Construction of State-of-the-Art Research Facility Will Begin
Later this Year
Alabama may be known around America as the "Land of Cotton," but poultry production isn’t taking a back seat to the fluffy white stuff.
Chickens are being produced by the billions each year in Alabama and, for that reason, Auburn University’s College of Agriculture is awaiting the start of construction for a state-of-the-art feed mill on campus.
It isn’t designed for commercial use, but the end result of testing at the site is expected to play an important role in producing the best feed possible for U.S. poultry producers.
"This facility will be a flagship academic/industry feed mill for the Southeast," said Don Conner, who directs Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science and is the guiding force behind the new mill.
The $7 million, 12,000-square-foot building, which is expected to be under construction later this year and, by the time it is completed in about 18 months, is expected to be the most modern facility of its kind in the country.
Conner, a Virginia native who specializes in microbiology focusing on poultry science, has spent countless hours on the project and becomes animated when discussing its importance, not only to the industry but Alabama as well.
Auburn has one of only six poultry science departments in the country and, once the new facility is completed, will be one of only four major training facilities in the U.S.
"Our students will learn high-end animal food production," Conner said. "People might say ‘Oh, they’re just making chicken feed,’ but they don’t realize how highly-regulated and sophisticated this industry has become."
Those who conjure up images of farmers spreading chicken feed to roosters and hens around the barnyard would be surprised to learn just how much science has entered the picture in recent decades.
As the world’s population soars toward the eight billion mark and drought reduces food production, especially in underdeveloped countries, facilities like the one being built at Auburn University (AU) take on even more importance.
"It can be daunting to think about future demands on food production during the next 40 years," said Conner, during an interview at his office. "We’ll need to become as proficient as possible on food — just as much as we’re concentrating on energy needs today."
Conner points to poultry’s popularity around the world, especially in some countries where the production of beef and pork is frowned upon or forbidden because of religious prohibitions.
When he began working on the feed mill training facility, Conner thought raising funds might be a major hurdle to overcome. He soon got a pleasant surprise.
Millions of dollars began to pour in from a variety of companies specializing in poultry production, facilities or equipment involved in it.
Conner said the vital ingredient of the new feed mill isn’t the building itself. It’s the equipment inside and it represents a big chunk of the $7 million cost.
He said an AU fund-raiser couldn’t believe it at first when a lot of his work was taken care of by the same corporate officials he had planned to see about financial assistance.
"He said ‘This is crazy,’" Conner recalled. "He told me ‘We’ve got people coming to us to participate in this project.’"
Conner said at least 30 different companies are on the donor list for the feed mill facility — something he said will be "head and shoulders above any other of its kind in the country."
The new Auburn feed mill training site is being patterned after one at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Conner said the California site is the best in the country "and we’ll be right up there with them when ours is completed."
Modern construction methods will be used at the AU facility. Conner said it will be based on a modular design with units being shipped to the university where they will be pieced together, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
"They had theirs assembled in only eight hours," Conner said. "When we get to that point, we’ll have a crane waiting for the pieces to arrive."
Two years ago, in early 2008, Conner met with Cal Poly’s poultry science department head in Atlanta during a conference and compared notes. At the conference, Conner invited representatives of major equipment manufacturers to a "light breakfast" and most of them showed up.
"We gave ’em a biscuit and a cup of coffee for a seven a.m. meeting about financial help on our project and the fact so many of them came was impressive in itself," said Conner, breaking into a big smile.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides millions of dollars each year on a variety of farm-related projects, but those seeking funds for brick and mortar ideas often get rejection notices.
"The USDA is hesitant when it comes to building projects and it’s hard to get those through for funding," Conner said. "We thought at first that we’d have money problems with our projects, but were very pleased with the response we got right off the bat."
Site preparation and other requirements will consume much of the 18-month-long construction calendar.
Once the feed mill is finished, AU’s 60 poultry science students will begin utilizing it as part of their curriculum. They will be delighted to move into their new digs because the one in use now was built more than 30 years ago and is clearly outdated, according to Conner.
"What we have now met our basic needs in making feed on campus, but it was a bad example of a teaching facility," he said. "It isn’t possible to provide high-end precision teaching."
Feed produced at the new facility will be used much as it is today — providing nutrition for research animals. AU’s poultry research farm is a vital part of Conner’s department.
Conner said few U.S. universities offer poultry science degree programs and believes the new feed mill will help increase Auburn’s student enrollment past the 60 mark.
"The fact is we don’t have as many young people growing up on farms as we once had," he said. "Getting them interested in poultry science isn’t easy. The reality of it is we are dealing today with students with non-farm backgrounds."
Conner noted the U.S. agricultural industry has been dealing primarily with corn and soy products for feed while, in Europe, there is an emphasis on wheat "and we don’t feed wheat to chickens."
The new facility at AU is designed to (1) increase process control to meet research needs well into the future, (2) expand AU’s teaching mission by providing students with hands-on training in feed manufacturing and science, (3) expand AU’s extension mission by way of industry short courses for the feed and poultry industries, (4) re-invent outreach and proprietary research programs and (5) provide food-diets for other AU animals.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.