This episode of Eggheads explores the intersection of technology and leadership within the egg industry. Brandon Mulnix, director of commercial accounts at Prism Controls and host of the Poultry Leadership Podcast discusses his unconventional journey into the egg industry and the impact of technology in enhancing egg production and bird health. The conversation covers the specifics of control systems in poultry houses, the role of machine learning in egg counting, and the importance of environmental factors like temperature and lighting on bird behavior.

Brandon also shares insights into effective leadership in the industry and the motivation behind his podcast, aimed at promoting knowledge and leadership development among industry professionals. The episode highlights the critical role of technology in improving efficiency, maintaining animal welfare, and supporting sustainability in egg production.

Enjoyed this episode? Please rate Eggheads and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. Also, be sure to connect with Eggheads on LinkedIn and leave us a message if you want to get in touch!

Creators & Guests

Nathan Tower

What is Eggheads?

The average American eats almost 300 eggs per year. But how much do you know about where they come from? What actually makes an egg organic? And could better eggs be better for you?

Host Greg Schonefeld is your resident Egghead and digs into topics like egg nutrition, cage-free farming and what it takes to build an egg empire. From egg-onomics to chicken genetics, Eggheads crack open the unexpectedly fascinating world of eggs.

Greg Schonefeld: Hey there. Welcome to Eggheads. I'm Greg Schönefeld. I'm so excited to dive into the world of eggs. I've been in the egg industry for 10 plus years and I realized I still have so much to learn. I thought this show would be a perfect opportunity to continue learning and bring others along for the journey. This show will cover a wide range of topics that speak to the consumer and industry alike. Today we're going to kick things off and talk about technology in the egg world.
Technology supports the industry in a number of ways, including cleaning, processing, and packaging eggs. We will explore how modern tech helps collect and process eggs efficiently while also improving the health of the birds. We're also going to be talking about leadership. Our guest is relatively new to the industry, but already making his presence felt on the leadership front.

Brandon Mulnix: If I can help one person, that makes it all worth it for me and to know that I am making a difference in the industry, even if it's just one person.

Greg Schonefeld: Brandon Mulnix is the director of commercial accounts at Prism Controls. He's also the host of the Poultry Leadership Podcast where he digs into what makes great leaders in the egg industry. So what brought Brandon to the egg industry? How has he found his way? How is the industry evolving as tech is more accessible? And what makes a great leader in the industry? All that and more, let's jump in.
I think a lot of people in the industry, and this is probably also the perception of the industry, are maybe multi-generational or grew up in the industry, and that's not you at all. Would love for you to share how you found the egg industry and where you were before and why you've stuck around.

Brandon Mulnix: It's an interesting journey into the industry for sure. Grew up about four miles from Herbruck's Farm, which I had no idea what they did except the fact that they provided eggs, jobs and were big in our community over the years through philanthropy. But I just never knew what they did. And thankfully, after being a paramedic for 20 years, I'm a recovering paramedic, I sidetracked into project management. That job ended right before COVID, that career ended, and yeah, happened to meet with a guy that started the Bible study my wife and I met at, put his business card in my pocket. He kept saying, "Hey, you should come work for the company." And I'm like, "I'm pretty happy where I'm at." That Thursday, my job was cut.
I started as a project manager, worked very quickly, recognized at PMSI at that time, my boss saw an opportunity for me to jump into the management role based on my background and the questions I was asking and the problems I was working on solving for the company.
So I was able to jump into the management role. And yeah, now I'm all in. Wish I would've found this industry 25 years ago, but I'm glad that I have the experiences I have because it really brings a unique perspective to the industry, knowing that for 20 years, that was someone's worst day when they called 911. When people call me with challenges and problems, I get the fact that chickens can die, and that's important to me, but it's not a life-and-death situation, which I was used to managing. And that really helped me keep my head cool when problems and challenges arose. Also, just the ability to think on my feet.

