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Weary of commuting daily to the Missouri City area for work, Faye Oliphant wanted to find a job closer to home, north of Richmond. A television news report gave her the idea to just do just that – raise chickens for Campbell’s soup.
“One Saturday evening newscast said they [Campbell’s] were looking for 20 farmers to put up houses for chickens,” Oliphant said. “I lived in Arkansas with all those chicken houses. Everybody seemed to have a new truck, and I just thought it might be the thing to do.”
She then went to the kitchen and grabbed a can of Campbell’s soup for a contact name and number. She called the Campbell’s office in Palestine, Texas, which directed her to Secaucus, N.J. and then to their office in Tecumseh, Neb. Two years later in 1991, Oliphant was in the chicken-growing business with the “Mm-Mm, Good” company.
Oliphant said it took about two years to get two enormous barns – 76-feet-by-432-feet – built. Automated feeders and watering devices, along with temperature controls were installed. Each barn housed from 36,000 to 39,000 chickens, depending on the season.
Oliphant and her husband, Ralph, said Campbell’s gave technical advice and would go to their farm to help. She raised chickens primarily on her own for the first six of the eight years for Campbell’s, until the company decided to purchase chickens on the open market. Faye and Ralph, who then retired from Southwestern Bell, became Smart Chicken growers.
Smart Chicken, a trademark name for MBA Poultry, is certified organic poultry raised without use of antibiotics, animal by-products or hormones. The poultry is also certified humane, because the birds are not caged. The company uses an air-chill system during processing instead of cold-water baths where water is added to poultry. Smart Chicken is available in supermarkets, including Richmond Apple Market.
When chicks are removed from the incubator in Tecumseh, Neb., they are freighted the same day to the Oliphant farm. The couple now raises 80,000 chickens during a 49 to 53 day period, and they normally raise five to six batches of birds each year. Light, feed and water are the key ingredients to get a chick to become a 6-pound bird in that timeframe, she said.
Faye said the first 14 days is critical for winter chickens. Barn temperature begins at 92 degrees on their arrival and then temperatures are lowered 2 degrees every 10 to 14 days. Around 25,000 gallons of propane is used yearly to heat the chicken houses. Fuel prices in the past three have been economically tough, along with price increases in water and electricity, Ralph said; however, input costs are leveling off.
In the summer, the heat plays havoc with chickens in the last 14 days of maturity. Fans and windows are utilized to cool off barns, along with a misting system. During summer afternoons, Faye said she would walk the barns to force chickens to get up and drink water. Her approach works, because she says she does not lose many birds from heat. Up to 3,000 gallons of water are used a day when chickens are five to six weeks old.
Watching Faye walk through the chicken houses is seeing a woman tending to her flock. Great care and attention is given to the chickens, and their constant source for feed, water and ammonia control. Her current brood is nearing maturity and will be hauled in 14 semi-trailer trucks back to Nebraska on Monday and Tuesday. Faye, Ralph and a full-time employee will have a break until the next batch of chicks arrives at the farm on April 6.
When asked if she liked her career choice, she smiles and says while looking at her husband, “It supports his horse habit.” Ralph is the owner of 11 horses.
Photo: Faye Oliphant of rural Ray County started raising chickens in 1991 for Campbell’s soups and now for the Smart Chicken brand. She currently has a brood of around 80,000 chickens ready to ship next week. (Photo by JoEllen Black/The Daily