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A Plucky Career Change Pays Off

Caring for six houses full of chickens provides Mississippi pullet grower Dale Sessums with the perfect work-from-home career.

Landscapes Summer 2018
Dale and Max Sessums

Photo by Debra Ferguson

Dale and Max Sessums

It would be safe to say that chicken ranks No. 1 with Dale Sessums, both in the kitchen and on the job.

The native Mississippian likes to cook up down-home favorites like chicken pie, chicken Alfredo, and chicken and dumplings. And as a contract pullet grower, she turns out more than 100,000 robust chickens every year at Circle S Farms in rural Rankin County, northeast of Puckett.

“Basically, I grow stock for Koch Foods, a poultry processing company based in Illinois,” Dale explains. “I do the very best job I can, so the next producer after me will be successful as well.”

But chickens are more than a meal and a job for Dale. For many years, they have allowed the former health-care worker to earn a living and care for her family without leaving home.

Beginning With Broilers

Dale got her start in the poultry business in 1999 when she and her husband, Max, bought three broiler chicken houses close to their then-home near Lena, Miss., and financed them through Southern AgCredit. At the time, Max was working full time as a service technician for a poultry producer; their older son Ryan was a third-grader; and their younger son Grant was 3 years old.

But in order to care for Grant, who had respiratory problems, Dale quit her job with a home health agency.

“Tending chicken houses allowed me to stay home and still work,” she says. “That way I could take care of my two young children and also my two elderly parents, who lived next door to us.”

Two years later, the couple purchased an adjoining farm with three broiler houses, again with a loan from Southern AgCredit. Max resigned from his job and joined Dale in running the chicken operations. As the boys grew older, they helped too.

“Life got a little hectic sometimes, keeping up with our kids’ activities and driving back and forth to the poultry houses,” Dale says. “With broilers, you raise five to seven batches a year, so it’s nonstop.”

Wanting a slower pace of life, the couple sold both poultry farms to a neighbor in 2005. Max took a job in the broiler division of Koch Foods, and Dale eventually went back to work at a local hospital.

Less Labor With Pullets

Fast forward to a summer evening in 2014 when Max asked Dale if she would consider growing pullets, the day-old breeder chicks that are raised to produce hatching eggs.

“I thought he was joking at first,” Dale says. “Then he told me about a poultry farm located 35 miles away that was up for sale. We talked, and pullets seemed like a good way to get back into the business. They’re not as labor-intensive as broilers, which meant I could operate the houses on my own if I had to. We also liked the area near Puckett and had made a lot of friends there through our sons’ sports and Max’s job.

“It just felt like God had lined it up for us to have another poultry farm,” she says.

Cooper Stringer, a loan officer with Southern AgCredit in Newton, Miss., worked closely with Dale and Max to finance the purchase in September 2014.

“Dale runs a top-notch operation, and she’s conservative with money,” Stringer says. “She and her husband always invest back into the farm.”

Poultry Tops in Mississippi

Chicken is big business in Mississippi, which ranks fifth in the nation for poultry production.

As the state’s top commodity, poultry generated an estimated $2.8 billion in production value for farmers in 2017. And throughout the nation, increased consumer demand and lower production costs have contributed to poultry’s popularity over red meats. In 2016, Americans ate an average of 89 pounds of chicken per capita. That’s the equivalent of 8 billion chickens a year.

The statistics make pullet producer Dale Sessums smile.

“Eat more chicken — that’s my motto,” she says.

Fine-Tuned Production Cycle

Stately oaks, pines and magnolias encircle the six poultry houses at Circle S Farms. Four contain pullets, and the other two hold roosters. The flock consists of Cobb and Aviagen chicks, all raised to be brood stock for Koch Foods. Both breeds are known for their high growth rates and feed efficiency.

In the poultry industry, producers contract with poultry integrators such as Koch Foods, which own breeder flocks, hatcheries, feed mills and processing plants. Integrators provide chicks, feed, medications, technical advisors and transportation to contract growers. In turn, the producers provide housing, utilities, labor and care for the birds. Payment is based on the total weight of the chickens or by the square foot of housing.

Before Dale’s first delivery of day-old chicks in March 2015, the 18,000-square-foot broiler houses had to be retrofitted for pullets.

“We use a specific light program that’s different from broilers and recommended by the primary breeder,” Dale explains. “Light affects a chick’s growth rate, both physically and sexually. So we had to install black-out walls with louvered vents on all the houses. Chicks start out with 23 hours of light, which decreases to eight hours as they mature.”

Likewise, she follows a specific feeding schedule laid out by Koch Foods, and administers vaccinations at 10 and 18 weeks of age. At 21 weeks, the pullets are sent to a laying farm, where they produce eggs that go to a hatchery. From there, freshly hatched day-old chicks move on to a broiler farm, where they’re grown to 4 or 8 pounds to be processed for meat. Back at the pullet farm, Dale and Max have two to four weeks between batches to clean and disinfect the poultry houses, where they raise two pullet broods a year.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Southern AgCredit and Koch Foods for allowing me to do all this. Pullet farming has been such a blessing. It really has.”

–Dale Sessums

At Circle S Farms, feeding time in the nearby computer-automated houses starts at 5:30 a.m. Each pullet house holds approximately 11,000 chickens, and rooster houses hold 4,000 to 8,000 young males, which remain on the farm until 22 weeks of age.

Throughout the day, Dale walks through the houses every two to three hours to evaluate equipment, such as drinker and feeder lines, remove any dead birds, and monitor the ventilation and house temperatures.

Ginny’s Chicken and Rice Casserole

Dale Sessums shares this family-favorite casserole recipe from her mother.

  • 1 whole chicken, cut in pieces
  • Salt and pepper
  • Flour
  • 31 ounces of chicken broth
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup of long-grain rice
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/2 green pepper, chopped
  • 1/4 cup of butter

Sprinkle salt and pepper on chicken pieces, then dredge in flour. Brown chicken in vegetable oil until lightly golden brown. Drain chicken on paper towels and set to the side. Combine soups, onion and bell pepper in a greased 9x11 casserole dish. Sprinkle rice evenly into the soup mixture. Cut up pats of butter and place on top. Then place browned chicken in the casserole dish and bake at 375 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes or until rice is tender.

 Guarding Against Weather and Disease

Year-round, she and Max also do everything they can to prepare for potentially dangerous weather.

“Mother Nature is definitely our greatest challenge as a pullet grower,” Dale says. “Regardless of weather conditions, the chickens still have to be fed and taken care of. Before hurricane season begins, we prepare by making sure our two stand-by generators have been serviced by a generator service technician. We always keep generator tanks filled with diesel with a reserve of gasoline on hand.”

Strict security measures and sanitation protocols help to keep the houses free of diseases, such as avian influenza.

“Our farm is gated and locked,” Dale says. “Service techs, feed truck drivers and all Koch personnel must wear a disposable suit over their clothes and plastic boots over their shoes. Any other outside visitors, such as a veterinarian, must also wear overclothes and boots and sign a log-in sheet. At the entrance to each house, we step into chlorinated powder to disinfect our boots.”

Come what may, Dale wouldn’t trade her farming lifestyle.

“Growing poultry has been such a good opportunity for our family,” she says. “Our first farms provided for our children, and I was able to stay at home with our boys. This farm enables Grant, our younger son, to go to college and also prepares us for our retirement years.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Southern AgCredit and Koch Foods for allowing me to do all this,” says Dale. “Pullet farming has been such a blessing. It really has.”

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

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