A national propane shortage that hit the Midwest months ago spread to Alabama in late January, sending the state’s billion-dollar poultry industry reeling. As snow and ice moved into the state, farmers struggled to find fuel to keep flocks warm.
DeKalb County poultry farmer Ronnie Dalton worried his 60,000 baby chicks would freeze before his propane tanks could be filled. Three of his eight poultry houses in the Grove Oak community each had 20,000 day-old chicks delivered, and his tanks were already low. He had ordered gas, but a delivery mix-up left his tanks nearly empty by nightfall Jan. 28.
“The next morning, two of the three houses I had chicks in were out of propane,” Dalton said. “I know I lost some birds, but I don’t know how many. They were huddled together to stay warm, and I wasn’t going to disturb them. Thank goodness the gas truck was finally able to get here and delivered 650 gallons (total for all three houses).”
Fuel prices in some areas of the state jumped from $1.30 a gallon to $3.20 in a few days in late January. Farmers were concerned their thin profits would be consumed by high fuel costs.
Poultry farmers use a lot of propane – as much as 25,0000 gallons a year for six houses. In comparison, a typical household may use up to 1,000 gallons a year, according to propane gas experts.
In late January and early February, Alabama Farmers Federation staff members joined numerous briefings on the propane crisis with representatives of the governor’s office, Alabama Propane Gas Association (APGA), state Emergency Management Agency, the state Department of Agriculture and Industries and Alabama Poultry & Egg Association (AP&E).
The Federation led efforts to connect a tanker truck owned by Farmers Cooperative in Live Oak, Fla., a division of Alabama Farmers Cooperative, with Alabama propane distributors facing delivery problems. In four days, the truck hauled 70,000 gallons of propane to dealers servicing poultry farmers desperate for gas in early February.
Federation Poultry Director Guy Hall said many farmers remain worried because of limited supplies. Farmers are concerned they’ll run out of gas before their chickens are grown, he said.
“The propane shortage may continue to be an issue for poultry farmers, and our state in general,” Hall said. “It will take time to refill bulk storage capacity, which was estimated to be as low as 25 percent statewide in early February.”
Warmer weather will help farmers, but there’s little doubt most of them won’t forget the winter of 2014 and the propane shortage that came with it.
“I’ve been growing chickens pretty much all my life,” said Dalton. “It’s always had its ups and downs, but I haven’t ever seen anything like this.”