Cooley Farms demystifies poultry farming, opens farm to public
By Jennifer Whittaker
Hospitality. The Cooley family is well known for theirs. For years Larry and Terri have welcomed visitors to their Crawford County farm where they raise broilers, cattle and hay.
Terri fondly recalls hosting a field trip in the early ‘90s for the third-grade class of their son, Leighton, and his now wife, Brenda, who farm with them.
Through the years they’ve hosted numerous legislative events for their county Farm Bureau and entertained local leadership and senior citizen groups.
It’s easy to load guests up for a hayride to see the cattle and hay fields, but the poultry houses weren’t as easy. That’s because poultry companies that growers, like the Cooleys, raise birds for want to protect their flocks from spreadable diseases, like Newcastle or avian flu.
The Cooleys could take visitors as far as the outside of their houses and tell them what was happening inside. Getting guests inside required permission from their integrator. Then, visitors had to put on paper booties, hair nets and coveralls to protect the birds from outside disease and prevent guests from accidentally spreading any possible germs in their houses to public places where they might make their way to another farm.
“We’ve always loved hosting field trips, but it’s been kind of hard to let folks see inside a chicken house,” Terri said.
Seeing is understanding
With the blessing of their integrator, Perdue Farms, the Cooleys found a way to let visitors see inside a poultry house without jeopardizing the farm’s biosecurity. The answer was building a poultry learning center on the side of one of their poultry houses.
Four large tempered glass windows are built into the wall the viewing room shares with the poultry house. Visitors
can watch broilers eat out of feeders, drink from the water lines, walk around the house unrestrained or roost on wooden pallet sections in the learning center chicken house.
“Animal welfare starts with the environment in the chicken house,” Larry explained. “Now folks can see firsthand that chickens are being raised in a humane way. We want to explain that our product is safe.”
Equipment that’s used to operate a poultry house is displayed in the learning center. A section of a feed line is attached to a miniature feed bin with an auger to let guests see how the birds are fed. Part of a water line hangs beside the feed line, just as it does in the house. Visitors can see how water flows through the line and drips into the broilers’ beaks when they tap the nozzles underneath the line.
There’s also a propane heater to show how the birds are kept warm in winter. A cool cell and ventilation fan are installed on opposite walls of the room to demonstrate how the birds are kept comfortable in summer. Tech geeks will love checking out the computer control panels the Cooleys use to operate the broiler house attached to the learning center.
“We wanted people to walk in and say ‘Wow!’ We wanted the viewing room to give visitors the feeling they’re in the chicken house,” Terri said. “As we talk to them about the different equipment that’s in the house, they can see the equipment up close and touch it.”
The Cooleys got the idea for building the viewing room from a poultry farm in Owensboro, Kentucky, that also grows for Perdue Farms. When Daniel and Danielle Hayden built new houses, they included a viewing area in the control room of one of their houses. The Cooleys visited the Hayden farm in February, then came home to build their own.
“Larry drew a plan that would work for our farm. We got Perdue’s blessing, then started building it,” Terri recalls. “Soon others in the industry were interested and joined us. Fairmount Poultry and Chore Time have been very supportive. They equipped the room with actual working equipment. Ag Georgia Farm Credit and many others have also been helpful.”
An open dialogue
The family is looking to give visitors an honest farm experience and have open dialogue with their visitors.
“Our goal isn’t to convince someone that chicken manure doesn’t smell,” Leighton said. “We’re here to explain why and the role it plays on our farm.”
Leighton and Brenda’s participation in Georgia and American Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers programs prepared the family to pair their hospitality with talking to consumers about poultry farming.
In 2013 the family welcomed film crews to the farm for the documentary “Farmland,” which showed the daily life of young farmers. Appearing at film festivals where the documentary was screened and talking with filmgoers, who weren’t always friendly, prepared Leighton to answer hard questions.
“Some of our best experiences have been with our critics. There are many misconceptions about poultry farming regarding hormones and antibiotics. Chickens are never fed hormones or steroids,” Leighton said. “Perdue has opted to raise its birds with no antibiotics ever. That’s not to say we won’t treat a bird if it gets sick, but it then has to be sold under a different label. Even then, it must go through a withdrawal period before it’s harvested so antibiotics don’t enter the food chain, as with any bird that has received antibiotics in its lifetime.”
The Cooleys will start their farm tours in a restored barn near their house that they’ve been using to entertain farm guests. Here, visitors will watch a video about Cooley Farms that highlights the environmentally friendly production practices the family use to farm.
The video explains that the manure the broilers generate is a valuable source of fertilizer for the farm’s hay production. Visitors will learn the chicken litter taken out of the broiler houses is spread on their pastures and hay fields at appropriate rates following a manure nutrient management plan to prevent excess manure from running into local waterways while giving the soil the nutrients it needs.
Poultry farming is sustainable
“We want the public to understand how sustainable poultry farming is,” Leighton said.
The Cooleys’ extended family is proof that poultry, cattle and hay farming is a sustainable combination.
In the 1950s, Terri’s grandfather raised broilers in North Carolina. Her father, Ken Young, became the first contract broiler grower in Crawford County in 1979 and grew for years. Terri and Larry each have siblings who also grow broilers for Perdue.
While Larry and Terri annually raise an estimated 3 million broilers with Leighton and Brenda, their daughter Courtney and her husband, Jones Woody, have their own broiler houses. Their daughter Amanda and her husband, Craig Puckett, have cows they run on the family farm.
“I realize the responsibility I have of taking care of the land not only for myself and neighbors but also for the next generation of our family,” Larry said. “We love being called farmers. We like being a part of something that provides food for this country.”
Reviews of the center
Perdue Farms employees, members of Georgia’s ag community and Crawford County leaders got to tour the learning center during an open house the Cooleys held Oct. 21.
“I think it’s a great idea to let people see for themselves what’s behind the walls of a chicken house,” said Perdue Farms Chairman and Advertising Spokesman Jim Perdue after touring the learning center. “I think it’s a great effort to increase transparency. We’d like to see more of this.”
Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, commended the Cooleys and Perdue Farms on the project.
“The Cooleys didn’t have to do this. They could have just continued to raise poultry and cattle on the privacy of their farm. I applaud them and Perdue Farms for their leadership,” Giles said. “I think this learning center will have a tremendous impact of people’s understanding of how chickens are raised.”
Visits to Cooley Farms are by appointment. To schedule a visit , email Terri at email@example.com or call her at 478-957-3296.