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Gene Simpson has never been one to mince words.

As he sees it, the challenge facing poultry growers is simple — not easy to resolve but simple to understand.  In an increasingly globalized market, growers are caught in a vise between flat-lined revenue and operating costs that have risen between 50 and 70 percent.

It is a chronic problem that Simpson and his colleague, Jim Donald, have been working for years to resolve — efforts now carried out through the Auburn University-based National Poultry Technology Center, which they organized some five years ago to focus their efforts.   In the course of loosening this vise, the two have changed the face of U.S. poultry production.

Simpson and Donald cite a myriad of causes behind the cost spikes, with heating fuel at the top of the list.  Another major contributor: U.S. government efforts to promote ethanol production.

"We're dealing with a situation in which this nation's energy and food production policies are in conflict," says Donald, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System biosystems engineer and Auburn University professor of biosystems engineering.

Efforts to promote ethanol production drive up the costs of grain, the food staple of poultry production, imposing higher costs on growers at a time when they can least afford them.

Simpson and Donald concede that they can't fight city hall.  What they can do —what they have done for years— is to provide poultry growers with workable solutions to deal with these spiking costs.

They've learned that the solution lies not so much in tightening belts as in tightening aging poultry houses.

"For the most part, it's all about energy conservation," says Simpson, an Extension economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.

Adding a measure of urgency to this issue is the absolute importance of maintaining birds in poultry houses at the correct temperature, Donald says.

Just being off by a few degrees translates into a tremendous erosion of cost savings.

As research and experience have demonstrated time and again, much of this solution lies in retrofitting poultry houses — modifying them to ensure optimal energy efficiency.

Two especially zealous retrofitters who have heeded Simpson's and Donald's advice are Dennis and Jeff Maze, a father-and-son team who operate Maze Farms in Horton, Alabama.

Their first broiler houses, built almost 40 years ago, are not only still in operation today but also, in terms of production efficiency, consistently rank in the forefront of all Tyson Foods poultry farms.

The Mazes credit this success to NPTC research efforts conducted on these three houses as well as five other houses on their farms.   The research has focused on how such diverse practices as spray foaming and the use of various types of sidewall insulation and dimmable compact fluorescent light bulbs can enhance energy efficiency.

"What they have today are 40-year-old poultry houses that are not only environmentally well controlled and highly energy efficient but that also rank among the very best in the nation," Donald says.

If one lesson has been driven home to Simpson and Donald, it's that staying profitable requires growers' investing some of their hard-won profits into poultry house improvements.

"What we've learned is that we can cut a grower's heating bill greatly, sometimes by as much as 40 to 50 percent," Donald says. "Even in the most unimproved houses, if growers follow our recommendations, they will reduce their heating costs by a half and they will secure a payback in as few as four years."

On the other hand, producers who don't heed this advice often end up paying a heavy price.

"We've seen lots of growers who should update their houses but who dig in their heels and refuse," Simpson says. "They trek along for 10, 15 or 20 years and then face upgrades of as much as $40- or $50,000 a house in order to remain in production."

The proactive approach really boils down to the old maxim "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

"It's like changing your oil every 5,000 miles — yes, it'll cost you, but it will also save you a lot of grief later on," Simpson contends.

Alabama growers have responded to these efforts recently by nominating the NPTC for the Auburn University Dean of Agriculture's Project Team Award.

"This farm remains in the top 10 percent of all Tyson Foods farms in Alabama because of the applied research that has been conducted by the NPTC to make this farm cost effective," says Dennis Maze who along with his son, Jeff, was among several grateful farmers who nominated the center for the award.

For their part, Simpson and Donald credit their success to their long-standing emphasis on traditional Extension methods.

"We're old guys. It's the way we were taught — we're out there listening to the growers, our customers, focusing on solutions that are going to work for them," Donald says.

"That's the Extension philosophy."