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Poultry Industry in Alabama

Donald E. Conner, Auburn University
Poultry Farm in Morgan County
As Europeans and European Americans began to settle in Alabama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they brought poultry with them–primarily chickens representing hardy breeds developed in Europe. Chickens have continued to be the leading type of poultry raised in the state. However, Alabama poultry production has evolved from a small-scale, farm-based operation for providing eggs for the family in the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries to a more intensive farm enterprise aimed at marketing eggs to urban populations beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to a modern commercial industry that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Today's Alabama poultry industry is a multibillion-dollar corporate enterprise and the major agricultural business in the state.
People and Poultry
Domesticated poultry production has been a staple of agricultural communities throughout the world for many centuries. Fowl that comprise domesticated poultry include geese, ducks, guinea fowl, turkeys, and chickens. All of these types of fowl serve as a source of eggs, meat, or both. Worldwide, ducks, turkeys, and chickens are the predominant poultry species. In the United States, turkeys and chickens predominate, and in Alabama chickens have been and continue to be the predominant poultry species by far. The domestic chicken was originally derived from the Asian jungle fowl, and over several thousand years people have developed a multitude of breeds of domesticated chickens. Many of these breeds were developed to meet the needs and desires of the people of specific regions, and thus they are typically found only in certain geographical areas.
When Europeans first came to Alabama in the sixteenth century, they brought with them the breeds of chickens that were typical of European farms. People developed many of these breeds primarily for eggs; however, these chickens also were used for meat when the hens were too old to produce eggs. These multi-purpose chickens were an integral part of the family farming enterprise that dominated Alabama's agrarian economy during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Typically, each household kept only a few chickens and fed them kitchen scraps
Poultry Train Car
and allowed them to forage for the rest of their food. These chickens would typically produce about 30 eggs per year. The term "yard bird" probably best described the poultry enterprise in Alabama up to the late nineteenth century. On family farms, the women and girls of the household typically tended the chickens. Indeed, poultry care, known as husbandry, was included in the home economics coursework for young women at most schools and colleges in Alabama. Many families maintained chickens not only to provide eggs and meat for the family but also to generate some income through the sale of eggs. Hens produced eggs for a good portion of their lives, and when their egg-producing ability declined with age, they then became a source of meat for the family. Such "egg money" enterprises can be said to have constituted Alabama's earliest poultry industry. As urban areas, transportation, biological knowledge, and technology developed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the stage was set for egg production to evolve from this farm yard enterprise to a commercial enterprise of more intensive production of eggs to supply a growing population.
Development of an Alabama Egg Industry
Macon County Chicken Farm 1928
As Alabama entered the twentieth century, poultry husbandry was highly focused on egg production. Beginning in the 1910s, when the U.S. economy began to expand, farmers and entrepreneurs realized the economic potential of poultry as a commercial business, and in this time frame, Alabama's commercial egg industry began. Enabled by the passage of the federal Morrill Agricultural Land Grant College Act in 1862 and the 1887 Hatch Act, state and federal governments established extension and research facilities and programs at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, now Auburn University) to support this emerging agricultural endeavor. Tuskegee Institute offered vocational training in poultry husbandry for both men and women. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Alabama Extension Service held egg-laying contests and other similar events as a means to help educate farmers on proper poultry husbandry. Early poultry researchers and extension agents brought to Alabama's farmers new procedures and findings on breed selection, breeding practices, brooding techniques, housing, feeding, artificial lighting, marketing, and record keeping. This effort spurred a shift in Alabama's poultry industry from a home-based endeavor toward a more commercial, research-based industry. One result, in the 1920s, was the establishment of poultry husbandry as a separate discipline at API to meet the growing need for poultry science and technology.
In the 1930s and 1940s, as more scientific knowledge and technology for poultry breeding, feeding, and husbandry evolved, poultry production began to intensify in Alabama, giving rise to larger farming enterprises. However, the expansion of poultry enterprises in the South lagged behind other regions of the United States. Nonetheless, there was shift to a more industrial approach to poultry production where primary production shifted from home-based production to concentrated larger commercial operations to provide eggs for an emerging marketplace. As production intensified, producers found themselves facing a number of technological challenges, such as proper nutrition, appropriate breed selection, proper housing, brooding, and predation. However, as flock size increased and production moved to enclosed structures in the 1930s and 1940s, the biggest hurdle to continued expansion of the Alabama poultry industry that emerged was disease. Pullurom disease, or white diarrhea (as it was known at the time), was the most deadly. In 1935, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) to eradicate pullorum disease by blood-testing and eliminating infected breeding stock. By the early 1940s, incidences of pullorum disease had been essentially eradicated, and because of the ongoing NPIP, pullorum disease is rarely seen in commercial chickens today. Since that time, poultry scientists have continued to develop vaccines, medications, and husbandry practices aimed at mitigating the disease challenges brought about by intensive poultry production.
Poultry Float in Lauderdale County
The Alabama egg industry expanded slightly between 1920 and 1940, when annual egg production grew from approximately 400 million to slightly more than 500 million. Alabama egg production increased rapidly over the next 40 years, reaching a peak of nearly 3.3 billion in 1980. Since then Alabama egg production has declined approximately 3 percent each year, and in 2006, Alabama produced 450 million eggs. The decline in Alabama egg production results from a move of the egg industry out of the South into the Midwest as well as a shift in the Alabama industry to production of chickens for meat rather than for eggs. However, Alabama still ranks 14th in U.S. egg production.
