When it comes to the multibillion-dollar poultry industry, Mississippi State University has something to crow about.
Poultry experts from the land-grant institution use its three pillars—learning, research and service—to ensure the betterment of students, businesses, and producers alike for an industry that provides more than 72,000 jobs in the Magnolia State.
One of only six degree-granting poultry programs in the United States, the Department of Poultry Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gives students the knowledge and skills to succeed. Scientists in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station conduct research to increase productivity and profitability. The Mississippi State Extension Service partners with commercial integrators and growers to troubleshoot issues, implement new technologies and boost best-management practices.
It’s a three-pronged approach to ensure the success of a vital industry and enhance animal welfare that makes Mississippi State and its alumni leaders in poultry.
Sherman Miller’s work ethic dates back to his days growing up in Ethel, where he helped raise cattle on his family’s farm. The tenacity served him well during his collegiate years, first at Holmes Community College, then at Mississippi State where he graduated summa cum laude in 1997.
A Cal-Maine Foods internship his junior year was all it took for Miller to find his place.
“I recognized that Cal-Maine was an innovative company with high expansion potential,” said Miller, who began his career as processing plant supervisor for the company’s facility in Edwards.
Now chief operations officer for Cal-Maine Foods Inc.—the country’s largest producer of table eggs—Miller’s journey in the poultry industry has spanned more than two decades.
Within two years of moving up to processing plant manager, he was dispatched to a new facility in Delta, Utah. When that was operational two years later, he became the general manager for the company’s Kansas facility. Miller spent the next 10 years in the Sunflower State, and during that time he was promoted to vice president of operations for Kansas, Ohio and Utah.
In 2011, Miller was asked to return to Mississippi to serve as chief operations officer at the company’s Jackson-based headquarters. He is now part of an executive team that oversees operations that include 38 million laying hens across 14 states. The company has 46 layer operations, two hatcheries, 43 processing facilities and 22 feed mills.
Miller said he is proud to help produce a product that helps feed the world.
“I believe that eggs are an extremely valuable food item that will nourish people for generations to come,” Miller said. “Many people in the world rarely have access to high-quality protein. I think egg production will continue to expand as an efficient means of filling this void.”
As senior director of quality assurance for Koch Food, Ginger Ford ensures quality standards are met in 15 facilities within complexes across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
“My job is to make sure quality assurance site and complex managers have the knowledge, equipment and resources they need,” said Ford, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the MSU department in 1988 and 1990, respectively.
Ford credits her work as a graduate research assistant in the Mississippi State poultry science department for part of her career success. Now, as a mentor for the department, she is working with doctoral student Tomi Obe to teach a poultry processing class in the fall.
“We are trying to model the processing class to be able to mimic the processing plant and the programs that are required,” Ford said.
Ford grew up in Jackson and spent time at her grandparents’ cattle farm. Initially, when she transferred to Mississippi State from Hinds Community College, she planned to begin the pre-vet concentration in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. But seeing a classmate from Hinds pursue poultry science and have a job waiting upon graduation changed her plans.
“The job security is what initially attracted me to poultry science, but then I got addicted to the industry and never looked back,” Ford said. “Poultry is what I love.”
Ford has spent much of her career in quality assurance and has been in her current position since 2003. Prior to that, she worked for Choctaw Maid and Marshall Durbin. She was also a commercial grower for 10 years—an experience she said gave her practical experience and insight.
She said innovation is what excites her most about the industry right now.
“The constant innovations are just amazing,” Ford said. “We process birds twice as fast as we used to.”
Gena Blakeney always knew she had an interest in agriculture. Like Ford, she initially headed to Mississippi State to pursue a pre-vet degree, but the booming poultry industry caught her attention.
After earning a poultry science bachelor’s in 1992, Blakeney sought a job close to home. She completed a McCarty Farms summer internship and was hired as a pullet service technician at the company’s Magee facility, 20 minutes from where she grew up.
