The Back Saving "Crate Skate"
For almost 10 years we have raised and processed chickens on our farm. In the beginning, small batches of 25, 50, or even 100 chickens were pretty manageable, but definitely a physically intensive event especially when it was time to round up the chickens to be processed. For the past three years my wife, Ginger, and I have dutifully attended the national APPPA conferences for a lot of reasons, but the biggest outside of the great folks and friends we have met, has been learning from our fellow farmers, especially when it comes to efficiencies. Up until the first conference we were still loading chickens into a livestock trailer and using that to bring the chickens to the processing area. This method was effective, but it was far from efficient. Primarily, it made the kill station very labor intensive since we essentially had to have a person dedicated to catching chickens on the trailer and placing them in the kill cones. Being that our harvest crew consists mainly of my wife and children we had many willing volunteers for this position, but I really felt like it was a huge inefficiency and something we struggled with handling.
At the first conference we attended in Hillsboro, Texas, it was like drinking from a firehose, but one of the takeaways was that we needed to add crates to our processing. Certainly, for a lot of you this may have been something you have done from the beginning and had a lot to do with the fact you may be outsourcing your processing. Since we process under exemption, this was not a requirement nor a priority (or so we thought).
We came home from the conference and ordered crates almost immediately. Using the chicken crate was a game changer to our line efficiency, and more specifically the kill station. Not only could we maintain a consistent flow of chickens to the kill cones (we didn’t have to catch them on the trailer), we were able to remove the catcher from that station since the dispatcher could now do both quickly and more efficiently. However, almost immediately there was one casualty to this change and it was our backs. Moving the crates was a big challenge for us and normally required two people to lift fully loaded without injury. Just because you can lift something, doesn’t mean you should and this is probably the biggest problem I face personally as the patriarch of our family farm. Each crate has 8 chickens loaded with an average live weight of 7 lbs and when combined with the weight of the crate meant the average crate weighs 65 lbs or more. Adding insult to injury it wasn’t so much the weight but the awkward size of the crate and of course the center of weight being 12-18 inches from your chest means significant strain on your back over time which would likely lead to injury over the years.
After the latest APPPA conference in Greenville, there was a great Lean Farming segment done at the conference that made me rethink our crate handling as it was apparent that other farms were struggling with the same inefficiency. Typically what occurs is you take your crate to the cage, load your birds, then place the crate on a trailer, bring the trailer to your processing area, again handle them to unstack them near the kill station. Essentially we were handling these crates twice before they were unloaded. This was quickly becoming a large time investment for us, especially since I had few children strong enough to help with the task.
I am sure most reading this can relate to this challenge. Like a lot of things for a small family farm we have to be extremely prudent with our time and our bodies. The first thing we needed to do is come up with a list of requirements for this prototype solution.
1) Eliminate the handling of loaded crates all together
2) Easy loading from field shelters
3) Simplify delivery to the kill station
4) Easy to clean, dedicated trailer
This was going to be a tall order, or so I thought. One day, after processing I had some crates sitting on top of a few lengths of PVC pipe. I noticed that the crates glided very easily across the PVC and instantly this caught my attention and made me think of the potential of using this in my overall design. The great thing about the PVC is of course it would not corrode from the chicken manure and be easy to spray off BUT I knew it wouldn’t be rigid enough to span trailer supports so I would have to solve that problem. I wanted to stay away from using a wood floor since it would accumulate manure and provide a bunch a grooves and crevices to trap manure that ultimately would cause the wood and metal to deteriorate.
To solve this issue I had a couple ideas and one was to find the right combination of PVC pipe and metal pipe, where the metal pipe would slide inside the PVC and the PVC would essentially jacket the more rigid metal pipe. Since we use a significant amount of 1⅜” top rail pipe for our shelter builds I had plenty laying around in 21ft lengths. It was completely by happenstance that 1½” PVC pipe fits perfectly over this pipe. The key is I would need to use uncut length of pipe to make this crate sliding mechanism. Most hardware stores carry 20ft pieces of PVC so I used 20ft as the design length of our crate sliding system. Now that I had a sliding system figured out I needed to test the structural integrity of the 1⅜” top rail jacketed with the 1½” PVC pipe. I needed the ability to crate up to 400 birds at one time which ultimately is 50 crates. At a 20 ft long sliding system I would have to have 10 stacks of crates at 5 high (assuming your crate dimensions are 24” x 36”). A single stack of crates would weigh potentially 325lbs. I figured 4 pipes bearing that weight at 8” intervals should be adequate spacing so the question is how large of a span could I achieve to minimize the required number of trailer cross supports.
To determine this, I tested pipe deflection at spans of 36”, 42”, and 48” using 200lbs (way overkill) of weight. There was almost no deflection at 36” and I felt too much at 48” so I settled on 42” approx. In my case, the metal supports I was using are 6” wide and I would use 6 of them. Mathematically, 20’ X 12” is 240” minus the cumulative support width of 36” (6” x 6) is 204 inches. With 6 supports, I would have 5 spans of 40.8” (204”/ 5) which is well within my comfort zone.
The build for this is extremely simple. Once I welded together the trailer (happily all from random material I had in my “junk yard”) I simply attached the 1⅜” top rail jacketed in 1½” PVC to the 6 supports by using self tapping metal screws that I drilled in from underneath in order to prevent any obstruction from screw heads on the top of the rails.
In my particular circumstance I had access to metal and axles so I put together a dedicated trailer for this purpose, however, my initial thoughts were to simply build a sliding insert that could be placed in trailers of any kind be it a livestock trailer or flatbed. I could easily see a metal or 2x4 frame that could be built for this purpose. One side note, make sure you build side rails to keep your crates on your sliding system. In my case I just simply used more 1⅜” rail sleeved in 1 1/2 “ PVC. Also, speaking from experience, its important that you lock your last crate stack in place or you will risk losing your load.
I was excited to put this system into production and wasted no time. The welds were literally still hot as I hooked up and brought the crate laden trailer to the pasture for the first time. Though you could certainly have more than one rail of crates side by side I decided for my design I would rather have a single rail since this would allow me to back the end of the trailer directly in to our pastured shelter doors. The very first night we used the now dubbed “crate skate” had a learning curve on how to manipulate the crates for loading but overall went extremely well and performed just as I hoped. The loaded crate stacks easily slid down the trailer as we loaded out the crates.
Once we loaded the trailer, we brought the trailer back to the processing area and literally backed up to the kill cone stand. At that moment, it dawned on me this process was not going to be the same back breaking and difficult process of handling, manure coated, heavy crates it has been in the past. The only crates we would move from this day forward would be empty crates for cleaning and restacking on to our crate skate. This simple design has significantly reduced time, back abuse, and inefficiency. In example, previously bringing 300 birds from the field and stacked by the kill station would take nearly 2 hours between myself and several children. Now this same task takes 20-30 minutes without the slightest strain, eureka!