Telephone callers to the home of Phillip and Nancy Garrison during daylight hours are likely to hear their recorded message: “This is the Garrisons and GoldVine Farms. We are out buzzing with the bees, checking the chickens or mooing with the cows.”
The Garrisons, who raise broilers for Cullman, Alabama-based Ingram Farms, operate a diversified farming operation, which includes growing chickens and cattle, beekeeping to produce honey and beeswax, and syrup-making.
Workdays for the Garrisons start before daylight and continue late into the evenings, when the final task is checking flocks in their three broiler houses. But the couple isn’t driven by workload as much as their love of farming and family heritages tied to the land and agriculture.
Passion for poultry-growing, beekeeping
Phillip and Nancy were reared up in families that farmed the land the couple owns today. Grandparents and parents in both families earned livings farming row crops, while supplementing their incomes with milk, butter and egg production, and sorghum syrup making.
Today, chicken growing and beekeeping are not just important sources of farm income but life passions for the couple.
Nancy’s maternal grandparents raised broilers on contract for Dixie Home Feed, and her parents raised broilers for Cotton Producers of America, or CPA, which later became Gold Kist and then Pilgrim’s Inc.
Top performers in poultry growing
The Garrisons’ hard work has resulted in several awards for excellence in poultry growing, but more than hard work is involved. Nancy’s love for chickens and her nurturing attitude result in careful attention to the flocks.
“You have to stay consistent with every aspect of management,” Nancy said. “Keeping temperatures consistent in the poultry house and plenty of feed and water in front of the birds are important to raising good broiler flocks.”
Being observant of the behavior of the birds is important. “The main thing is keeping the birds comfortable. If the birds are sitting on the floor, they are too cold. If they are standing and panting with their wings up, they are too hot,” she said.
Real rewards in broiler growing
What is the most satisfying aspect of broiler farming for a lady who has a shelf full of grower awards? “Seeing something grow and knowing it is a good product when it leaves the farm. I enjoy that,” Nancy said.
But poultry farming is also hard work. “You don’t grow good chickens and get good flock settlements sitting on the sofa eating Twinkies and watching soap operas. You have to think poultry 24/7 when there are broilers on the farm,” she said.
Nancy also embraces the competition with other growers. “You have to out-manage everyone else,” she said.
State-of-the-art technology vs. old-fashioned know-how
There are three broiler grow-out houses on the one farm, but two very different types of grow-out technology:
• Two computer-controlled 40- by 400-ft tunnel-ventilated broiler houses, each with a capacity of 24,000 birds
• One conventional 40- by 200-ft curtain-sided house with a capacity of 12,000 broilers
Computerized controls maintain optimal grow-out conditions in the farm’s two 40- by 400-ft tunnel-ventilated poultry houses. However, old-fashioned know-how makes the difference in performance in the farm’s 40- by 200-ft curtain-sided house. Nancy’s use of a thermometer – dubbed “Nancy’s computer” by her integrator’s production manager – and curtain machines help in the raising of top-performing flocks in the conventional house.
Flock settlements with the integrator are separate for the two tunnel-ventilated houses and the conventional curtain-sided house. The two housing types are in separate tournament groups and receive different pay rates.
“It is often said that flocks grown in older, conventional housing can’t compete with flocks grown in newer, tunnel-ventilated houses, but I say that it can be done. It just takes more work. You have to manage it and stay on top of everything. The older, conventional curtain-sided poultry house will often outperform the newer tunnel-ventilated houses,” Nancy said.
“Conventional broiler housing, to me, is the greatest way to grow a chicken. I love the natural light and open air in the curtain-sided house. I just enjoy working in the curtain-sided house,” she added.
Preparing for new flocks
Preparation for a new flock starts as the old flock is being caught on the Garrison’s farm. The couple never leaves their grow-out houses while birds are being caught and loaded onto the live-haul trucks. “Catching crews sometimes don’t quite know what to make of us being there during the catching process, but we are there to help,” Phillip said.
Preparation for a new flock continues as soon as the live-haul trucks have left the farm, and it begins with cleaning.
“I’m a stickler on washing down the interiors of my houses,” Nancy said. “After the catching crew leaves – even though Phillip and I may have been up all night during the catching process – we wash the houses down immediately. I use a water hose to wash the ceilings, walls and fans. Then we blow off the brooders where dust may have collected.”
Temperature, feed and water at the start
Getting ready to provide a good start for baby chicks is essential to a flock’s ultimate grow-out performance.
It starts with temperature, and there’s no skimping on heat for the chicks on the Garrison’s farm. Nancy’s target temperature is 92 F.
“In wintertime, especially in periods when temperatures are at their coldest, brooders may need to be started a couple of days before new chicks arrive on the farm. The underlying house floor needs to be good and warm for the baby chicks,” she said.
Plenty of feed is made available. Feed pans are charged and feed is placed in the lids. Paper is placed under the feed pans. “The paper keeps shavings out of the feed, and the paper attracts the chicks. They like running around on the paper,” Nancy explained.
Water is another critical management detail. Using a broom, the Garrisons activate the drinkers immediately before new chicks arrive on the farm.
Who’s the poultry grower?
Nancy is the chief poultry grower in the family, and Phillip highlighted this with a story about the ceremony in which Nancy received one of her grower awards.
“Nancy’s name was announced as the first place grower in the Gold Kist North Alabama division, and she went forward to receive her award,” Phillip said. “CEO John Bekkers insisted that I join Nancy on the stage. Once I was there, Mr. Bekkers said, ‘There’s one question that I want to ask you, Mr. Garrison. Who’s the poultry farmer, Nancy or you?’ I replied, ‘I will put it this way, when I get home from work every afternoon, I ask her: What do I need to do?’ My reply got a big laugh, but it is true.”
Nancy and Phillip’s love for farm life is apparent and undoubtedly the underlying secret to their poultry-growing success. “I miss the chickens when they aren’t on the farm. It seems too quiet,” Nancy said. “When the birds are here, the farm is alive.”