Greg Schonefeld: That's great. Well, I want to dive into technology, which some people might be surprised about the technology we have in the egg world. And maybe one place to start would just be Prism Controls. In the industry, very common that we talk about control systems, but if you're outside the industry, what does that even mean? What are these control systems and how does that tie into technology?

Brandon Mulnix: So for someone outside the industry, what we started doing was back when Apple was around Apple 2s Stephen Herbruck said, "Hey dad, I'd like to use this whole computer thing to potentially make things work in the farm better." And so egg flow was a big challenge that they had. How do I take all these houses in line and get these eggs to flow into the processing facility the most efficiently? And so he started with a computer, had some custom controls developed back then back in the seventies, this was before PMSI even started, and throughout` it continued to evolve, so then it went to environmental controls.
Instead of just having a thermostat in the middle of the house that takes temperature, what does it look like with temp sensors all over the house and a system that can turn fans on and off and open air inlets for where the birds are in the house. So as the barn heats up in the day under conventional, it was easy. There were so many birds per square foot and the temperatures really didn't spread. But with cage-free, it gets even more complicated because these birds can move and they're going to go to the most comfortable spot in the house, which means where the food is the best, the temperature's the best, the quality of air is the best.
And so what you get is this migration of birds through the house all day. And so a system like ours utilizes sensors and turns fans on, turns fans off, brings the perfect environment to the birds wherever they are in the house. So we're able to add more air in those areas or make better environments in other areas. So the birds spread out a little bit more, which helps them lay it better eggs. They're not fighting for nest space. And then that translates into the production side because more houses, more eggs, more variables. So egg flow has to start to evolve and it's continued to evolve since the 1970s.

Greg Schonefeld: When it's all said and done, an egg producer is working to fulfill their commitment to their customer, whether it's to deliver eggs in shell, liquid or other form. If a producer is committed to delivering a hundred thousand eggs a day, they have to have the right number of birds producing at their healthy normal production rates. Technology plays a role both in creating the healthy comfortable environment for the bird and in managing the egg flow. If the plan is to wash a hundred thousand eggs a day, technology facilitates the movement of laid eggs. Of course, we need the hens to do their part.

Brandon Mulnix: In the past, humans had to go out and turn switches on, and that was how simple it was. I'm going to run the egg belts. But as technology evolved, it was, we have this many chickens in the house. If I run the eggs at this speed and if I turn a little dial, I can tune that all in. Over time, the dials turned into more digital sensing and egg counters got involved. And so now they knew how many eggs were coming out of the house at what speed, and they could continually test that. And then that would ramp up, speed up the house belts or slow them down based on the need from the processing. So it's a number of variables. Like traffic control, it went from very simple traffic control, stop signs, to now you have interstates with lots of eggs and lots of moving parts that are coming in at different times and different products. And that's just egg flow.

Greg Schonefeld: So if we're looking inside a live production house, how's the flow of all of these eggs managed at scale?

Brandon Mulnix: You have to adjust the speed of each of those highways coming in to make sure that the volume stays sufficient. Because otherwise what happens is a lot of stops and starts. And stops and starts are bad on eggs because it's a round product, and when they roll into each other, you have checks and cracks. Checks and cracks, bad. Bad for the production. It reduces the egg quality. Those eggs have to go into a breaker somewhere or a lot of times even checks and cracks can cause the product to leak all over the equipment, and it's waste at that moment. So why it's so important is that machine needs a certain speed coming into it. You want to run it at full capacity, that grader. So how do I get that grader working?

Greg Schonefeld: Interesting. So now let's get into some of the other things you talked about with control. You mentioned that the birds, especially in a cage-free environment, they can go wherever they want. And if your temperature's not uniform, they're going to go wherever it's most comfortable.

