Not too long ago, a happy tradition of Alabama rural life was the presence of "yard birds." Down any country road, you were likely to see a little red hen and her chicks out scratching the ground for seeds and bugs. And if you were lucky enough to be invited to Sunday dinner, you found out just how tasty those Orpingtons and Plymouth Rocks could be. And remember the fresh, golden-yoked, brown eggs you had for breakfast at grandmama’s house?
But over the past few decades, if you asked a child: "Where do eggs come from?" – the answer you were likely to get was "Piggly Wiggly." Poultry made the transition from a backyard hobby (or necessity) to an important, large-scaled industry. Currently, that industry accounts for more than half of our state’s farm income and employs more than 50,000 people. It is an exciting industry, on the cutting edge of modern technology and scientific research.
But the family chicken is making an interesting come-back. When you visit a city like Portland, OR, where they take local food production very seriously, it’s amazing to see a coop or two in even the hippest neighborhoods (along with a few containers of heirloom tomatoes). And we in Alabama are part of that local production trend.
The "Chick Chain" project is a great new 4-H program that has really caught on with young people around the state. It helps young people master poultry management and the responsibilities coming with raising animals. There is an education about poultry health and nutrition, as well as good business practices. Of course, young people, learning to keep up with income and expense, are building their mastery of record-keeping and organization.
The Alabama 4-H Chick Chain is obviously very high profile in northeastern Alabama counties like DeKalb and Marshall, since both are centers for our national poultry industry, but the chain is developing links across the state.
How does it work in DeKalb County? In April, DeKalb 4-H Club members obtained 25 baby chicks. These pullets were Black Sex Links, Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks. For the next 21 weeks, these young ladies were part of the 4-Hers’ households. They got fatter and more beautiful, and, in late August, the young person selected the five best pullets for the DeKalb County 4-H Chick Chain Show and Sale. By simply bringing the pullets to the show, the young people received back their $50 deposits, along with any prize money and ribbons they won. And the remaining 20 pullets? They belong to the 4-Her.
Fun Facts About Chickens
• Wild Red Jungle Fowl are the ancestors of today’s chickens. The breed has survived at-large for about 8,000 years—rare for a wild ancestor of a domesticated animal.
• The waste produced by one chicken in its lifetime could supply enough electricity to run a 100-watt bulb for five hours.
• A hen must eat about four pounds of feed to produce one dozen eggs.
• A chicken will lay bigger and stronger eggs if you change the lighting in a way to make her think a day is 28 hours long.
• Over 9 billion chickens are raised for food annually in the U.S.
• Researchers have found a way to turn chicken feathers into strong, plastic composites for products like car dashboards and boat exteriors.
• Feathers make good paper, even for filters or decorative wallpaper. They work best combined with wood pulp to increase the number of times the fiber can be recycled.
Chick Chain participants received special training and were fully engaged in promoting the event. The DeKalb County event was open to any young person in DeKalb County between the ages of nine and 19. They diddo not have to be a current 4-H member to participate; however, they did need to fill out a 4-H enrollment form if they were not a current 4-H member.
Think of the benefits of this project! It reaches kids who wouldn’t be able to raise larger farm animals. It’s a great way to get the community involved, with volunteers and sponsors who are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and support. It is a classic 4-H path to teaching hands-on, research-based science. It even introduces young people to issues which would face them as serious poultry producers, like bio-security and waste management. It’s a great inter-generational opportunity for families and neighbors to work together to aid in positive youth development.
And there are other benefits. Think of them if you are invited to Sunday dinner, but please don’t tell "Hen-rietta" she will have a special place at (or on) the table!
Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.
Amy Payne Burgess is a 4-H Regional Extension Agent in Northeast Alabama. She may be reached at burgeap@ auburn.edu.