By Mike Surbrugg

STOTTS CITY, Mo. - Two contract poultry growers told U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that they are among producers facing a crisis caused by soaring propane costs.

Blunt last Monday led his annual Southwest Missouri Agriculture Tour, visiting various farms and businesses tied to agriculture. The tour is designed to show the diversity and economic impact of agriculture on the area's economy.

The issues facing poultry growers came to light at the Roger Schnake farm near Stotts City. Schnake and Bill Harvill of Pierce City talked about rising propane costs.

Schnake said the biggest cost at his family farm is propane to heat his eight broiler houses that house about 190,000 broilers. He raises 1.3 million birds a year for Tyson Foods.

Visitors were not permitted to go into the houses as part of rules aimed at reducing the risk of Asian Influenza, or bird flu.

Schanke has been a contract grower since 1992. During that time his fuel costs have increased by more than 350 percent, doubling within the last five years, he said. A gallon of propane that cost 38 cents in 1992 is now $1.50, he said.

Harvill said he can have 360,000 chickens on his farm at one time. A semi-truck load of propane that cost $3,000 10 years ago costs $14,500 today. "My pay does not cover this higher cost," he said.

Blunt was told action is needed to support ways to keep the poultry industry in Southwest Missouri.

Growers are aware that Brazil is seeking poultry operations to bring jobs and a natural fertilizer to bolster soybean and corn production.

Schnake and Harvill are doing more than talking.

Last year, Schnake designed and built a stove to install in one of his poultry houses. The stove burns coal he has delivered to the farm for $73 a ton from Phoenix Coal, Vinita, Okla. The stove can also use wood pellets or corn.

Schnake said the stove and its system to distribute heat throughout the building came with a goal to cut propane use in that building by 75 percent. It actually cut use by 80 percent, he said.

He designed the stove and heat distribution to make maximum efficiency of fuel, he said.

This winter, he wants to switch to a renewable source of fuel. "I want to use something grown on my farm or somebody else's farm," he said.

The Schnake family is building another stove.

Schnake said he is not seeking a patent, but a way to stay on the farm.

He seeks to modify units so they can also be fueled with things such as poultry litter, hay, brewer's grain, seed sceenings and other bio-mass. Another step would be a furnace on the farm to be fueled with tires, trash and other by-products.

Harvill said a government program can pay $15 a ton to haul poultry litter out of watersheds in Southwest Missouri to grain farms in other counties. He wants the government to provide a type of tax or other incentive to encourage poultry growers to use alternative fuels.

The best solution he sees is to haul litter to a corn grower's farm and come home with corn of equal value to heat poultry houses.

"Poultry litter is some of the best fertilizer in the world. This would get excess litter out of watersheds and onto corn fields where it can help farmers get higher yields of grain," he said.

Harvill said the poultry industry for years has sought a solution to what to do with poultry litter.

He believes the solution to better water quality in streams and lakes is hauling litter to corn fields and corn to poultry houses. Poultry companies provide birds and all feed to birds.

Blunt told them: "The country got behind." The congressman said hauling litter to grain fields and corn to poultry farms could be a "win-win" proposition.

Missouri Director of Agriculture Fred Ferrell attended the tour and told poultry growers of his interest in the idea to haul litter to corn fields and corn to heat poultry houses. He is a corn grower in Southeast Missouri.

At another stop on the tour, Steve Schoen talked about the furnace he displayed that burns corn that could heat poultry houses. He said the stove he sells at Schoen Implement in Freistatt can be modified to burn dried distillers grain.

A unit to produce 200,000 Btu of heat would cost $5,500 and a 400,000 Btu unit, $8,500. "A poultry grower could have a two- to three-year pay back," he said.

A 200,0000 Btu size stove could burn a half-bushel of corn per hour.

Burning 12 bushels of corn a day would generate heat equal to that from 60 gallons of propane, he said.

Mike Surbrugg is the Globe farm editor.

Another idea

At $2 a bushel, it would take 10,000 bushels of corn to heat four average poultry houses.

The corn cost would $20,000.

The equivalent heat from propane would cost $115,000.