Brandon Mulnix: It's really interesting to watch how the animals react to temperature in a house. If it's too cold, they want to go to where it's 70 degrees, where they're the most comfortable, similar to humans. I mean we want it 70 degrees in our house. What happens is these birds will move in a cage-free environment because they want to get there. Well, when they get there, if 70 degrees is on one end of the house and all the birds start to get there, imagine a thousand little heaters that are all getting to the same place at the same time. Well, that temp in that area will continue to rise in that area. So that zone temp sensor will trigger the computer, in our case, the C-three, and to say, "Hey, I need more air. I need lower temperature here." So more fans turn on in that zone, more area, and let's open up, which is basically opening the window to get more fresh air in that zone, which then lowers the temperature back to normal.
And many of those birds, when it gets too hot, will either pile in there or they'll spread back out. So they're just going to keep moving to the best temperature. And so the house just continually has to evaluate this spot. And if everything's 70 degrees, those birds aren't going to move really anywhere unless there's some other factor like stress from maybe the feed, lighting's better, because those also have their own controls to make sure that the birds are getting the best food and at the right time and lighting as well.

Greg Schonefeld: Interesting. So this is a pretty continuous dynamic. What I'm hearing is that even the movement of the birds itself affects temperature and then the system has to kind of measure that, adapt to it. And is this something that is changing every hour, every two hours?

Brandon Mulnix: How about a couple times a minute? Every couple minutes.

Greg Schonefeld: Wow.

Brandon Mulnix: The challenge is the farmer will set a range, okay, I'm good with, this is my low, this is my high. I want a temp spread in that building of less than four or five degrees. Because if I can control that temperature, and that's just internally with the birds. You also have external factors such as it gets warmer as the sun comes up through the day, it gets colder at night. And so as you get those external factors in, wind is a factor. If it's really windy out and the cold wind is hitting one side of the barn versus the other, we have to make some adjustments every couple minutes, every minute. I mean, just depends on how tight that building is. Building construction, I mean, that's a factor involved in that. There's a lot of factors that go into just temperature control in the building.

Greg Schonefeld: Interesting. And you mentioned the lighting too, and so those things could even interplay. Why does lighting matter? How does that impact the bird and what's done with that From a technology perspective,

Brandon Mulnix: The lighting in the building is to mimic daylight outside. So there's a sunrise and a sunset. You can time that based on your production needs. So instead of having all of the eggs laid at the same time, because eggs are laid based on lighting and the time of day. The natural tendency is the birds are going to lay at a certain time, the same time pretty much every day. By controlling the lighting, you're able to adjust your flock schedules so your birds lay at the time that matches your production needs, which that's efficiencies to make sure that you don't have a flock way outside. It affects labor needs, it affects all kinds of different variables that are on the business side of things.
But our control system has to be able to give a signal to create the sunrise, which means those lights got to slowly turn on, get to full and slowly turn off. And then the farms have to also be able to utilize those lights to work on behavior, train the birds, turn the lights off in areas they don't want the birds to be at to lay their eggs in. Farmers want to give the birds 12 hours, 13 hours of daylight a day. They can utilize lighting to molt birds, so act more like winter.
But lighting is important for the bird's health and their normal activity. So they need the similar amount of daylight all day, every day, so that way it's mimicking what's going on in nature. The adjustments the farmers can make is each barn can be different. Each level could be different. So each barn is its own separate environment where it's controlled by that lighting for ways that the farmer utilizes. It's amazing. I mean, it's just one more tool in the farmer's toolbox to help.

Greg Schonefeld: Light is a critical factor in commercial poultry production. And for nearly a century, scientists have been exploring how it affects hen behavior and productivity.

Brandon Mulnix: Well, lighting has a huge impact on the bird's stress level. Lighting's more critical in the early stages, the first probably 20 weeks of the bird's life. Later as the birds age, they're a little bit more used to their normal routines, probably a little bit less affected. But the farmer, I mean, there's so many variables that go into lighting. I mean, there's people that that's all they do and talk about in this industry is lighting. There's lots of different companies that produce lighting. The new technologies and LED lighting, rope lighting, that's at the different tiers to provide the correct amount of lighting.

Greg Schonefeld: That's interesting. Just something like lighting, how much thought goes into that, how much technology goes into it. Because like you're saying, the controls are part of it, the lighting itself is part of it, and I've heard that color matters, the intensity, all kinds of aspects of light matters. I mean, there's real science going into this lighting.

