RUCKERSVILLE — Backyard poultry flocks are more popular than ever as people explore ways to raise their own food and become more self-reliant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re receiving more inquiries about backyard poultry production,” said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Farm supply stores [continued] to sell chicks and ducklings well into the summer, beyond the typical springtime peak.”
Fueled by supermarket grocery shortages and people spending a lot of time cooped up at home, hatcheries nationwide are reporting record sales and weeks-long waiting lists have them scrambling to meet demand. Raising backyard chickens is a sustainable way to produce locally sourced food without requiring much space, according to the farm bureau.
It also can be just plain fun, according to a few Greene County chicken owners.
Billie Jo Moon, who lives in Ruckersville, owned chickens growing up but has had her current brood for about six years. She considers her 20 hens to be part of the family and thinks the abundance of fresh eggs is just a bonus.
“I really like chickens,” Moon said. “There’s something about them; they’re just different — unique. They all have their own little personalities.”
Moon says chickens are fairly low maintenance as far as pets go, but says to be sure to read up on the regulations in your neighborhood before starting your own flock.
“Building your own coop is probably going to last you longer than something you would buy from a store,” she said. “Free range is probably the best for the chickens; they kind of pick their own food. And as long as you’re keeping the coop clean and stuff like that, it keeps the birds healthy.”
Since Moon’s flock is considered pets and are not destined for the meat processing plant, she says she steers away from medicated feed in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“They were never intended to be anything other than egg producers and pets,” she says.
Keri Hensley, also of Ruckersville, says her eight chickens (four hens and four chicks) have been part of the family for the past two years.
“We started getting into it to try to get my autistic son — who was in school at the time — into possibly doing 4-H, but he didn’t really stick to it,” Hensley said. “So, we just kept them and have been eating eggs and enjoying having them.”
Hensley also has cats, a guinea pig, a snake, a parakeet and fish in the house, and jokes that living with so many pets is like being on Noah’s ark.
“[Chickens] are very much like a dog, actually. They have their own personalities,” she said. “They greet us when we drive up into the driveway, run up to the door and greet us. They get all kinds of favorite treats. They’re just like having a pet in the house.”
While Hensley has not devoted time to training her chickens to do tricks, they do come when they are called.
“They do free range; we have neighbors all around us and they go in their yards and eat the grubs and worms from the yard and it doesn’t seem to bother [the neighbors],” she said. “Whenever they do become a nuisance, the neighbors will let us know and we call them back. I have a special call that I do in the neighborhood and they come running because they know they’re getting treats.”
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Chicken ownership is not without its ups and downs. One summer, Hensley said they were trying to hatch their own chicks in incubators when several strong storms passed through the area.
“We had nasty storms come through and the electricity went out,” she said. “I was throwing towels and blankets and stuff over the incubator to try and keep the heat in to save the eggs … we lost pretty much all of them.”
After losing four chickens to a fox last summer, Hensley said they plan to enclose a portion of the forest in their yard so that the chickens can safely free-range away from predators.
While flock maintenance can be fun and educational, “owners should be aware that poultry can sometimes carry harmful germs that make people sick,” Banks said.
Proper biosecurity and flock care are essential, as some birds can spread diseases such as salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a multi-state outbreak of salmonella infections linked to backyard flocks. As of June 23, 465 people in 42 states had been infected from touching and handling live poultry.
The key — as with so many things these days — is to always thoroughly wash your hands after handling poultry or other animals and before doing other activities such as eating or touching your face.
“Backyard flocks can have a major impact on commercial poultry by serving as a reservoir for poultry diseases such as avian influenza, which can easily be spread,” Banks cautioned. The last major U.S. outbreak of avian flu was in 2014; it cost the poultry industry more than $1 billion and took over a year to mitigate, he said.
“There are a lot of different things you can do to make your life easier as far as maintaining them and taking care of them,” Moon advised. “Use bigger feeders, but you also have to make sure that you’re cleaning them out so they’re not getting algae, and then keeping your food in covered bins helps keep mice and birds away.”
“Some vegetables like pumpkins are good,” Hensley said. “If you give them a whole pumpkin, the seeds in the pumpkin are a natural de-wormer. So, every fall I put a pumpkin out there in the coop for them and they just devour it.”
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Once you’re sure your flock is safe, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor with farm-fresh eggs or share or sell them to neighbors.
“We give them away and sell them, as well, because we’re not huge egg eaters,” Hensley said. “We could have a dozen eggs in two days, so if we don’t eat the eggs every single day, then we have an abundance. I had six dozen in my refrigerator at one point, so I took them all to work and sold them. They’re so much healthier because we feed our chickens fruits, vegetables, meat, oats, grains … so the yolk is a bright orange color.”
For anyone considering a backyard flock, Banks recommends purchasing poultry from dealers or farms that participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, as those businesses must meet certain flock health and sanitation standards.
To keep households and properties safe, follow biosecurity practices such as washing your hands before and after handling chickens and isolating birds from visitors and other animals. Ensure poultry areas are clean and prevent germs from spreading by disinfecting shoes, tools, equipment and anything used to transport chickens, such as vehicles and cages.
Knowing the warning signs of infectious bird diseases is also important. People should report sick birds to a Virginia Cooperative Extension office, veterinarian, the Virginia Office of Veterinary Services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services.
To learn more about raising backyard chickens and biosecurity, visit bit.ly/3f3jVJF.