector. It also contributes over $623 million to the GDP, and over $200 million in taxes.
With Alberta’s long winters, the success of a poultry farm is highly dependent on their ventilation systems. At Foothills Poultry, their new barn features a neutral-pressure system, which means that the air is constantly stirred up, with chimneys on the roof sucking air out, and fresh air intakes pumping new air in. With extreme cold conditions, it’s a delicate balance to minimize the cold air intake while still maintaining the inside fresh (and keeping energy costs from skyrocketing too much).
Humidity can also be an issue, as the birds will start to produce more of their own the more they mature, which also plays back into the careful balance of ventilation. That typically means a higher heating cost to account for the fresh air coming in, but it’s a small price to pay for animal welfare.
How to Find Alberta Chicken in Store
The best way to know if you are buying local chicken is to make sure that you a buying fresh (not frozen) chicken. You can also look for some of the larger brands like Lilydale, who have a processing plant in Calgary. If you’re still not sure, you can look for the Raised by a Canadian Chicken Farmer logo on the package. Canadian Chicken Farmers follow an audited On Farm Food Safety Program, as well as an Animal Care Program and Sustainability assessments. As a final way to find out where the chicken you are buying comes from – just ask someone working in the meat department.
To learn more about chicken producing in Alberta, visit Chicken.ab.ca.