Brandon Mulnix: As technology continues to grow, it continues to come back into the house all the way to the point where you've got AI, not high path AI that affects the industry there. But augmented intelligence or automated intelligence.

Greg Schonefeld: Do you have an example of how augmented intelligence is used in the egg industry today?

Brandon Mulnix: Today we use machine learning in our camera systems to count eggs. We have to continually train our models on what an egg looks like versus.

Greg Schonefeld: So as eggs are passing by on a belt, it's visually counting eggs basically?

Brandon Mulnix: Correct. And to do that, it's a round object or a egg-shaped object on a belt that can go in multiple different directions. And so the more eggs that go by, the more the system continually trains and continually gets better. So that's one area that we're already utilizing it. But on the backend, it's taking all that data and making it fine-tuned.

Greg Schonefeld: I guess I've never really thought about this, but I think about a sensor in a house and oh, it's a sensor. It senses when an egg passes by. Now if you talk about augmented intelligence when it comes to counting eggs, my first thought is why is that necessary? But then I start to think about, okay, I could get that, that a shape of an egg, that's kind of weird. I guess, what are some of the limitations, let's say, of a sensor, and how does machine learning kind of get us past that?

Brandon Mulnix: Well, in the past, technology all the way back to the manual sensors was when an egg passed, it registered something went by. It didn't know if it was an egg or not. It couldn't tell the shape. It couldn't tell anything. How many of them went by. It just said, Hey, I got something that went by. The switch was triggered. IR counting could tell you something went by. But with eggs, they like to roll in different directions. So if the belt stops, the egg rolls backwards a lot of times. Or the belt stretches and then there's eggs. So it counted it three times sometimes. Egg went under the first time. The belt stopped, the egg rolled back under the counter. So it said, Hey, something went under me. I don't know what direction it goes under. And then belt started again and the egg went by. So you'd have the count, you might have three eggs.
Well, what happens is the farmers have a hard time of judging and evaluating when there's, let's say a hundred thousand birds in the house, but somehow they got 110,000 egg counts. It totally just says, Hey, those numbers aren't accurate. Well, those numbers then affect the grader as the grader comes in. The grader's like it doesn't count necessarily per house because they're not running one house at a time. But at the end of the day, it's like between two houses, I only had 150,000 eggs. Well, what's right? The grader, which is probably very accurate because it knows the amount of eggs and the ones that went out through the grader. But where did those eggs come up missing? The difference between two houses, maybe one's at 110, the other one's at 90 and they come out to 200,000. But where am I missing? What loss do I have?
So as we get into more accurate egg counting with cameras, what it does is as that egg passes, it says, Hey, I can only count from right to left. Puts a little box on it, says, Hey, the egg went through and says, I identify you as an egg. I've learned through machine learning that you're an egg. You go through. As the belt stops, the egg comes back, and because of a wider field of view, it says, okay, you're not supposed to be coming back this way. I'm not going to count you. The belt starts because it recognized the egg didn't go all the way back through the field of view. So it started in the middle of the field of view, never got its box so to speak, and moves on. The egg was counted once, which then provides accuracy.
Well over time, manure as it comes through, it kind of clumps up. And normally the old counters would say, Hey, I've got an egg and here's a round thing of manure going through. With egg counting, it says you're not the right color, you're not the right shape, you're not an egg. I'm not going to count you. So it kind of goes through which then keeps that accuracy there. And over time you keep running those models through training and they get better.

Greg Schonefeld: Tech is really changing the game in the egg industry, making everything from managing the environment to taking care of the animals more efficient. It's handy for automating the more monotonous tasks like identifying and weighing animals. Plus, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of breeding, handling things like egg grading and incubation, and even predicting which eggs are going to hatch. And in Brandon's line of work, it can also be critical for staying on top of maintenance.

