MILLSBORO, Delaware — When Bill Massey started working for Mountaire in Selbyville 25 years ago, the company was producing 650,000 chickens a week.
Today, the company processes 6 million a week.
While that is due in part to the addition of facilities in Millsboro and North Carolina, the increase can also be attributed to technology.
Since the company was founded in 1914, nearly every aspect of growing and processing a chicken has been affected by the mechanization and computerization of the industry.
"If anybody had told us 25 years ago we'd be processing 6 million birds a week, we'd have said you're crazy," said Massey, Mountaire's vice president of live operations.
He said technology played a huge part in getting to that level of production. From the machine that incubates the eggs — moving them and keeping them warm, just as a mother hen would — to the processing plants, high-tech advances have impacted nearly every part of the industry.
Perhaps one of the most visible changes is the new chickenhouse. Massey said about 10 years ago, his company went from a 45 foot by 500 foot chickenhouse to a significantly larger 66 foot by 600 foot model. The new model houses 42,000 birds in comparison to the old version, which fit 23,000.
He said the change was made to help growers with their cash flow.
"The building cost is a lot less," he said.
That wasn't the only benefit. The bigger buildings are also more energy efficient than their older counterparts and save on land use, Massey said, because, instead of several smaller sufficiently spaced houses, there could be one larger house.
"We've saved a lot of land," he said.
The change also provides the chickens with more space, according to Roger Marino, Mountaire's public relations director.
The modern houses are completely enclosed. The days of seeing farmers roll down their chickenhouse curtains are gone — the new buildings don't even have windows. They're entirely climate controlled, Massey says, with tunnel ventilation. Farmers don't have to hang huge box fans or replace torn curtains anymore.
"We've taken a lot of the bull work out of it," Massey said.
Via computer, farmers can set a house's feed, water, heat and ventilation levels the day chicks arrive. During the roughly six-week stay of the birds, farmers can control everything from the amount of feed the chickens get to the temperature of the chickenhouse floor. And they can do it whether they're 3 feet away or 3,000 miles away thanks to the computer-operated system. Some growers even have apps on their phones to monitor their chickenhouses.
"It's a lot less physical work," Massey said.
It also makes sure the environment stays just the way chickens like it.
"A happy chicken is a healthy chicken," he said.
Technology has changed the way the processing plants work just as much as it's affected the live operations side of the industry. Mike Tirrell, vice president of human resources and business services for Mountaire, remembers in the early 1980s, when the processing of a chicken was done entirely by hand. Today, machines handle the work that was once done by employees.
Burly workers no longer stack boxes onto pallets — machines do. Low-level laborers don't wrap the yellow trays of chicken in plastic — machines do. The job of processing plant employees these days is to supervise and assist those machines. Tirrell says that has enabled the company to grow without adding many employees.
That has helped keep the price of chicken down for the consumer, he said.
"The price of chicken is static," Tirrell said. "That's the result of efficiency in business."
According to Massey, chickens continue to be the most affordable protein because they cost significantly less to feed than beef or pork.
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, http://www.delmarvanow.com/