“I was one of the first females to go into the production side,” Blakeney said. “I think interning that summer helped me get the job.”
Today, Blakeney’s at the same facility, which is now part of Tyson Foods, in the role of broiler service supervisor on the live-production side. She works alongside commercial growers across 13 farms—she’s there when the chicks arrive, checks in as they grow and watches as the broilers are loaded onto a truck bound for the processing plant.
“Our main job is animal welfare,” Blakeney explained. “We supervise the producer’s management and make sure feed, water and ventilation are perfect. It’s a day-to-day process of communication between the growers and us. It’s a good working relationship.”
Blakeney said opportunities abound for recent graduates entering the workforce.
“Students can find well-paying jobs whether they want to stay close to home or travel the country,” she said. “The opportunity is theirs for the picking.”
For Blakeney, that opportunity has been realized on the live-production side, working closely with producers, and realizing the dream of living close to home.
“I bought my grandmother’s homestead,” Blakeney said. “I built a house and I couldn’t be happier. It’s on a farm near where I grew up. I have 21 acres and my cousin raises cattle on the land.”
Twain Womack saw the advantages of Mississippi State’s “2+2” collaboration with Jones County Junior College that speeds students along the path to a bachelor’s in poultry science. Now a recent graduate of that program, he’s added his own “+2” to the equation as part of Sanderson Farms’ trainee program in College Station, Texas.
A spring 2017 graduate, Womack is approaching his first anniversary in Sanderson’s intensive program that has college graduates shadow every department within the organization over the course of two years. The experience is designed to help trainees develop the skill set to serve in supervisory positions anywhere within the production cycle.
Womack said he chose poultry science because of opportunities like that.
“Initially, I was an education major,” Womack recalled. “Tim Ishee, a Jones County Junior College instructor, talked to me about all the poultry industry offered. When I started learning about all that it takes to grow chickens, it was fascinating.”
As a Mississippi State undergraduate, Womack was a research assistant, as well as historian for the Poultry Science Club and member of the Poultry Judging Team. He said that a well-rounded college experience prepared him for his current role.
“All the aspects of my college career have contributed to my success,” Womack said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with different professors and learn all the different aspects that prepared me for the poultry industry.
“By doing this training, I will be able to work anywhere there is a need,” he added.
Womack advises current students to jump in but be prepared to put in hard work during long hours.
“Some students leave college and think that the hard work is complete,” Womack said. “I would say that your A-game doesn’t end with college, it begins. You have to continue to go the extra mile.”
Celebrating its 70th anniversary next year, the Mississippi State University Department of Poultry Science has for decades boasted 100 percent job placement for graduates. This success showcases not only the quality of its alumni, but also how well the department serves its students.
Undergraduates can choose concentrations in applied poultry management or science and pre-veterinary science. Non-majors can elect poultry science as a minor. Additionally, the 2+2 agreement with Jones County Junior College provides participating students a smoother transition to the four-year poultry science program at Mississippi State. The department’s graduate studies include a Master of Science in Agriculture and a Doctor of Philosophy in Agricultural Sciences, both with poultry science concentrations.
Mississippi State University’s poultry science department prides itself on its academic caliber and hands-on learning that prove relevant when students enter the workforce.
“We have a hands-on curriculum, rigorous courses and passionate teachers within a family atmosphere where every student has total access to professors who really care about them as learners and as people,” said Mary Beck, department head and professor.
Aaron Kiess, an associate professor, described some of the course work.
“With the help of multiple donors, we have built a mini-broiler barn where students get to raise chickens in our broiler production course,” Kiess said. “The students are required to use and understand all of the equipment they will come face-to-face with when they go to work for a poultry integrator.”
Kiess also pointed out that in a revised poultry processing course, students write standard operating procedures, hazard analysis and critical control point plans, which lead to HACCP certification for each student.
Professor Chris McDaniel added that a graduate seminar helps students further develop inquiry, critical thinking and communication skills.