Brandon Mulnix: The technology that we are really focused on right now, besides making the most accurate counts, is making sure that, because maintenance is such a big issue for farms, how can we work on what you would call predictive maintenance? Being able to utilize sensors to track the motor usage temperatures, all these different variables in the motors and bearings and say, Hey, this is about to fail. Based on augmented learning machine learning, we know that this is out of spec. You want to send a maintenance guy to come look at this piece of equipment before it breaks.
Why this is so important, is they're cage-free, brought in more fans, more motors, more variables, that it's hard for a maintenance guy to go around and PM every single thing. And on a manager point, how do I know that they did their PM on it because I have nothing that changed. Well, I'd have to follow them around and change. Well, in a situation where you have a maintenance person that the fan, let's say fan one said, Hey, I've got an issue, flagged them, and the guy never checks it. That issue doesn't go away, but when the guy fixes it, found that the bearings were going bad, fixes it. You're going to see a change in that fan data to say, Hey, I'm good. I'm running great, thanks.
Now you have verification that the work got done. And when you have a house with hundreds of motors in it's really hard to verify that everything's running most efficiently and effectively. Technology's going to allow us to basically predict, okay, this is based on hours used, based on the variables we're getting from all that equipment. Hey, this is my plan for today. These are the 10 things I need to go fix. But it's also going to then provide the technology for energy efficiency. Hey, how much are these motors running? How much energy are they using? And that will eventually help farmers report on their sustainability plans, energy usage, stuff like that.
So it's a multifaceted technology advancement that helps return to the farmer hopefully pretty quickly their investment in it. We're a couple years away, but it's only going to get more advanced.

Greg Schonefeld: I'm curious how technology supports the bird.

Brandon Mulnix: Let's go back to that augmented or business intelligence kind of philosophy. There are so many more variables that farmers, producers are dealing with today than in the past. In the past, there was a lot less distractions, and the person making the decision had a lot less data. So they went by their gut. They knew. The best farmers had 20 years experience, okay, I've had all these different flocks. When I saw this, the egg production drop, it was because of these variables. Well, now you start adding in more and more variables and more and more data. How is a farmer supposed to process that data quickly and make the best decision?
As computer power continues to grow, you're able to put that data into computers. You run it through the tools and it's going to be able to give suggestions based on flock histories that were fed to the computer to say, Hey, on this day and two years ago with this type of bird, this was the feed production or feed variables that you had. This is how much they're eating, how much they're drinking. But there's a big noticeable difference. And one of the things you're able to see, a computer is able to see trend changes much quicker than a human. So if something drops even 0.01% over a day or two, farmer's never going to see it, maybe 1% they're not going to see it. But you drop that over a week, okay, something's up over the week.
So in the past, farmers would just kind of go off their hunch and go, I think this is it. But by being able to pull in all the data from the past and say, Hey, this is what happened. This is how you solved it, it's going to see those trend changes and be able to say, Hey, I think you need to do something. And then in the future, not something, but this is what we recommend based on what you've done in the past. And that data comes from so many places. But the farmer will have that data at his fingertips with a machine that's able to give them those suggestions.
All of this technology is going to help that farmer make better decisions. And ultimately, the bird is able to be more productive because it's healthier. The farmer is able to react sooner than when the bird is really sick, but it all correlates to better health for the birds.

Greg Schonefeld: Wow. So basically it can marry up all these different data points, what they're being fed, how much they're eating, temperature, vaccine schedule, see what the egg production is, and those can all be analyzed to get a sense of what the bird's health and level of comfort is.

Brandon Mulnix: And what's interesting, Greg, is I heard a story about a thunderstorm affecting egg production. And I'm like, how does a thunderstorm? Well, in a cage-free environment, birds are affected by thunderstorms because on the, let's say, upper level of the house, it's a multi-level house, those birds are closer to the roof where thunder is just vibrating the roof. And the birds had a higher mortality, had less production, but they didn't even tie it together until they realized, Hey, why didn't we have a drop in egg production on Tuesday? That's weird. And then they look back and go, what was the weather? Oh, it was thunderstorm.

