Producers strive to raise happy, healthy birds

STANDARD, Alta. — Alberta’s Sundgaard family wants people to know the real story of agriculture.

Don and Val and their son, Trent, his wife, Sharon, and their two children, Sydni, 12, and Ryker, 9, are chicken producers who are active on the farm and in the community and industry.

The family came to Standard when Don’s grandfather, Hans Costella, owned a coal mine nearby in the 1920s. They built an egg layer barn in 1940 and today, the operation uses coal byproducts to heat barns.

Don’s father, Louie Sundgaard, took over in the 1950s and converted the layer barns into a broiler business. Don and Val returned to the farm in the 1970s after living in Banff where Don worked in accounting.

The couple always knew farming was in their future.

“We told (Louie) we would like to take over someday,” said Val.

Sundgaard Poultry Farm was smaller then and they used to sell fresh chicken off the farm, processing about 50 birds a day by hand in their basement.

“The rules came in that you had to have a certified vet there and that was a good reason to quit. We sold them to the local store or people would phone and order them,” Val said.

Improvements in marketing and production were gradual.

The supply management system with quotas and new standards were quickly adopted in the poultry industry.

“It wasn’t a hard sell. They were losing farms. If supply management hadn’t come into Alberta and Canada, there would probably be two or three big corporate farms. The East would be supplied by cheap chicken out of the U.S.,” said Don.

Alberta grew into the fourth largest producer in the country and its 245 farmers would like to raise more.

The farm produces one million kilograms of chicken every year on two sites, with birds shipped to Lilydale.

“What we do in a year supplies the city of Calgary for a week,” said Trent.

The barns are computerized and Trent added solar panels to his barns for more energy efficiency.

Food safety and animal welfare are major motivators. Alberta was the first province to adopt the On Farm Food Safety Assurance plan.

The plan covers bird care, barn temperatures, ammonia levels, feed, water and ventilation. Computers control all the systems and if anything fails, they receive a phone call.

“Years ago, if you needed to adjust the temperature, you adjusted the thermostat in the barn. Now it is all done on the computer,” said Don, who has served on the Alberta Chicken Producers’ board as a director and chair.

He has also served on the Lilydale board.

When Don started farming, a broiler needed 14 weeks to reach maturity. With new genetics, better feed and management, today’s birds are ready for market in six weeks.

This farm goes through 6.5 cycles each year where new birds are placed, raised and shipped. Between cycles, the barns are cleaned.

This farm grows wheat, barley, canola and yellow peas and uses the straw for bedding and litter. The family works with a nutritionist to develop a balanced commercial ration for the fast growing birds.

“It is very specific and it is very important that you meet those requirements because with today’s genetics those birds are a race car,” said Trent.

“When our birds are older, they are eating over 200 grams per bird. That is 12 to 14 tonnes per day,” he said.

They employ one person so someone can be on the farm every day walking through the barns.

Trent was encouraged to leave the farm for work experience and post-secondary education.

“We figured that experience, rather than coming back to the farm right out of high school, was better. We weren’t ready to turn over everything then,” Don said.

Trent, who earned a degree in animal science from the University of Saskatchewan in 1998, also worked as a supervisor-manager at an operation in the Bahamas with nearly 750,000 birds.

Sharon works full time at the local school teaching cosmetology.

Farm succession is going well but but modern agriculture is capital intensive.

“Agriculture is difficult to enter if you are going to be a producer. You have to have a lot of motivation. You can’t be adverse to risk. This fall is a good indicator of that,” said Trent.

The family managed to harvest their grain and the wheat graded No. 2, but many neighbours were still struggling to complete the harvest in late fall.

Don, who is helping Standard build a historical walking path, also volunteers to provide agriculture education.

“As well as educating the Grades 3s and 4s, I was educating the teachers as well,” said Don.

His grandchildren are young and it will be their decision whether to stay or pursue other careers, said Don.

“Time will tell if it will be fifth generation,” he said.

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