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Blackouts Could Kill Calif. Poultry

By Andrew Bridges, Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, April 4, 2001; 1:51 a.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES Rolling blackouts this summer would be a life-or-death proposition for millions of California chickens, which could die within minutes if power needed for ventilation and cooling should fail.

Poultry producers say their birds are by far the most susceptible of all farm animals to the effects of rolling blackouts, since they require a constant flow of chilled, fan-blown air to cool them and allow them to breathe.

If the power should fail on a hot day, chickens could suffocate almost as soon as air stops circulating in buildings that can house as many as 150,000 birds. "Birds will last 15 minutes to half an hour. That's it," said Richard Matteis, executive director of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association in Sacramento.

In today's world of mechanized farming, chickens rely on electricity to drive the machines that bring them food and water, collect their eggs, transport their waste and power the lights under which egg-laying hens can bask up to 16 hours a day. Most importantly, electricity powers the fans and swamp coolers that make chicken farming possible in inland counties up and down California.

"As hot as it gets in California, the chickens can't live without power," said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. The environments in these chicken houses are entirely artificial. Humidity in the air is critical to a chicken's health because of its respiratory system.

A chicken breathes differently than a human. People force air into their lungs and it automatically comes out. Chickens have to force the air out. When they breathe, they have to have air flow.

Agriculture experts have spent the last year recommending farmers add backup generators that can produce electricity needed in a blackout to milk cows, irrigate fields and chill produce before it's shipped to market.

For poultry farmers, generators are an absolute must, said Jim Thompson, a cooperative extension engineer with the University of California, Davis biological and agricultural engineering department. "They simply have to have backup generation," Thompson said.

Most larger producers in California, where poultry is a $1 billion a year business, already do. Producers have to always think about the health of the "chickens and make sure we have a backup source," said Sharon Krumwiede, general manager of Chino Valley Ranchers, an egg producer with five ranches in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

But many smaller producers do not, which has some terrified by the prospect of the repeated and perhaps sustained blackouts that are all but guaranteed to strike California this summer. "If you have a prolonged one, something really nasty, there could be some major problems," said Don Bell, a poultry expert at the University of California, Riverside.

Joe Cebe, who raises 800,000 Cornish game hens a year in Ramona northeast of San Diego, said he has a generator for his hatchery, but not for the houses where his red- and black-feathered birds grow to maturity. "If we don't have electricity and we lose a chicken house full of chickens, you've just crushed my business," Cebe said.

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

-- Swissrose (, April 04, 2001

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