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Ray Hilburn: The New Normal

I joined the AP&EA staff in 2011, the same year the historic Tornado Super Outbreak tore a path of massive destruction across Alabama. In the aftermath of that disaster, I wrote a column recognizing the entire poultry industry for its tremendous support of those hardest hit. Working together, the AP&EA and industry raised $127,000-plus to help poultry families in counties that bore the brunt of the storms. I was proud of how growers, allied industry and companies worked together, side by side, to help their fellow man.

Now, the catastrophe we face is COVID-19, but instead of being able to come together, side by side, to fight this nemesis, we have to stay apart. Social distancing, we are told, is a must. That is just not like the poultry industry. I have never seen anything like this — fighting something we cannot even see.

Amid all the uncertainty, however, one thing I’m sure of is that we will survive this situation, and we will come out of it stronger than ever. More than likely, the “normal” life we knew as recently as February is gone, but we will settle into the new normal, just as we always have.

I look at how much society has changed in my lifetime. I’ve witnessed the advent of such modern conveniences as air conditioning, cable TV, cell phones, computers, the internet and businesses open 24/7, just to name a few. I still remember how, every Saturday afternoon, my father would head to the gas station to fill up our seven-member household’s one vehicle because nothing would be open again until Monday morning. Why did we need gas if everything was closed on Sunday? Because Sundays after church, we would actually spend the afternoons visiting our kinfolk in the nearby communities.

Even more astounding is the amazing evolution that has occurred in the poultry industry over the years. We’ve gone from backyard flocks and neck-wringing to state-of-the-art poultry houses and processing plants. In breeder houses, we’ve seen advanced technologies such as slats, feed scales, automatic nests, automatic packers, dark-out pullet houses, evaporative cool pads, highly efficient egg buggy carts and more.

It’s a far cry from the 1960s, when we collected about half the eggs from the ground, then spent most of our day in the egg room cleaning them with dry rags and hand-held sandpaper buffers and putting the hatching eggs into two-and-a-half-dozen cardboard flats. There was no such thing as social distancing, but it sure made for some great family time.

On the broiler side of the industry, we now have winched automatic feeders and waterers, controllers, sensors, tunnel ventilation, CFL and LED lighting, dimmers and dark-out rest periods for broilers at night, inline medicators and solid sidewalls. Think back to the ’90s, when the industry developed cool cell pads to save the millions of hens and potential eggs and broilers that we were losing each summer to the heat. We said we would never be able to use cool cells in broiler houses because they would be way too expensive to operate. Today, we would not dare build broiler houses without cool cells and tunnel ventilation.

I recall times in the 1970s when we would pick up as many as 7,000-8,000 broilers per day toward the end of a flock that had succumbed to the hot and humid July and August heat. We knew we were not going to be able to pay for our utility bills for that flock, much less make any profit. I do not miss those days at all.

Hatcheries have advanced as well. We used to have bottom-hatch incubators, where we counted out 25 freshly hatched chicks and placed them into four evenly divided sections in a cardboard chick box that would hold 100 chicks per box. These chicks still had to be debeaked before they were loaded onto a chick bus to go to the farms. As the decades passed, multistage incubators came into existence, and now, single-stage incubation is the norm.

With the evolution of vaccines, we moved from vaccinating by hand, to roundtable vaccinating with automatic vaccinators, to spray cabinets, to the in-ovo vaccinating and inline sprayers of today. In the last 50 years, we have gone from handling the chicks two or three times before they went to the farms to the point where human hands never touch them. There have also been many changes to feed mills and processing plants through the years.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will bring about even more changes in our industry. In processing plants, for example, temperature checks, dividers between employees, employee education on sanitation and virus spread in the workplace and nonworkplace, and possibly more automated deboning and further processing likely will become standard. We may even see more automated catching in the future.

Whatever changes occur, we will survive and be stronger from these experiences. I am so proud of our industry for continuing to work together to bring the consumer the safest and most affordable protein available to their families. From the pullet, breeder and broiler growers to the truck drivers, service techs and live operation managers, and from feed mill, hatchery and processing plant employees to upper management of the poultry companies — everyone has pulled together to get us through this situation. Whatever the “new normal” is, I am confident our industry will continue to feed the world and be successful.

And I know now, just as I knew in 2011, that I’m blessed to be part of the poultry family.

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