People of Poultry: Jeff Notenbomer

Meet Jeff Notenbomer, second generation owner of Willow Creek Poultry, who meets the distinct challenges of his breeder hen industry through innovative management practices and precise attention to detail. Read about his recommendations for a successful transition from fall into winter and why he loves his life on the farm.

Jeff Notenbomer is a second-generation farmer who runs Willow Creek Poultry, a 25,000-breeder hen operation in southern Alberta. Jeff and wife Melinda run the farm with two full time staff (his right and left hand) and four younger part time staff. The reliable staff allow Notenbomer to pursue his off-farm interests, participating in provincial and national poultry boards and advocating for research and innovation.  He is currently in his fifth year as chair of the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers (AHEP) board, Director at the Canadian Poultry Research Council (CPRC) and reports back to the Canadian Hatching Egg Producers (CHEP) as the CPRC representative. He recently completed his term as Chair of the Poultry Innovation Partnership (PIP), a position he held from June 2019 to September 2021 and continues to sit on the PIP Advisory Board and Communications/Tech Transfer Committee.

Like many other generational farmers, Notenbomer did not initially intend to carry on with the family farm. He was exploring computing science at university when a tragic event changed the course of his life.

“The farm burned down just as I was in first year university,” he explained. “It was an October fire – there was water in the electrical system with six barns, a feed mill and shop all connected. Everything was lost.”

Jeff dropped everything and went to help his family. He has no regrets.

“I got married and stayed on the farm. I love my life in every way.”

A silver lining to the fire was that Notenbomer had the opportunity to come and rebuild from the ground up with his father, which offered opportunities for in-depth understanding and input. Hatching Egg Producers are the smallest of the four feather boards with under 30 producers providing all the broilers for Alberta and it’s a challenging industry. That’s what drives him.

“Breeders is a very difficult industry with a steep learning curve,” he said. “Taking an animal with all the genetic traits to be a meat animal and telling it to be a reproductive animal is very challenging. In addition, the critical control points are endless. Heat stress, light stress, feed stress, any stress you can think of, reproduction shuts down. Laying hens will lay approximately 400 eggs in their life, a broiler breeder will lay 160 eggs in their life and not willingly!”

Notenbomer loves the work because of the necessary attention to detail and management. This quality is one of the reasons that he is a highly respected board and committee member both provincially and nationally. He recently completed his term as Chair of PIP and shared some thoughts about the collaboration of research and industry that is at the heart of that organization.

“I think it’s very important to have this organization and the research and collaboration here in Alberta and to have all the industry pieces work together. It’s easy to take it for granted and if it’s gone, it’s very hard to get it back.”

He appreciates the balance between both practical and theoretical research and PIP’s mandate to create a bridge between researchers and the practical needs of farmers.

Current research and innovations around salmonella and ammonia control are of critical importance in the broiler breeder industry.

“There is huge pressure on this industry around salmonella, especially from health Canada, CFIA and processors,” said Jeff. It doesn’t take much more than a mouse in the barn or a bird landing on a fan outside the barn to have positive salmonella tests and two positive tests means depopulation in Alberta.

Notenbomer has had great success with some non-standard approaches to cope with rodents, insects and ammonia within his barn, starting with cleanliness.

 “My dad always pushed me hard,“ recalled Jeff. “If there’s a drop of feed on the ground, you sweep it up – there can be no food source for those insects.“

His barns are not normal standard breeder barns in terms of lighting, ventilation, structure, size and deep pits.

“We run an 80 ft wide clear span barn with three scratch areas and two slats (two deep pits.) We like that for fly, ammonia, rodent control. We can get in and clean out the pits while the birds are still in the barn.” 

Most barns are traditionally narrower with two slats – one on each out side with a scratch area in the middle. Another innovation is that the female feeders are on the floor and the male feeders are on the slats which is the opposite of traditional industry standards. Notenbomer explained why.

“If a feed pan falls off and feed falls on the floor, the chickens will still eat it – if it falls on the slats, it goes through to the pit. Also, if you are trying to control the females from getting into the male feeder, the variation of the floor is a lot greater than the straightness of the slats, so you can control that a lot better. And the final advantage is just square footage – to have an empty floor scratch area with just one feeder vs putting all the female feeders on the floor – made more sense.”

Around lighting, they do 12-13.5 hours of light with great results, despite the fact that the Alberta standard is closer to 16.

One of the themes of this November newsletter is transitioning from fall into winter and Jeff has some advice for breeder barn management.

“Besides cleaning up everything outside and making sure everything is perfect, in breeder barns everything is around minimum ventilation in the winter time. Ammonia control and moisture control. I always believe that if you let your moisture get out of control right now, you are going to be in big trouble by February. We might even bring our barns to a touch dusty this time of year to give ourselves a little bit of forgiveness for January/February.

“Litter quality – we like to get in and shovel down all the litter and re-bed so that everything is nice for the winter. Everything else is scheduled maintenance – you know all the heaters and fans are working, the ventilation is good, and you know it’s all ready to go before you have to fix it. 

“Everything we do in breeders is planning ahead. The best thing to do is be proactive, know every problem that’s going to happen before it happens, and you should be okay.”

Notenbomer shared a few closing thoughts about the life he has embraced after the tragedy of the fire.

“I love producing chickens in Alberta. We’re farmers and everything we do is for our animals. I don’t think there is ever a time when I’m not farming, that there is anything in my day, even if I’m relaxing, that doesn’t have something to do with farming. When you’re a farmer, it’s your whole life 24 hours a day. “

“We get to produce high quality food for Alberta and it’s important.” 

About the author(s)

+ posts