Catching and Farming Broilers, the Family Business

Broilers can be hard work, but for the Dinglers it's a family tradition



Chicken cacciatore could be the centerpiece of a lovely romantic evening. Catching chickens doesn’t quite seem like the backdrop for love but love and marriage grew out of that dirty, dusty job for an Alabama couple. Yes, Matt and Cassie Dingler of Cullman met working nights at chicken farms, on separate crews but for the same company. Matt started catching chickens on a crew for his father at 14, working at night while still going to school during the day. Cassie, six years older than Matt, starting catching chickens after she finished college, the only female catcher at the time, and one of a very few that came and went during her eight years on a catch crew. “That’s how I met my Matt,” Cassie said. “He didn’t have my attention right off the bat. He was still in high school and I was out of college and never even imagined we would eventually end up married.”

There was also a sense of competition, at least on a collective basis. “We were on rival crews, always competing on who would finish loading chickens first each night,” Cassie said. “His crew usually always won!” Matt may have had a leg up on catching and farming chickens thanks to his family’s long involvement in the industry. His father, for whom he crewed, worked in poultry for 55 years before retiring. For 45 of those years, the senior Dingler led a catch crew. Matt has led largely the same crew for 10 years now. “I’ve always worked the night shift,” Matt said. “I’ve never had a day job. ”Matt picks up the crew, consisting of eight other catchers, to go to a store for some food and drinks before traveling up to 45 minutes five nights a week – Sundays through Thursdays – to chicken houses owned by Northport, Ala.-based Ingram Farms. “We turn off the lights and they settle down” Matt said. Then we can squat down and grab them by the legs. You can get scratched up a little, but it’s not like you’ll get your eyes scratched out. I have a couple of guys who wear masks, but that’s just because it’s dusty in there.” Ingram Farms provides the truck and driver to carry the broilers to the processing plant. Matt and his crew provide the catching and loading labor. The crew is paid based on each 1,000 chickens caught and loaded, and each truck can hold about 7,700 chickens. They load six to ten trucks each night at the sites where they’re catching, and completely loading a truck takes about 35 minutes. “Sometimes we’ll go to one site and load six trucks, then go to another site and load another four trucks,” Matt said.

Like other sectors of the economy, agriculture has felt the hammer blows of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where COVID-19 has really made its presence felt is in contributing to a labor shortage. Matt had two crews working until the virus started spreading widely across the United States, and he credits the lockdowns, continuing health protocols and increased unemployment payments during the worst of the pandemic for cutting down on the workforce available to him and willing to do the hard work of catching chickens. “Nobody wants to work these days,” Matt said. “Especially catching chickens. It’s a hard work day. Rain, sleet or snow, the chickens have to go. They have to be caught and delivered every day, even holidays. You get few holidays doing this. If there’s anybody that wants to be a catcher, bring them to me. I’d be glad to have anybody willing to try.” Anybody who might want to try setting up their own crew would face the same difficulties, but those aren’t the only problems. “You’ve got to be in this business to understand,” Matt said. “It’s hard for a stranger to do this. You’ve got to know the set-up of a house, how to run the equipment, and you have to know how to set the chickens on the trucks so they’re not damaged.” Matt and Cassie have that kind of intimate knowledge, as the owners of a chicken farm with two 42x500-foot chicken houses and about 65,000 broiler chickens. Cassie takes care of a lot of farm business, as well as running her own business making custom cakes and decorated sugar cookies, and getting their children, a 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, ready and delivered to school. And all that comes now while she is expecting the couple’s third child. “The schedule is tough, I’m not going to lie,” Cassie said. “I do work around the farm early, get the kids to school and then get straight into my business. My day is packed, just go, go, go.” There’s a chance that another generation of the Dingler family will carry on in the chicken business, but Cassie, at least, has a preference about how that happens. “Our daughter’s only interested in the chickens when she needs money,” Cassie said. “Our youngest loves the chickens. I can see him owning chicken houses, but I hope he’s not the third generation catching. It’s so hard, and I don’t want to see him go through that, too.”


 
Article above from American Poultry Farmer magazine, c/o AmericanPoultryCompany,Inc
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