By André Dumont
Benoît Fontaine thinks farming is more fun than teaching
By André Dumont
Benoît Fontaine is a high school history teacher on a sabbatical. So
far, he has used the one-year break to complete the automation of his
four three-storey chicken barns, upgrading them to provincial sanitary
norms, and to build a composter for chicken carcasses.
Benoît Fontaine is a high school history teacher on a sabbatical. So far, he has used the one-year break to complete the automation of his four three-storey chicken barns, upgrading them to provincial sanitary norms, and to build a composter for chicken carcasses.
“I don’t think I’ll be going back to teaching,” Fontaine says. “I’m having too much fun!”
|Benoît Fontaine built this composter to save on carcass pick-up fees and to improve biosecurity on his farm.
The fun is all about turning around one of Quebec’s largest poultry farms from an obsolete facility to a showcase of chicken farming best practices.
Fontaine started raising chickens 10 years ago, on his parents’ turkey farm. Soon after, he moved his production to the empty floors of a Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge (south of Montreal) poultry farm owned by La Coop Excel, of Granby, Que. He kept buying more and more quota, while renting the space to use it.
For 10 years, Fontaine was both a history teacher and farmer. In his short teaching career, he even got a shot at being a highschool principal.
Despite raising his chicken as a part-time occupation in obsolete buildings, in 1999 he achieved the highest productivity per square foot in Canada.
In 2005, he bought the farm and its four 40,000-square-foot henhouses, six wells and outdated feeding and ventilation equipment. Further quota purchases followed, along with massive investments to modernize the site.
Now 34, Fontaine says his poultry business has reached a nice cruising altitude. His farm now produces 2.7 million kilograms of chicken per year. Three quarters of his birds are processed by co-op Exceldor for Costco stores and St-Hubert restaurants. The remaining quarter goes to La Coop fédérée’s Olymel meat processor and marketer.
The most innovative – and simplest – improvement to Fontaine’s farm is a composter. Each morning, employees pick up dead chickens, drop them on a loader’s shovel and drive them to one of the composter’s cells.
Fontaine and his employees no longer need to store the dead chicken in freezers. This translates into electricity savings and less handling of carcasses. “It’s a better quality of life for my employees and me,” Fontaine says.
The composter is a simple construction. It was built on a concrete slab that extends 23 feet in front of screened hanging doors. Concrete walls are five-feet high in the back and on both sides. No scavengers can enter and no water seeps in, Fontaine says.
The first cell is 11 feet wide and is used to store chicken manure to be used as cover-up material during summer months. The following four cells are nine feet wide. They are used for compost at different stages of maturation.
On one end of the composter is a horse stable, complete with electricity and running water. The horses belong to an employee and to other owners, who pay a pension fee. “The horses are my composting substrate factory,” Fontaine says.
According to Fontaine, horse manure has a superior carbon to nitrogen ratio, which accelerates composting. It is used in the winter, when colder outside temperatures tend to slow down bacterial activity.
Composting in the summer using chicken manure usually takes 30 days. In the winter, using horse manure, composting takes 30 to 60 days.
Temperature inside the compost mix reaches 70 C. “In the winter, we see water vapour coming out,” Fontaine says. Feeding the composter with warm carcasses, instead of frozen ones, helps keep the temperature high.
“When carcasses are well covered, we create a perfect anaerobic environment for bacteria,” Fontaine says. His dead chickens never get infested with worms, he adds.
The resulting compost is sold as manure. Fontaine owns only 50 acres of land and doesn’t farm them himself.
The composter is expected to receive 25 tonnes of carcasses per year, to be mixed with 33 tonnes of chicken manure and 10 tonnes of horse manure.
The whole structure cost $35,000 to build. Fontaine calculates that by saving $8,000 to $10,000 in carcass pick-up fees, his composter will have paid for itself in four years.
Savings and simplified handling of dead chickens are only two of the advantages of using an on-farm composter. Biosecurity is also improved. Trucks picking up carcasses are the most significant vector of pathogens between farms, Fontaine says.
Fontaine also notes that less trucking means less greenhouse effect gases and that composting dead chicken is a great way of giving value to waste that would otherwise cost money to dispose of.
According to Fontaine, his composter is probably the single largest legal chicken composting facility in Quebec.
Getting approval from the Ministry of Agriculture was very easy, Fontaine says. His permit doesn’t allow him to receive carcasses from other farms. For biosecurity reasons, however, Fontaine never intended offering this service.
Since buying the farm four years ago, Fontaine has completed several other improvements.
His first move was to insulate roofs. This resulted in an instant 30 per cent saving in energy costs. He also installed temperature alarm systems and bought two generators, capable of instantly taking over in case of power shortage.
The farm’s six wells, some of which had been decommissioned, were connected to a single pump house. The building houses a 27-foot- wide pool and ultra-violet filters. “My chickens drink better water than people in Montreal,” Fontaine says with his usual touch of humour.
After revamping all ventilation, heating and feeding systems, Fontaine installed Thevco Expert 4X4 automation systems. Temperature, light, feeding and drinking rates: all data is accessible in real-time. The next step will be to have Thevco link the systems to a computer. Fontaine would then become one of the first poultry farmers in Canada to be able to fully monitor his henhouses from away.
“I don’t invest in luxury. I invest in technology that is profitable,” Fontaine says.
Clearly, Fontaine is investing in the future. As the vice-president of his regional chicken farmers’ union, he vows to fight for the preservation of supply management. He is also involved in testing alternative feeds to achieve anti-biotic-free production.
“Like you can see, I don’t really don’t have time to go back to teaching.”