Greg Schonefeld: I'm constantly amazed how many variables there are in these houses, in these systems. And I mean, you're dealing with live animals, you're dealing with temperature feed, and throw thunderstorms to the mix. And probably we have barely scraped the surface on all the variables that farmers are managing, technology's managing. It's pretty amazing how it all gets pulled together. I think farmers are great problem-solvers, which maybe leads perfectly into the leadership side of things. And curious, what inspired you to start this podcast in the first place? The Poultry Leadership Podcast.

Brandon Mulnix: There is no shortage of great leaders in the industry. And watching those great leaders present at conferences was what started the idea of the podcast. I would be at an event where some of the most amazing leaders were. They were speaking on these topics that you and I are speaking on today, all the subtopics and all the issues. And there they are sharing this with a group of maybe a hundred, a hundred people looking around the room. Half of them are vendors of some kind. And I'm looking around the room going, if I'm a new farm manager, I want to grow into a leader. How do I do that? Well, I got to get proficient at my craft. Well, there's so many things I don't know about the industry. How do I get there?
And so the thought for the Poultry Leadership Podcast came out of that and said, what would it be like if this podcast was able to provide that person, that future leader, resources to, one, the history of the industry, what the heck happened before I got here? And there's some amazing stories out there. The people of the industry, who should I know in the industry? Who could be the person I could call to ask about the industry? Then the subjects within the industry, such as we're doing this podcast here on technology, egg pricing, career enhancement. What are all the things that could help these leaders that want to develop to the next level? What could I provide them through stories, through interviews? So when they're driving that half hour back and forth to work, the hour back and forth to work, here's a resource to help you grow in the industry. That's what's important because it doesn't just help the farm managers, future farm managers, it also helps the vendors. There's so many topics I don't know anything about, but the Poultry Leadership Podcast helps plug into that.

Greg Schonefeld: I've been in the industry over 10 years, but just barely scratching the surface, realizing how many things I don't know. Even questions I get from neighbors or whatever. I'm like, ah, I actually don't know the answer to that. And that's probably part of what inspired me is maybe my own learning journey, but then also maybe bringing people along for it. And it sounds like with you, you had this recognition of some great leaders existing in the industry and that you could kind of help provide a mechanism to pass the torch to the next generation, or help people get up the curve faster. And I'm curious back to some of the great leaders. You've mentioned that you've seen speak at conferences. How would you describe a great leader in the poultry industry?

Brandon Mulnix: A great leader is somebody who knows their purpose and is willing to share that passion, that purpose, with the next generation. They're not afraid to speak, to coach, mentor the next generation. And I mean, no matter what you do as a leader, I mean, there's a lot of good managers out there too. But a good leader is the one who's going to invest in their staff, their team, and make it about their growth, about the team's growth, the next generation's growth versus their own personal growth. They value others more than themselves typically.

Greg Schonefeld: Oh, that's great. I think maybe for an outsider, especially even outside of agriculture altogether, people might be surprised how much leadership forward-thinking exists. Also how much technology from our conversation earlier. But we are fortunate to have really great leaders in the egg industry. And you being one of them, Brandon, and even though you say you've been around five years in the industry, but already definitely making an impact. And then now with this podcast really taking a leap in supporting the industry in that way.

Brandon Mulnix: There's so many good people in the industry that I felt empowered to come alongside them and help make a positive change in the industry.

Greg Schonefeld: I've heard before that once you've been in agriculture for five years, you never leave. And it sounds like you're right at that five-year mark, and that's probably going to be you as well. And I think with your podcast, just giving people the exposure to leaders in the industry and how things can be, I think will have a positive impact on everybody around. And thank you for your efforts and leadership on that front.
I want to thank Brandon for joining me today. It's clear that technology in our industry isn't simply a tool. It's an integral part of the egg production process. I'm excited to learn more as the technology continues to evolve, driven by strong and innovative leadership within the industry. Thanks for listening to Eggheads. I'm Greg Schonefeld. Join us again next time and be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Brandon, how do you prefer your eggs?

Brandon Mulnix: I prefer my eggs over medium next to bacon and pancakes.