“Our students are research-minded, discovery-driven individuals,” McDaniel said. “They routinely publish in peer-reviewed journals and present their research at national and international meetings. The seminar has brought their level of engagement to a new level.”
In his role as a researcher with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, McDaniel is focused on improving breeder performance by building better genetics. He studies the phenomenon of parthenogenesis, which is the spontaneous development of an unfertilized egg.
“In broiler breeder stocks, fertility is an issue,” McDaniel explained. “I believe a background level of parthenogenesis contributes to this issue. If we can isolate the parthenogenesis genetic traits and determine their prevalence in the poultry industry, and then breed against them, our research has the potential to improve fertility and hatchability dramatically.”
Fellow MAFES researcher David Peebles is focused on raising healthier chicks through the use of “in ovo,” or in egg, vaccination against a bacterium that affects egg-laying production and costs the global poultry industry an estimated $780 million a year.
Peebles is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture South Central Poultry Research Laboratory on this research.
“Currently the industry spray vaccinates against the pathogen when the chicks are young. The process is labor intensive and costly,” Peebles explained. “In our research, we inject the vaccine in the egg, so we cut down on labor and waste, and are able to provide protection earlier.”
Kiess also conducts in ovo research through MAFES. He is investigating whether pre- and probiotics introduced into eggs are an effective alternative to the use of antibiotics. As non-digestible carbohydrates, prebiotics provide attachment sites for pathogenic bacteria other than the gut wall. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that out-compete pathogenic bacteria in colonizing the gut. His team has studied the effects of four probiotics and one prebiotic on reducing pathogenic bacteria in the gut of broiler chicks after hatch.
“We hope to continue to provide concrete evidence that in ovo injection of pre- and probiotics do not impact performance characteristics but help reduce pathogens and prevent disease within a flock,” Kiess said.
Other work within MAFES focuses on improving the efficiency of poultry feed, which can account for as much as 70 percent of the cost of meat production. Kelley Wamsley is studying how feed quality and nutrition affects broiler performance, while Wei Zhai focuses on alternatives to the use of antibiotics in feed.
On the housing side, Daniel Chesser from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering is studying thermal insulation while John Linhoss, an Extension associate, evaluates heating and lighting in poultry. This research could lead to more efficient poultry house design.
All of this research has end results that could affect the consumer, either through lower costs passed on from more efficient production practices, or safer products that result from raising healthier birds. However, the poultry department also works to help consumers in more direct ways. By partnering with the food science, nutrition and health promotion department, poultry science has invested in food safety programs focused on reducing foodborne pathogens in poultry meat.
The poultry science department is also upgrading an existing building into a biosecurity level 2 facility where scientists can study pathogens in a pre-harvest setting.
Tom Tabler, a professor with the MSU Extension Service, is in high demand by commercial growers and integrators in Mississippi. Depending on the week, he may see as many as three or four hundred growers. Having worked with growers for over 30 years, he troubleshoots issues these producers face including water quality, composting and disease prevention.
Tabler also works with the Mississippi Poultry Association and the Mississippi Board of Animal Health to offer annual training opportunities for growers and integrators. He works with backyard growers as well.
Jessica Wells, Extension instructor and co-adviser to the Poultry Science Club, serves as undergraduate coordinator. Like Tabler, she helps troubleshoot and diagnose disease and management issues for backyard growers. She also manages the poultry outreach programs for youth.
For K-12, Wells has the Extension Hatch-out program, where up to 15 incubators are delivered around the state for a weeklong hatching project. She reached more than 2,000 students in spring 2017.
“We deliver the eggs on a Monday and return on Friday to talk about the biology of the hatching process,” Wells said. “We use the event to plant a seed for recruitment and to discuss myths and facts prevalent in the public’s perception of poultry.”
The Mississippi State poultry science program’s mix of hands-on learning, industry-relevant research and extension initiatives for commercial and backyard growers alike helps Bulldogs rule the roost for this industry and will continue to do so for years to come.