DALTON, Ohio — Sometimes, it just makes sense to stay with what you know best.
That’s been part of the lesson at Horst Brothers poultry farm, where brothers Nevin and Bob Horst operate one of the state’s top poultry operations.
The Horst family has been producing eggs for the state for the past 70 years. They tried raising hogs in the early ’90s, but soon returned to what they know best.
“We just don’t know any better,” joked Nevin Horst, 44. “It’s just something we know. We grew up with it.”
And the business has arguably “grown up” with the Horst brothers, growing from the early barns of their grandfather and father, to the modern barns, which produce about 220,000 eggs a day.
In 1994, the Horsts completed a 500-by-55 chicken barn, equipped with an automated feeding and water system, and a manure collection down below. In 2004, they put up a second, larger barn at 600 by 60 feet, and they hope to get the third barn up in the next few years.
The growth mimics the demand, they say, and the need for more revenue. Their birds are owned by Gerber Feed, which also furnishes the feed. But Bob and Nevin furnish the facilities and labor, along with two employees and the occasional help of the Horst children.
Although the barns have many automated features, including fan and blower systems that keep the air fresh, there’s still a hefty amount of physical and mental work each day.
Nevin Horst estimates they spend about six hours each week just completing paperwork — documents related to record keeping, inspections and audits, and self-regulatory efforts to keep the farm healthy.
He points to a computer monitor to show the graph he’s been working on — not an expense or revenue graph — but instead, one that shows how many flies are found in the barns.
–He regularly sets out index-size cards to keep track of fly droppings, and then enters the data into the screen. If the numbers get too high, he knows something is wrong and needs adjusted.
All told, his farm is inspected by at least a half-dozen agencies, including the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Ohio Egg Quality Assurance Program, Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program and United Egg Producers.
Inspectors typically grade the farm according to various checkpoints, and if something needs attention, they let the farm know. The Horsts sell their eggs to Sauder’s Eggs.
Kevin Elder, director of ODA’s Livestock Environmental Permitting Program, said the farm is inspected every six months to ensure it complies with the standards of its permit.
“Their compliance has been great,” and reinspections unnecessary, Elder said.
Besides paperwork, the Horsts spend part of each day checking feeders and waterers, removing any mortality, and packaging eggs onto flats. The facility is set up so the chickens and eggs stay clean, and everything is kept at a comfortable temperature.
Elder said he has known the Horsts since the 1990s, when he worked for ODNR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation.
“This truly is a family operation,” he said. “Every time I stop there, one of the brothers is in the packing house or bird house. They are very particular about how the faculty is operated and have had very few complaints.”
–The farm ships an average of one semi-truckload of eggs a day, and Sauder’s takes care of them from there — the cleaning and grading, and the marketing.
The Horst brothers are unsure who the next generation of operators will be — possibly some of their own children. Whoever it is will have both opportunities and challenges, depending on what happens with legislation.
Demand is strong, they say. Ohio ranks No. 2 nationwide for egg production. And, although the Horsts are about ready to put up a third barn, they want to have a clear direction first.
The big question is “what’s animal rights going to do?” Bob Horst said.
“The industry has done fairly well over the last several years,” Nevin Horst said. “But there’s not been any expansion, and a lot of it has to do with, nobody knows where it’s going to go.”
“‘Til it all gets settled out, (my brother) and I are going to be retired,” Nevin said. “But it’s that next generation that this fight’s basically for.”
Although the Horsts’ poultry farm has lots to see, it’s not on display. It all has to do with the health and well-being of the birds, which can easily become sick if a guest introduces a contaminant.
Inspectors are allowed in whenever they want, but anyone who visits must first sign his or her name and the time of their visit. Boots and coveralls are provided at the door, and they’re to be worn throughout the facility.
“I know where my chickens have been, but I don’t know where you have been,” Nevin Horst tells visitors.