Although it’s a common heat source for agricultural buildings, propane often creates a wet heat that exacerbates illness in poultry. 

Using what was once a waste product in the forestry industry, three researchers in the West Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design aim to improve the health of chickens while using less fossil fuel on farms.

Supported by a $250,000 USDA Forest Service grant, Joe Moritz, professor of poultry science, Jingxin Wang, director of WVU Center for Sustainable Biomaterials and Bioenergy, and Shawn Grushecky, assistant professor of energy land management, are studying the potential benefits of using a wood boiler system that contains a heat exchanger fueled by hot water. 

The water is heated by burning wood byproducts and runs through the heat exchanger where a fan blows, creating dry heat. 

The environment and animal welfare are important values to modern society and researchers like Moritz. With the decrease in regular use of antibiotics, chickens are more prone to digestive ailments that create wetter conditions in the barn.

“There can be 25,000 to 65,000 chickens in one barn,” he said. “Using propane to heat the barn exacerbates the issues and causes even more wet conditions. The chickens can get callouses and sores on their feet. We don’t want to hurt our animals.”

Their research indicates this system dries the litter and improves bird health, evidenced by improved foot pad scores: an indication of welfare. 

“The birds raised in those dry conditions had much better-looking foot pads,” Moritz added. “Aside from health, that’s also an economically-important product that sells to different Asian markets.”

An additional benefit to the wood boiler system is having wood energy replace propane use. Wang is specifically checking for energy efficiency and emissions of various wood products like chips, pellets and sawdust compared to fossil fuels. Using less propane means reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A goal of his is to promote wood energy, which is underutilized in the region. 

“Wood is a strategic replacement as an energy fuel source because of the vast availability of wood residues from timber harvesting that can be used for wood boiler fuel,” Wang said. “While the propane may have a higher efficiency, the downfalls are higher humidity and ammonia levels: both are bad for bird health. Wood energy conversion offers a cleaner and renewable fuel that maintains a high-energy efficiency while creating healthier conditions for growing birds.”

In part because of its various and far-reaching benefits, the research is also supported by industry partners like Pilgrim’s Pride that donated chickens, Allegheny Wood Products that donated sawdust for fuel and Poultry Specialties that donated the heat exchanger. The Davis College invested $25,000 to install the wood energy system on the WVU Animal Science Farm.

The three of them hope that, if the research continues to be successful, farmers across the state can eventually replace their propane heating system with this one.

“We’ve been looking at expanding the market for wood products,” Grushecky said. “The idea is that more and more farms would use this as a source of heat in their facilities. It’s another market for wood products that wasn’t considered before.”

Before that can happen, the experiment will be replicated in colder temperatures. The next step after that is educating the poultry industry about the system.

“It’s a really great collaboration: an important problem being addressed by multiple faculty members and different industries supportive of it,” Moritz added. “Forestry is a big part of the West Virginia economy and poultry is the number one agriculture commodity in West Virginia. This has the potential to improve both of those industries and the environment with one change.”   

From WVU Today