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Mission of New Program at SAU: Incubating Poultry Managers

5 min read

Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia is launching a poultry science program in fall 2019 because the industry needs a pipeline of talent to fill middle management positions, school officials told Arkansas Business.

That is also when a $300,000 live production poultry building, funded in part by a $100,000 grant from First Financial Bank of El Dorado, will open on campus. Officials broke ground on it in early October.

The 40,000-SF building will house up to 600 chickens and the same computer-controlled machines currently used throughout the poultry industry to “grow” broilers and hatch eggs.

It is the first of two phases, the second being a processing building that is expected to cost as much as $1.5 million.

In addition, SAU will hire one poultry science professor before the program starts. That person will also be consulted about the design of the second building.

The university is doing this in part because the planned program fits its brand, but mostly because there are jobs to be had for people who are trained in poultry science, SAU President Trey Berry told Arkansas Business.

Poultry is the top agricultural industry in Arkansas; it provides more than 136,000 jobs in the state, according to the Poultry Federation, a trade organization that represents the industry in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The total value of production for broilers, turkeys and eggs in Arkansas was $4.6 billion in 2017, according to the federation. And the average annual wage and benefits of jobs in each category are $53,460, $55,227 and $67,642, respectively.

Building on ‘Heritage’
“We were founded in 1909 as an agriculture school,” Berry said. “That’s our heritage, and we wanted to build upon that heritage. But this is really a response to the industry, the poultry industry. We’re been hearing now for years about them not being able to fill management positions in south Arkansas, in western Arkansas, in east Texas and Louisiana.” “We’ve been hearing this from our alumni. We’ve been hearing this from the actual factories and the companies.

“And so we finally said, ‘You know what, we need to do this.’ It’s something we need to do for the region and for our students because, if we do this, obviously the jobs are there and this will help our students fill those jobs and meet the needs of the industry.”

Berry added that SAU will need industry partners to finance and design the second building. Talks with potential partners are underway. He also thanked First Financial for its sponsorship.

“FFB is committed to the poultry industry and to south Arkansas, so this was a win-win for us,” CEO Chris Hegi wrote in an email to Arkansas Business.

“For more than 30 years, it has been our privilege to support those who grow and harvest the food that ends up on our dining tables,” he said. “This new program will be a great asset to SAU and to the agricultural industry nationwide, providing hands-on training and education that is unique in this part of Arkansas.”

The poultry companies for which SAU hopes to build a pipeline of talent include Tyson Foods Inc. poultry facilities in Hope, Gravette and Nashville, Arkansas, and elsewhere throughout the state; Pilgrim’s Pride poultry facilities in De Queen and Nashville, Arkansas; Foster Farms LLC of Glenwood; Ben E. Keith Foods in Hot Springs; and many others, both in Arkansas and in neighboring states, said Jeff Miller, chair of the university’s Department of Agriculture.

Miller explained that the new program is not a bachelor’s degree program. Instead, it will be an “option” for students majoring in agriculture science. About 90 agriculture science majors are currently enrolled at the university.

Even though the terminology is different, the new option will require coursework equivalent to a major, he added.

Right now, SAU offers one poultry science course, a senior-level class in poultry production.

Once the new option is established, Miller said, the school will offer seven or eight new courses, including poultry nutrition, avian anatomy, poultry diseases, introduction to poultry science, poultry production and processing, poultry production for layers and boilers and poultry psychology.

The Phase I facility will have “clean” rooms students will use to practice biosecurity, a hatchery with an egg incubator and hatcher, a small room to refrigerate eggs and a small room for storage and food prep, he said.

The building will be split into two sections, one for broilers and the other for hens and roosters.

The eggs will be used for hands-on learning, Miller said. Students will look at fertilized and unfertilized eggs on day one, day two and so on.

Chicken and eggs from the facility will not be sold or consumed, as they won’t meet food safety standards. Everything will be used for instruction and then become compost.

The second building will be used to teach students how to debone whole chickens, break them down into specific pieces and, possibly, to make more processed products, like chicken nuggets.

Rapid Growth Expected
Berry, SAU’s president, expects the program to attract 25-40 students at first and to grow from there.

He compared it to the engineering program SAU added four years ago. Officials thought then that it would have about 25 students at the start; it had 60 the first year and has grown to an enrollment of 240.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea this is going to grow rapidly,” Berry said about the poultry program.

Miller agreed, adding that the quality of SAU’s program will be comparable to that of any other program in the country.

The goal of the program is to encourage students to pursue careers in poultry that offer “excellent pay, excellent benefits” and a career that could mean working at the same company for life.

“We’ve got [former] students that are working in the poultry industry that have climbed four or five or six rungs on the ladder in a short period of time,” Miller said. “I’ve been here 10 years, and I’ve got graduates that are making a lot more money than I am.”

Another benefit of more SAU students going into the poultry industry will be keeping Arkansas’ students in Arkansas, Miller said.

“This will be a great thing for the university and a great thing for the industry in this region. Of that, there is no doubt,” he said.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody, and we’re thankful that we have the opportunity and the means to get it started.”

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