[...] poultry farmers have long relied on human catchers. Their job is to run around inside chicken houses, nabbing by hand more than eight billion birds a year. This is hard not only on the chickens, which get roughed up, but also on the catchers. The birds flap, scratch and befoul their captors. Most people can tolerate only a few months of that before flying the coop.
Now after years of attempts that ended in failure, including one ill-fated chicken vacuum, manufacturers have finally produced machines capable of catching and caging chickens. Looking like a combination airport baggage carousel and tank, the devices can capture 150 birds a minute. That's as many as a team of eight skilled men can corral. [...]
Out of the gloom and dust of a chicken house as long as a football field, a PH2000 emerged. Hundreds of fluffy white birds tipped their heads and stared. The nine-ton, 42-foot-long contraption crept closer, slowly sweeping a low metal ramp back and forth through the flock like a giant scythe. The ramp gently nudged the birds in their chests. They lifted their feet to get out of its way, only to find themselves standing on the ramp itself. As more birds stepped on, they crowded one another toward a conveyor belt. Whoosh! Each chicken was whisked up the belt into a small compartment, where a burst of air pushed it into a metal chute. Within seconds, the bird came to rest, blinking, still on its feet inside a wire cage. [...]
Chickens hate being caught by human beings because catchers grab them by the feet and carry several birds upside down in each hand. "Being held upside down freaks out the birds," says Michael P. Lacy of the University of Georgia's poultry-science department. "As long as they are on their feet, they feel like they are in control, like people." [...]
The reason the birds need to be caught in the first place is that unlike chickens put to work laying eggs (which are kept in tiny cages), birds raised for meat are allowed to roam freely inside giant barns. Far from being fleet-footed or elusive, these birds are in fact deeply reluctant to move at all. Because they are bred to reach their slaughter weight of six pounds in less than eight weeks -- a fraction of the normal time -- they are basically babies in giant bodies. The trick is to get them into their cages for the short trip to the slaughterhouse without injuring them. [...]
Early devices included the chicken vacuum, which sucked up birds and shot them through tubes to waiting trucks. But the birds tended to plug up the tubes and turn somersaults as they traveled inside the contraption. "We had too many die on us," recalls Buddy Burruss, vice president of operations at Tip Top Poultry Inc. of Marietta, Ga., which tested and quickly abandoned the pneumatic approach two decades ago. [...]
Poultry in Motion: With Invention, Chicken Catching Goes High-Tech
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