Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Heating with Hay
An innovative stove has cut fuel costs for one southwest Missouri poultry farm

by Jason Jenkins
From left, Doug, Bruce and Martin Youngblood of Diamond have significantly cut the costs of heating their poultry houses by burning hay bales in a stove of their own design.

The sun shines brightly on this early December morning, but its warming rays are of little comfort.

The mercury has lost its grip on the freezing mark, and the north wind that howled all night still whips between the six commercial chicken houses operated by the Youngblood family of Diamond in Newton County.

Though the temperature outside is in the low 20s, the four-day-old chicks inside the houses are warm and toasty. It’s nearly 90 degrees inside, thanks to an innovative hay-bale stove the family invented. Not only is the stove keeping the chicks warm, but it’s also keeping more profits on the farm.

Martin, the Youngblood’s 72-year-old patriarch, has been in the poultry business for about 50 years. He started raising laying hens for egg production, but today he and his sons, 50-year-old Bruce and 42-year-old Doug, raise broiler chickens on contract for Simmons Foods. The family also manages a 300-head cattle herd.

Each year, the New-Mac Electric Cooperative members raise six to seven flocks of chickens, nearly a million birds in all, which in six short weeks grow from tiny chicks to 4.5-pound birds.

Like many poultry producers, the Youngbloods had relied solely on natural gas heat to keep their chicken houses warm. Except for the hottest of summer days, the heat is always running, burning ever-more costly natural gas.

Only days old, chicks require a temperature of nearly 90 degrees to stay warm.

“About three years ago when prices really started coming up, we put about $17,000 worth of gas in just one flock of birds,” Bruce says. “It was then we decided we were going to have to figure out another way to heat the houses.”

The Youngbloods learned about a farmer in Saskatchewan, Canada, who was heating his poultry houses, home and workshop with a stove that burned flax straw, a by-product of flax seed production. The homemade stove heated water, which was pumped to radiators inside the buildings.

“I gave him a call and we talked for quite a while,” Doug recalls. “He gave us some ideas, and we decided we could do it, too. So we built a stove to burn large round hay bales.”

After operating their first homemade stove for about nine months — and seeing the potential ­— they built a second-generation stove that’s currently in operation on the farm.

At 8 feet wide, 12 feet long, 10 feet tall and weighing almost 7 tons, the stove resembles an oversized utility shed with its siding-clad exterior. The 7-foot-diameter burn chamber, made of half-inch-thick steel, can hold two large bales at a time. Ashes exit the stove through a hatch in the rear.

The stove’s doors are filled with water to prevent them from warping. A manifold exchanges heat from the burn chamber, which can reach 1,500 degrees, to the 4,000 gallons of water surrounding it.

The doors on the Youngblood's hay bale stove swing wide to allowing easy loading. Spent ash exits through a hatch in the rear.

The water reaches 110 to 150 degrees and is pumped to each chicken house through 2-inch pipe. After reaching one of three radiators in each house and transferring its heat to the air, the water returns to the stove to be reheated.

The Youngbloods primarily burn the by-product from a nearby fescue seed operation. The plant material isn’t suitable for livestock feed, but in the stove, it has value. Before the Youngbloods offered to buy it, the seed producer had no market for the leftover biomass, but still had to bale it up to get it out of the field.

Two bales burn in the stove for about 10 hours, and the Youngbloods burned about 350 bales last year. At a cost of $13 per bale, they spent less than $5,000, saving nearly $40,000 in gas costs.

“The normal cost to heat one chicken house with natural gas is about $10,000 a year,” explains Doug, “so you’re talking $60,000 or more for our operation.”

Adds Bruce: “Last year, we used $19,300 in natural gas, and this year we’ll stay under $20,000, too. The savings have been substantial.”

While the stove isn’t likely to totally replace gas heat, it is a viable supplement, Bruce says. “If it gets a little cool and the radiators can’t take care of it, the gas heaters come on and keep the birds at the right temperature. It takes that edge off.”

Heating with the hay bale stove has other advantages. By not burning as much natural gas inside the chicken house, less oxygen is consumed. This reduces the amount of cold, outside air circulated into the house that requires heating. It also reduces the amount of condensation in the building, improving conditions for the chickens.

Doug Youngblood welds together a manifold for another hay bale stove. The new design will allow for easier cleaning.

Though it’s made for hay bales, the Youngblood’s stove can burn any type of biomass, including wood and corn stubble. The family has filed for a U.S. patent on the design. They’re currently working on an improved manifold design, and Doug plans to add a waste-heat recovery system to capture additional heat from the stove’s exhaust.

Neighboring farmers have taken notice of the Youngblood’s success, and so far, they have orders for four stoves from producers in southwest Missouri. A stove they built for a turkey farmer north of Diamond has even attracted the attention of ConAgra Foods representatives from South Carolina.

The cost for a stove is $40,000 to $50,000, depending on the cost of steel. Bruce estimates a cost of around $5,000 to equip each house. For a standard four-house operation, the total cost would be around $70,000, which is comparable to corn-burning stoves, another alternative heating choice currently on the market.

“With your fuel savings at today’s prices, the stove should pay for itself in two and a half to three years,” Bruce says. “After that, then you’re putting money in your pocket.”

For more details on the Youngblood’s stove, contact Doug at 417-325-6270 or rapkoze@hotmail.com.


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