(St. Anns) – When newly-hatched chicks arrive at Topp Farms, they are placed into barns that have been freshly cleaned and warmed for their arrival. New bedding lines the floors, and energy efficient lights reflect off the natural wood paneling to create a cozy and safe place for them to explore.
“When chicks are placed into my barns, they’ve usually just hatched a few hours before,” says Kevin Topp, owner of Niagara-area Topp Farms. “It’s important to make chicks feel comfortable and that they find the water and food as quickly as possible.”
Topp is a third-generation chicken farmer with a university degree in economics. He worked in the barns with his father growing up, but he considered a career in banking before returning home with his wife, Renee, who landed a teaching job in the area. He says his return to the farm was driven largely by new technology that was taking some of the labour out of chicken farming, such as automated feeding equipment, and improved temperature control systems. The industry was becoming more organized too, with a vertical supply chain that guarantees consistency and quality to end-users. Today his chickens are sold to a company that supplies restaurant chains such as KFC and Swiss Chalet.
“There aren’t many jobs you enter straight out of school to be your own boss and have a flexible schedule,” he says. Every two months Topp manages to take a few days off to spend with his family – which also includes Avery, age 9 and Rowan, age 7 – before bringing a new crop of birds to the farm.
Topp raises 40,000 chickens on an eight-week cycle in modern barns that have automated feeders, ventilation systems, and a dedicated drinking water supply. He spends hours each day walking the barns to encourage his chickens to walk around so he can make sure they’re healthy and comfortable.
“I know by smelling the air how my birds are doing,” he says. “If I’m too hot or uncomfortable, or if it’s hard for me to breathe, I know it’s hard for them too, and I can make adjustments.”
Topp says chickens are creatures of habit, and they’re sensitive to temperature and light. His barns are kept at temperatures that keep them comfortable as they grow and when temperature drops (sometimes due to a power outage or barn damage), he is notified right away on his cell phone. Lighting, too, is carefully controlled. Once the chickens have been in the barn for a few days, he introduces short periods of darkness so the birds are not surprised in the event of a temporary blackout.
“If chickens panic, there’s always a danger they could flock to the walls and suffocate,” Topp says. “I do my best to give them a controlled environment based on the best conditions for their life.”
Chickens in Ontario are raised under strict biosecurity protocols to keep disease out of flocks. The vents on Topp’s barns have screens to keep wild birds out, and access to his barns is tightly controlled. Supplier trucks that visit several farms in a day have their tires disinfected prior to arrival, and Topp has footwear that is dedicated to the barn.
“If sickness gets into the barn, 40,000 birds will get sick,” Topp says. “It’s like I’m running the world’s largest daycare, and I don’t want any of them to catch a thing.”
Topp says cleanliness is key to keeping sickness at bay. Manure is removed to a nearby mushroom farm to keep the rodents away. And, when his birds are shipped to market the barns are cleaned and disinfected.
“You have to run a clean ship,” Topp says “If it’s not clean to start with, you can’t expect a 45 gram chick to do well in that environment. It might be quirky, but I care about chickens.”