Development of the "Broiler" Industry
As egg production moved toward a commercial industry, with chicken breeds (known as "layers") selected exclusively for egg production, meat production lagged behind. In the late 1920s, however, the concept of raising chickens for meat indoors under controlled conditions allowed producers to market chicken meat year-round. The name "broiler" was adopted to describe these types of chickens raised for meat. First developed on Maryland's Eastern Shore, this concept was the beginning of a revolutionary change in poultry production in the United States, including Alabama, that began to take root in the 1940s. The availability and subsequent consumer demand for chicken meat began to skyrocket in the 1950s, and this growth greatly affected Alabama's economy.
North Alabama in particular was well suited to broiler production. Lacking the rich soils and level landscape of the Black Belt and the Wiregrass, northern Alabama was better suited to animal agriculture than to row-crop agriculture. In addition, the state's mild climate was well suited to broiler production. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Tennessee River system provided an efficient means to bring in the primary feedstuffs—corn and soybeans—from the Midwest. Beginning in the 1940s through the mid 1950s, local, regional, and national feed companies began to establish feed mills along the shores of this waterway system and started manufacturing and supplying chicken feed to the poultry farmers of the area. Before World War II, the poultry industry was a typical farm enterprise where farmers would buy baby chicks from local hatcheries or feed stores, buy feed from the local feed mill or store, and then raise these chickens to market size, which at that time was about 2.5 pounds and took 12-16 weeks of growing time. At that time, farmers would sell their broiler chickens to buyers or brokers or through auctions. This system was highly volatile from an economic standpoint, which made it difficult for farmers to secure loans to maintain or expand operations. Local, regional, and national feed companies, who had better access to credit in the post-World War II economy, began to offer loans and contracts to poultry farmers, primarily as a means to achieve a more predictable market for their chicken feed. These early contracts were characterized as "profit sharing," where the feed company would provide feed to the farmer with the understanding that the farmer would repay the cost of the feed plus some profit obtained via the sale of the chickens. Contract and business arrangements evolved quickly.
The biggest driver in the evolution of poultry as a modern business enterprise was the concept of "vertical integration," in which all components of the poultry production process, including breeding farms, hatchery, and feed mill, were owned and managed by a single company, often a feed company. With this business model, the company or "integrator" would provide the chicks and feed to a farmer with whom a contract had been arranged. The company would then process the broilers in a company-owned facility, with the farmer being paid for raising the birds to market age. This business arrangement allowed most of the economic risk to shift from the farmer to the company, which allowed stability in the marketing of broilers. Such stability enabled the broiler industry to expand rapidly beginning in the mid 1950s. In 1952, the Alabama poultry industry established the Alabama Poultry Industry Association, which brought together the various associations representing individual segments of the Alabama poultry enterprise. In 1972, the association reorganized and was renamed the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, a nonprofit trade association in which all segments of the poultry industry are represented.
Evolution of Alabama's Current Poultry Industry
Chicken Farm
By the 1950s and 1960s, nearly all of the U.S. poultry companies were vertically integrated, and today essentially 100 percent of commercial broilers in the world are produced in a vertically integrated system. It was this adoption of vertical integration that enabled broiler production in Alabama to rapidly expand beginning in the mid-1950s, and the poultry industry continues its growth today. In 1955, approximately 50 million broilers were produced in Alabama, whereas in 2006 annual production was approximately 1.05 billion broilers. In the mid-1970s, income to Alabama farmers from poultry eclipsed that from field crops, thereby firmly establishing broilers as the predominant agricultural commodity in Alabama. Poultry has continued its growth and dominance as Alabama's leading agricultural commodity. In 2013, total poultry production generated approximately $3.6 billion ($3.5 billion in broilers and $389 million in eggs) in income for Alabama's poultry farmers. This value accounted for 66 percent of Alabama's farm commodity income. Today, the total economic impact of the poultry industry on Alabama exceeds $9 billion, which is approximately 10 percent of the state's economy. The poultry industry is comprised exclusively of broilers and commercial layers, as no other domestic fowl are commercially produced in Alabama. Today, there are about 3,500 poultry growers in the state, mostly within Cullman, DeKalb, Marshall, and Coffee counties. In total, approximately 80,000 Alabamians are employed directly in the poultry industry or in industries that support the poultry industry. This workforce is highly diverse, and as seen in many agricultural and food enterprises, the portion of this labor force of Hispanic descent has increased in the last decade, predominantly in the processing plant workforce.
Consumer demand for chicken and egg products has been the primary reason for the growth of Alabama's poultry industry and indeed throughout the United States. On average, each American consumes approximately 87 pounds of chicken meat and more than 250 eggs each year. Alabama's modern and highly efficient poultry industry relies on the latest technology in genetics, nutrition, environmental control, and food processing to meet the ever-increasing consumer demand for poultry meat and eggs. For example, the average weight of an Alabama produced broiler in 2006 was 5.4 lbs, a size achieved in just 35-45 days. In the last three decades, the broiler industry has consolidated into the southern United States, and Alabama (along with Georgia and Arkansas) supplies poultry products not only to Alabamians, but to consumers throughout the nation and the world. In 2009, the United States produced slightly more than 20 percent of the world's poultry meat, and for that year Alabama exported $424 million worth of poultry, primarily to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Additional Resources

Arrington, L. C. (editor). PSA 1908-2008 The Poultry Industry. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth Publishing, 2008.
Eckman, M. K., and R. N. Brewer. "The Commercial Broiler Industry." Alabama Agribusiness 27 (July 1988): 2-5.
Hurst, J. R, M. W. Runge, H. B. Strawn, and W. D. Gunther. The Alabama Poultry Industry: An Economic Impact Study. Special publication of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, Auburn University and the Center for Business and Economic Research, University of Alabama, 1995.
King, D. F., and S. L. Chestnutt. Poultry Production in the South. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1948.
Published:  August 18, 2008   |   Last updated:  April 1, 2019