When Hannah Borg started college at the University of Nebraska, she didn’t imagine herself coming back to the family farm. Raising thousands of chickens with her mom wasn’t even on the radar. But today, she’s the sixth generation to work on the family’s Nebraska operation and manages three chicken barns.
As a young farmer, she’s carrying on cattle and row cropping traditions while bringing new opportunities to the farm. Borg shares how she’s embraced the poultry learning curve and handled the new dynamic in her relationship with her parents in Episode 1 of Farmers for the Future.
In each episode of this new video series, meet a young farmer with a unique story. Each virtual Farmers for the Future conversation hosted by Successful Farming editorial staff and Illinois farmer Rob Sharkey explores the challenges and triumphs that are part of starting out in production agriculture.
SF: CAN YOU GIVE US THE 101 OF CHICKEN FARMING?
HB: It was new to us as well. We had never been in a chicken barn until the day we got chickens. Call us crazy – we are a little bit. My parents took the opportunity to expand and diversify through chickens. It’s a whole different business and something else to learn.
To put it in perspective, we have three barns. The barns are about two football fields long by 30 feet. We have 60,000 birds over the three barns. When we’re feeding, we have 100 different motors. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of augers, a lot of electrical technology stuff. I knew nothing about anything until we had been in there for a while.
With chickens, just like cattle or any other market animal, you want them to be consistent. Our birds are the pullets. We get them when they’re a day old, and we have them for 21 weeks, which is about five months. When they leave, we have 53,000 hens and 7,000 roosters. When they leave our place after 21 weeks, they go to a breeding barn and start laying eggs there. Those eggs go to the hatchery in Fremont, Nebraska. After they’re hatched, they go back out to a different style of barn, a broiler barn, and they spend six weeks getting to 6 pounds. Then they go to the butcher in Freemont. After that, they go to Costcos all across the country, west of the Missouri River.
We are the foundation of the whole process. To put it in cattle terms, we are essentially raising the heifers. Consistency is key. We’re all about having a strong vaccination program to make sure that they’re healthy through their breeding lifecycle.
It’s been a long process to get to where we are today because all the equipment, the technology, in our case, was brand-new and really complicated to learn. I became part mechanic, part electrician, part maintenance. I’ve just learned a whole lot of things in a short amount of time. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun for a while, but now we’re cruising and feel like we kind of know what we’re doing, which I’m really proud of.
RS: YOU SAID YOU AND YOUR MOM ARE DOING THIS. DID SHE HAVE ANY BACKGROUND? HOW DID YOU GUYS LEARN THIS?
HB: Costco wanted to build a fully integrated chicken company. Actually, Lincoln Premium Poultry is who we grow for, but it’s simpler to say Costco. Costco was looking all across the country to figure out where the best place would be to put this integrated business. In Nebraska we have the water, we have the workers, and we have really good crops. We have the feed here and all the infrastructure. That’s how they chose Fremont, Nebraska. A connection of ours through the ag industry ended up being one of the first people to work at Lincoln Premium Poultry. She knew that my family is foward thinking and early adopters in other sectors of ag. We were supporting Lincoln Premium Poultry coming to Nebraska before we knew what it was essentially because they didn’t announce it was Costco that was building this big integrated business until after a few months. We were all about bringing business to Nebraska, bringing new opportunities.
My dad looked at it as an opportunity to expand and diversify because inputs are high and you have to rely on the commodity markets, which are low, depending on different seasons. By going to contract farming and being partners with Lincoln Premium Poultry, it is risky, but we have mitigated our risk a bit over time so that we can pay for these barns, but also not go broke. My mom and dad saw it as a an opportunity for us and it fit our family. I’m not going to say it would work for every family.
None of us had any chicken experience. My dad, at his age, didn’t want to take on something new labor-wise, so he allowed Mom and I to run the operation. That’s what I do. I work with my mom every day in the chicken barns.
SF: TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE THINGS YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR FIRST YEAR ON THE FARM.
HB: Dad sends me to town for parts all the time. I learned real quick: Do not go to town without the actual part that you need. Otherwise, you will not come back with the correct part.
I’m not mechanically inclined when it comes to tractors. I’m learning. I can fix the motors in our chicken barns, but I’m not quite there on the tractor side. But I do know where all the tools are. When Dad says, “the green handle thing,” I know exactly what he’s talking about. I can hand him the tools and make sure his job is easier. My dad is pretty clean, so a tip I’ve learned is when you’re taking the tools our of the drawer, leave the drawers open so that when you’re putting the tools back, you know exactly where they go.
Obviously, there are bigger things I’ve learned working with my parents every day. Simply asking things instead of, “Why are we doing it that way?” I’ve changed my language to say, “Help me understand why are we doing it that way.” That ‘why’ question, to my dad, can sometimes be a little bit too direct. When I change it to myself, and say “help me understand,” that seems to ease it for him. There are some things in my language that I’ve learned to ask or say differently.
I’ve learned how to plan with them, how to just work with them and know we have two different ways of thinking every once in a while. It hasn’t been easy, and I don’t want to paint a really pretty picture because working with your parents is not easy, but it is definitely worth it. On those hard days you’re like, what the heck am I doing,’ but on the good days, it’s really good.
RS: ARE YOU EVER INTIMIDATED ABOUT NOT KNOWING STUFF?
