Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

The National Poultry Technology Center (NPTC)

Written by Karen Hunley

Poultry Technology Center Saves Millions by Researching Ways to Improve Efficiency

The National Poultry Technology Center (NPTC) at Auburn University started out researching “simple ways” to help poultry growers save money and increase profitability. For instance, the center found that growers could cut heating costs by about 15 percent just by recirculating air inside poultry houses to improve the efficiency of the heating system and keep birds more comfortable.

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NPTC researchers catching water runoff from four poultry houses in an effort to install a workable rainwater-collection system on a commercial farm.

Now the NPTC is helping this vital Alabama industry save about $34 million a year through its research and outreach efforts aimed at increasing the efficiency of poultry production facilities. Established in 2007, the NPTC focuses on areas such as new energy sources; equipment advances for optimal environmental conditions for birds; improved designs that will ensure long-lasting facilities; and how engineering issues during live production may affect the quality of poultry products.

Director James Donald, a professor of biosystems engineering, said the NPTC was a missing link in the Alabama poultry industry, which generates about $3 billion in receipts and has an economic impact of more than $15 billion to Alabama’s economy each year. Donald said there are approximately 12,000 poultry houses and 3,000 growers in Alabama, and the state’s poultry industry employs more than 86,000 people.

“The NPTC was formed because no entity or organization was looking at the lack of efficiency and the costs associated with technologies being utilized inside poultry production facilities in Alabama,” Donald said. “There are very few people in the world who understand the structure of poultry houses and the heating, cooling, water, and gas systems in houses and how these systems affect costs and profitability. That’s where we came in.”

The relationship between sound engineering principles and good economics is the foundation of what attracted Donald to poultry technology. As a biosystems engineer, he was already accustomed to combining engineering science with environmental and agricultural sciences, and he became fascinated with how a bird’s weight and laying efficiency – its productivity – was so contingent on its environment.

For instance, lighting in poultry houses is crucial; too much or too little lighting can adversely affect chickens’ eating habits and growth. The NPTC advised that poultry houses switch to a combination of LED and compact fluorescent (CFL) lights, which together provide uniform lighting and have a lifespan 10 to 20 times greater than standard incandescent bulbs. Installed correctly, these lights can reduce a grower’s electric costs for lighting by as much as 85 percent, according to NPTC research.

Research on conserving heating fuel, however, has had the greatest impact so far. The NPTC found that by properly insulating typical chicken houses in Alabama–making building modifications for about $9,000 per house–the state’s growers could save $12 million a year on heating fuel, and the state’s poultry processors could save about $12 million a year on reduced poultry feed costs. If chickens are too cold, they will eat more to compensate. Therefore, both poultry growers and processors benefit from the technology.

The NPTC also gives recommendations for the best ways to construct chicken houses so they are structurally sound and durable under the sometimes extreme weather conditions in Alabama. More than 200 poultry houses were destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that ravaged the state. But improved building standards ultimately have saved the industry about $10 million per year in each of the last five years, Donald said.

NPTC researchers also have pioneered green technology in poultry houses on test farms in the state. Studies are underway to catch rainwater from poultry houses and use it for cooling and rearing birds.

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Training poultry growers and industry technicians on the best ways to manage high-tech poultry houses for maximum production at the least operational cost is part of the mission of the NPTC.

The center team members spend most of their time in the field, researching and training growers and company representatives on commercial poultry farms. A hundred farmers often attend one meeting or training session.

“Growers know they can trust us,” Donald added. “We strive to be an unbiased source of information that growers can use to make good business decisions.”

The NPTC partners with both the Auburn University College of Agriculture and the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association and has a board of directors made up of representatives from both organizations. Donald said people from several disciplines at Auburn agreed it was time to fill this need in Alabama and worked together to establish the center.

When the prices of propane, electricity, and water began to rapidly increase in the early 2000s, the Auburn faculty realized this live production industry could be lost to overseas companies with lower labor costs if they did not step in.

“We need to grow chickens in the U.S. because it ensures a reliable, sustainable, and safe food supply, and it also means the jobs stay right here in Alabama,” Donald said.

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