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Some Delmarva farmers are freezing dead chickens

Long considered the most beneficial way to dispose of dead chickens, composting has become a management tool of the past for some Delmarva poultry farmers.

Some local growers have shifted to a more environmental practice – freezer technology.

One of those growers is Dale Carey, a Milford poultry farmer who adopted the farm freezer technology about two years ago.

Every day, he walks through his 10 chicken houses and checks the feed, ventilation and comfort of the birds. Each dead bird he stumbles upon goes into a bucket, which he dumps into one of his 32 farm freezers.

“There’s no flies like there used to be,” Carey said. “We used to have trouble keeping buzzards out of the composters.”

When farmers compost their chickens, they layer the birds in a bin with straw and manure. But that can draw in flies and other unwanted pests.

"I would never go back to composting," Carey said.

Composting is a practice that many Delmarva farmers switched to about two decades ago. Prior to that, they’d bury dead birds in a huge pit, which concerned many farmers about how that might affect groundwater and surface water retention.

The problem with composting? Biosecurity, said Victor Clark, the Co-Founder and Vice President of Millsboro-based poultry management company Greener Solutions.

“From a biosecurity perspective, you’re inviting more vectors to your farm than you otherwise would if you didn’t compost,” Clark said.

"We're removing the possibility of having that pollution reach the watershed." -Victor Clark

About four years ago, Clark and Greener Solutions Co-Founder and President Terry Baker started educating local farmers about the downsides of composting and how freezer technology could help.  

They use blue-green rotation molded boxes with foam insulation that can hold enough dead birds from a seven- to nine-week flock. Around 3 to 5 percent of each flock dies from routine causes.

The farm freezer practice has been used for a while in states like Alabama and Georgia, but is only around four years old on Delmarva.

“There was some reluctance by local farmers because they never heard of it,” Baker said. “At the time, we proposed composting may not be the best solution, we got a lot of pushback because composting was the only answer on the table at that time.”

So far, they've helped about three dozen Delmarva farmers manage nutrient pollution better.

When a flock is ready to be processed between seven to nine weeks after the chickens have arrived on a farm, Greener Solutions takes the frozen birds to a rendering plant, where they’re recycled into poultry fat and protein meal which can be used for biodiesel and feed for aquaculture.

Composted birds have historically been used as fertilizer on farmland. Clark said that can be a source of nitrogen and phosphorous, which can seep into waterways.

“We recycle that material so it never gets land applied,” Clark said. “We’re removing the possibility of having that pollution reach the watershed, or reach the waterways.”

Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Dead birds in a farm freezer.

At the end of the year, farmers learn how much nitrogen and phosphorous they’ve diverted from being spread on farm fields that could’ve entered local waterways.

Clark said on average, a family farm the size of Dale Carey's may lose between 170,000 to 220,000 pounds of birds annually. If a grower who owns a farm the size of Carey's lost 170,000 birds and disposed of them in freezers instead of composting, that’s almost 5,000 pounds of nitrogen and 830 pounds of phosphorous that the grower has recycled annually, Clark said.

A farm the size of Carey's that lost 220,000 pounds of birds in a year would be recycling dead birds that contained almost 6,400 pounds of nitrogen and almost 1,100 pounds of phosphorous, Clark said.

On a monthly basis, Kent County Conservation District, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Delaware Department of Agriculture distribute funding to beginning poultry farmers looking to better address mortality management.

Greener Solutions is one of a couple of companies that offer rebates for freezers.

This story has been updated.

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