HB: Absolutely! I haven’t been home full time since high school. I’d been gone from the farm for four years. Of course I didn’t know what was going on on a daily basis. I’ve had to learn. I have to ask how to do things all the time, and I’m not afraid of that. If I was intimidated about not knowing how to do things, I wouldn’t ever be able to do things like learning how to drive a different piece of equipment or learning a different job. If that fear or intimidation got in my way, I would not be successful.
Working with my dad, I’ve learned that his version of teaching me and my version of learning don’t match up. I have to be really patient and ask things in a strategic order to make sure he’s being clear about what he’s wanting and that I’m meeting those expectations.
There are so many times when he tells me how to do something and I don’t know how to do it. And when I think, I don’t want to ask how to do that, it ends up making the situation 10 times worse. I’ve gotten over the fear of asking. I just tell my dad, I need you to explain these things step-by-step instead of just, “this is kind of what you do, and then you kind of do this.” I need step-by-step, and then maybe we’ll have to do a refresher next year because it’s been a year since I did whatever it was that you asked me. As time goes on, he gets more and more used to that.
RS: IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY ARE WELL AHEAD OF A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO JUST CONTINUE TO BUTT HEADS AND NEVER LOOK AT HOW TO CHANGE THE LANGUAGE AND DIRECTIONS. KUDOS!
HB: I don’t want to say it’s easy. We’re always working on it. I am thankful that my parents have been very intentional about integrating me back on the farm in a successful way. I grew up watching my dad work with his dad. My dad talked about how my grandpa made decisions that helped him out in the long run. I know my dad is making decisions that have helped me out, and I will do the same when I have kids, when that day comes.
Because I am the sixth generation, it has taken a lot of work from each generation to be successful and to intentionally lay the ground so that the next generation can come back. That’s always our goal. How do we keep what we’ve got going? For us, that’s by expanding through chickens. That doesn’t work for every family. Taking those risks, and being willing to try something new, and just talk about it are some things that have helped us get to where we are today.
But we’re always working on more. How can we grow? How can we be better communicators? How can we get through this day? Today, I was working cattle in the morning with my dad, sister, and brother. If you heard that, you probably would not say what you’re saying right now about us, but it’s always a constant juggle of how can we be better in whatever we’re working on.
SF: HOW DO YOU START HAVING THOSE INTENTIONAL CONVERSATIONS?
HB: I struggle answering that question because, in my case, I had no expectations of coming back to the farm when I went to college because there wasn’t room for me to come back. Halfway through college, I got the opportunity to commit myself to coming back to the farm because we were expanding and diversifying to something completely different. Because my parents took the risk of building chicken barns, I was able to come back.
It’s different than my brother who is just starting college with the intention of coming back. He’s building his own cow herd and figuring out his way back to the farm a little bit differently.
I would give advice to people going back to the farm to give yourself grace. All my friends who’ve come back to the farm get back home and are like, this is a different kind of hard than it was just working and growing up on the farm. Give yourself grace. It’s not going to be easy. You have to be patient with learning how to work with your parents on a business and financial level.
What does that look like? I gave myself a full year of really keeping my head down and just working. I didn’t really add any opinions or ask a lot of “should we do it this way?” I really gave myself a year head down before I could really look outside the box. That would be my biggest piece of advice. Just give yourself grace and have the patience to just be a worker on the farm for just a little bit of time and get your feet under you.
RS: DID YOU GUYS ACTUALLY HAVE A CONVERSATION WHERE YOU SAT DOWN AND SAID, “I WANT TO COME BACK”?
HB: My dad, randomly, in a conversation said, “Hey, Hannah, do you want a job?” I was like, “Sure. What do you need me to do?” I thought it was something he was working on. He said, “Do you want to raise chickens?” I was like, “What?!” I about fell over. That was my first introduction to the idea of what we would be doing. Then after that, we had many convesations. I had more conversations with my mom about it because I would be working with my mom running the chicken operation whereas my dad, well, I just call myself labor for him because when I’m not working in the chicken barns, I am working with him on the the rest of the farm.
We did have a lot of conversations of what it would be like, how much I would be paid, and expectations. I lived at home with my parents for a few months because I live in a community that doesn’t have a lot of available housing. We had to talk about what that would be like, just laying out those expectations. I am thankful that we did have that line of communication because I don’t know if it would be as successful if we didn’t have that.
I want to be clear, it’s not easy. There are many times with my dad that I end up in tears or I frustrate him. It is possible to overall have good communication with expectations that it might not always be perfect.
SF: LOOKING AHEAD 15 OR 20 YEARS DOWN THE ROAD, WHAT DOES CHICKEN FARMING LOOK LIKE?
HB: We’re committed to chickens for 15 years, which is a long time in my book because I haven’t done anything for 15 years consecutively. Chickens will always be part of my daily life on the farm. Beyond that, I haven’t thought a lot about it. Not because I’m not dereaming or setting goals. Right now, I’m trying to still figure out what my life looks like in six months from now, or in a year, five years.
I would assume in 15 or 20 years, I will be on the farm. I’m secure in that decision. I’m not going anywhere. By that point, I’d like to have my own family, my own home. I’d like to have more of my own cattle, but again, I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if I want to know, because I think that would take away from the joy that I’m currently in. After my first year on the farm, that’s when I was really able to look up and decide how I would want to be involved in my community and where my other strengths are on the farm.