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Technology and turkeys

Bullard Farms incorporates turkeys and a lot of technology to produce quality birds, compost and fertilizer

November 21, 2012
By Diane Mettler

The Bullard family of North Carolina raises 64,000 turkeys and recently won the 2012 North Carolina Poultry Federation Grower Environmental Excellence Award.

In 2006, the Bullard family was growing crops and raising hogs and decided to expand their operation by raising turkeys. In less than a year, they were raising 64,000 turkeys and this year they won the North Carolina Poultry Federation Grower Environmental Excellence Award.

The Bullards are not strangers to farming. Collins is a fifth-generation farmer who runs the Bullard farm with his parents and wife, Alison. With the addition of turkeys, they also have three houses for the operation’s 3,000 hogs and farm 1,500 acres, where they grow corn, wheat, beans, watermelons, and this year, a new crop – sorghum.

Quick move to turkeys
When the Bullards decided to add turkeys to their portfolio, the idea became a reality in an incredibly short amount of time.

They approached Prestage Farms about raising birds for them and discussions began immediately.

“Prestage put together numbers and we looked at sites – trying to figure out where exactly we wanted to put things. Over about a six-month period we were up and running,” says Collins.

Getting up and running required the construction of eight, tunnel ventilated barns to house the turkeys from four to 20 weeks of age and around 42 pounds. Each barn is 50 feet wide by 500 feet long, or 25,000 square feet, and holds around 8,000 turkeys.

The barns are state of the art, says Collins.

“They provide superior environmental control for optimum bird comfort, with a cooling system in each house.”

The houses have a central computer system, which allows not only viewing of all eight houses, but also monitoring via a laptop. And an extensive alarm system will alert Collins if there is a failure in the feed, water, ventilation or other system.

Learning curve
“We were the first tunnel farm for Prestage, and one of the first tunnel farms in this area,” says Collins. “At the time, Prestage didn’t know exactly how these things were going to work and neither did I. So, there were some growing pains in the beginning. But we worked through things.”

Part of the learning process involved the computer system and learning what it could do and how to set it up to do what Prestage and the Bullards wanted – for example, adjust to temperatures that can vary substantially from day to day.

“Today, we still have to put in the programs, and the program depends on the size of the bird,” says Collins. “Everything is on a memory card. You insert that into the computer and the computer will automatically
update everything.

Litter management
Computers also play a part in litter handling. The Bullards raise about three flocks a year. To handle the majority of the litter, Collins uses a caking machine, moving the litter from near the feed and water lines, where the bulk of the waste accumulates.

“When it’s time to remove it, the litter is a little on the damp side and that’s when our sheds come into play,” says Collins.

The farm has two sheds – one 50 feet by 100 feet and the other 50 feet by 200 feet, with a total of 14,000 square feet to keep the litter covered and off the ground.

“We’ll go in weekly and turn it and by turning it we’re drying it out, also breaking it up, making it easier to spread.”

The litter can be stored in the sheds for as long as necessary, until it’s time to apply. This year, the Bullards will pull about 2,880 tons, which will be either immediately applied or stored.

Before any application though, Collins performs grid soil sampling.

“It gives us a better idea of what nutrients need to go where and to land-apply the litter based on of those soil samples. The litter has a real high phosphorus content and it works well with a wheat and corn and beans rotation.”

If spreading requires going off the turkey farm, the Bullards contract haul it with litter trucks.

“If not, we have a BBI 20-ton spreader that we can load that is used on the tractor,” says Collins.

The farm has also incorporated GPS with its grid soil sampling to help them stay right on target and avoid over applying.
“And all the tractors have auto-steer on them,” adds Collins. “Because of that, it’s essential that the material is broken up so it spreads evenly.”

Hog manure
The hogs’ manure management system is completely different. The hog houses have a slatted floor and the waste is collected in a pit below. The waste is gravity fed to a lagoon where the water is recycled to wash out the house, and it is also pumped onto the hay fields when needed.   

It’s all automated, says Collins.

“The tanks pump two or three times a day and constantly wash out the underside of the house. In the lagoon, we have markers that give us our low point, high point, and acceptable water.” 

As with the turkeys, the Bullards take samples of the lagoon waste as well as soil samples and apply the manure based on the results. With the pigs, however, the waste is liquid and much easier to handle than the dry turkey litter.

One of the things that sets the Bullard farm apart, and helped them achieve the 2012 environmental award, is its forced-air compost system, which was installed in 2010 by Advanced Composting. The system not only is an environmentally friendly way to handle mortalities (versus burying or burning) but also provides an end product.

Under a covered structure, any turkey mortalities are layered between organic matter, such as shavings and roadside grass clippings. The rows are kept at a specific moisture level and a temperature between 150 to 160 F for 30 to 45 days.

During that time, air is pumped in, rotating from bin to bin, and monitored via a computer.

“We also wet it and recycle the juices that come off of the animals as they break down, and we introduce some enzymes to that material, which helps with the breakdown process,” says Collins.

By the end of the 45 days, the bird carcasses are completely broken down, except for the harder bones, which are ground down.

“The finished product comes out a real even fertilizer; about a 15/15/15,” says Collins. “It’s also really a dry product, easy to spread, and easy to manage.”

One of the reasons for the composting facility is that the Bullards could see there would soon be regulations coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state on dead stock disposal. It made good business sense to be proactive.

“We felt it was a good time figure out what we were going to do.”

The benefits of this system turned out to be many. The finished product is comparable to commercially available fertilizer. It acts as predator control and helps keep coyotes, dogs and buzzards away from the turkey houses. The high temperatures also help reduce pests, such as mice and flies.

Cutting down on commercial fertilizer
The Bullards continue to buy some commercial fertilizers, such as liquid nitrogen for corn, but their overall purchase of commercial fertilizers has gone down significantly.

“I don’t think we’ll ever replace fertilizer completely, just because the litter doesn’t have a uniform nutrient content. For example, if we pull a load out from under the feed line, it has … more nutrient value than what’s in the center of the house where there are more shavings,” says Collins. “That’s why we mix it a lot and why we use the grid soil sampling. It’s a good way of keeping up with how much you’re putting out there from year to year and if you need to back off of a certain area for some time.”

The composting and litter storage facility both keep odors down, but it can’t be completely eliminated, especially during application.

“We try to be courteous neighbors,” says Collins. “When we are land-applying, we work it into the ground with a disc right behind the litter spreader.

Thumbs up for technology
It’s obvious that the Bullard farm embraces technology. Some other farmers shy away from it, but Collins welcomes it. Technology is one of the reasons the farm has been able to grow. Collins’ great-great-grandfather started with about 40 acres; today the farm is at 1,500 acres and requires only Collins, his dad and two employees to manage everything.
“If we didn’t have any problems, two people could manage this farm,” he says. 

“I like the technology. I think if you don’t try to keep up with technology, you’re going to get left behind. The technology is there; you might as well use it because everything is heading in that direction. We want to stay in this business and, in order to do so, we have to be productive. I think  technology helps the productivity of this farm.”

Point of pride
Collins is a next-generation farmer and the awards he is receiving are the proof. Not only has he received the North Carolina Poultry Federation Grower Environmental Excellence Award but he has also won the Young Farmer of the Year from the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, Outstanding Young Farmer from the County Farm Bureau. Another environmental award is pending.

What Collins is most proud of is the farm’s consistency.

“We continue to produce a quality bird for Prestage Farm.”