ELLIJAY, Ga. -- One enduring frustration of the poultry industry is that chickens can't be made to cross the road. Or even the chicken coop.
It's a snap to coax barnyard animals like pigs and cattle to go where you want them -- but "you can't herd chickens," says Paul S. Berry of the British Silsoe Research Institute, an agricultural-research center that has studied the problem for decades.
For that reason, poultry farmers have long relied on human catchers. Their job is to run around inside chicken houses, nabbing by hand more than eight billion birds a year. This is hard not only on the chickens, which get roughed up, but also on the catchers. The birds flap, scratch and befoul their captors. Most people can tolerate only a few months of that before flying the coop.
Now after years of attempts that ended in failure, including one ill-fated chicken vacuum, manufacturers have finally produced machines capable of catching and caging chickens. Looking like a combination airport baggage carousel and tank, the devices can capture 150 birds a minute. That's as many as a team of eight skilled men can corral.
"Automation is the way to go," says Brad Cole, live-production manager for a Tyson Foods Inc. slaughter plant in Georgia, the nation's top poultry-producing state. In a dimly lighted chicken house here in Ellijay, he stood and watched as one of the new harvesters, Lewis/Mola LLC's model PH2000, strutted its stuff.
The PH2000 mechanical chicken harvester can catch 150 birds a minute.
Out of the gloom and dust of a chicken house as long as a football field, a PH2000 emerged. Hundreds of fluffy white birds tipped their heads and stared. The nine-ton, 42-foot-long contraption crept closer, slowly sweeping a low metal ramp back and forth through the flock like a giant scythe. The ramp gently nudged the birds in their chests. They lifted their feet to get out of its way, only to find themselves standing on the ramp itself. As more birds stepped on, they crowded one another toward a conveyor belt.
Whoosh! Each chicken was whisked up the belt into a small compartment, where a burst of air pushed it into a metal chute. Within seconds, the bird came to rest, blinking, still on its feet inside a wire cage.
In the past year, chicken companies including Tyson, Perdue Farms Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp. have snapped up scores of the machines, which cost around $200,000. Today, about 5% of U.S. birds are caught mechanically, according to industry officials. The machines come from manufacturers including Bright Coop Inc., Techno-Catch LLC and Anglia Autoflow Ltd.
Some of the biggest fans are animal-rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The machines are far more gentle on the birds than human handlers are. "We support using machines that reduce the panic, fear and horror of chickens," says Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, a Machipongo, Va., group that opposes eating chickens and also runs a sanctuary for a few lucky birds that manage to escape the farms (usually by falling off a truck).
Chickens hate being caught by human beings because catchers grab them by the feet and carry several birds upside down in each hand. "Being held upside down freaks out the birds," says Michael P. Lacy of the University of Georgia's poultry-science department. "As long as they are on their feet, they feel like they are in control, like people."
Human catchers are expected to snag as many as 1,000 birds an hour. As the men tire during eight-hour shifts, they accidentally slam birds against the cages, breaking wings and legs. Up to 25% of broilers on some farms are hurt in the process. By contrast, a recent study in the British scientific journal Animal Welfare found that a mechanical catcher in use in Germany reduced some injuries by as much as 50%.
That's good news for the birds, and also for the industry. Bruising disqualifies a chicken from the supermarket meat counter, relegating it to less profitable uses such as livestock feed. The fast-food industry is also encouraging mechanical catchers, eager to assure customers that they care about the humane treatment of animals. McDonald's Corp. is encouraging its chicken suppliers to mechanically collect at least half the birds it buys by year's end.
The reason the birds need to be caught in the first place is that unlike chickens put to work laying eggs (which are kept in tiny cages), birds raised for meat are allowed to roam freely inside giant barns.
Far from being fleet-footed or elusive, these birds are in fact deeply reluctant to move at all. Because they are bred to reach their slaughter weight of six pounds in less than eight weeks -- a fraction of the normal time -- they are basically babies in giant bodies. The trick is to get them into their cages for the short trip to the slaughterhouse without injuring them.
Early devices included the chicken vacuum, which sucked up birds and shot them through tubes to waiting trucks. But the birds tended to plug up the tubes and turn somersaults as they traveled inside the contraption. "We had too many die on us," recalls Buddy Burruss, vice president of operations at Tip Top Poultry Inc. of Marietta, Ga., which tested and quickly abandoned the pneumatic approach two decades ago.
The technological breakthrough came from Europe, where the industry is under more pressure from animal welfare groups to reduce livestock suffering. Starting in the early 1980s, Britain's Silsoe Research Institute received about $200,000 a year from the government to design a humane harvesting machine. At Silsoe, Mr. Berry tried everything to force the birds to move under their own power. He flashed strobe lights in their eyes, hoping to startle them into action. He tried goosing them along with tiny jets of air. Nothing worked.
His eureka moment came after realizing that soft rubber fingers could be used to gently close around each bird, ushering it onto a conveyer belt -- a sort of Venus' flytrap for chickens. Techno-Catch of Kosciusko, Miss., uses the technology in its Chickat harvester and sees a U.S. market for 600 of the machines.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union says it worries the machines will eliminate jobs and douse efforts to organize chicken catchers. A five-man crew using a mechanical harvester can do the work of eight men.
Tyson and Perdue officials say the companies will retrain chicken catchers. Ray Martinez, who caught chickens by hand for three years, is now part of a crew operating a PH2000 for Tyson here in Ellijay.
It's still hard work. Chicken houses stink and the men must toil in the dark because that keeps the birds calmer.
But Mr. Martinez, 21 years old, no longer has to sling chickens. He takes turns steering the PH2000 and stacking cages on the back. He's paid $3 for every 1,000 chickens the machine collects, which often translates to $16 an hour, about what he made before the machine. Tapping himself on the chest, and then nodding at the chickens, Mr. Martinez says, "This is much easier on everybody."
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