Boxes of baby chicks have appeared again at local farm and garden retailers, cuing the “actual” beginning of spring for chicken farmers and hobbyists.
According to N.C. State Cooperative Extension Agent Micah Orfield, chickens are increasingly popular in Ashe County as an “introduction to agriculture” for those with little farming experience. They are easy and inexpensive to get started, and small start-up flocks are not labor intensive.
But, she said, larger operations in the county are working to meet local demand for fresh eggs and poultry in quantity, providing income for those who scale up.
Therein lies the appeal of raising chickens: they are highly scalable. Business, hobby or home economics, it’s easy enough tailor the size and complexity of a chicken operation to available resources of space, time and budget.
Migrant Education Program Coordinator Michelle Pelayo of Todd said her teenage daughter recently began raising chickens as a hobby and hasn’t looked back.
“My daughter’s the chicken whisperer,” she said.
After building a small backyard coop from scrap materials, Pelayo noticed her daughter spending considerably less time on the Internet.
“It’s a good pastime,” she said. “It teaches responsibility and it focuses her attention on something other than texting.”
Pelayo claims her grandfather was the man who brought industrial-scale chicken farming to Cuba during the 1930s. But with just 6 birds, her family gets “3 eggs a day on a good day,” she said.
Brandi Legge of Legge Farms in Crumpler recently downsized her family’s mid-sized egg operation from 150-160 birds to about 25. The rising price of chickenfeed had made her output of 50-60 dozen eggs per month unprofitable, she said.
Legge said her involvement with chickens “all started as an accident” beginning with just a few birds. She’s happy to have brought it back down to “more of a hobby,” she said.
The difference between store-bought and farm fresh eggs, though, is “night and day,” said Legge. Like many who keep a few yardbirds, her family still sells surplus eggs to a small circle of neighbors and coworkers, as well as the occasional tourist.
Nancy Weaver-Hoffman and her family moved from Asheville to her grandparents’ farm in Warrensville 10 years ago — sheep, hogs and chickens. “We did the climbing the corporate ladder thing,” she said.
While she keeps a handful of laying hens for a few fresh eggs, her main focus is meat birds. The former owner of Spin-a-Yarn, Hoffman first considered chickens when she couldn’t source enough poultry to sell in her store.
“We sold our own meat, but couldn’t find enough chickens,” she said. “So we started our own operation with 50 to 100.”
Last year, Hoffman butchered and sold 900 chickens. This year, she hopes to produce about 3,000.
Her goal is to supply area restaurants with as steady stream of fresh, locally-raised birds. “They want fresh meat, not frozen,” she said, “so we will be butchering once a week.”
Currently, she has 250 chickens in her garage pending completion of a new barn, with 500 more scheduled for delivery. Her birds are Cornish rocks, a quality meat variety bred by crossing Plymouth white rock hens with Cornish roosters.
“There is no comparison between one of my birds and, say, a Tyson one,” said Hoffman. “I’m not running them down, they do what they have to do, but it’s not even the same animal.”
For Hoffman, chickens are about self-sufficiency. A full-time farmer, she takes evident pride in her chicken operation, but is pragmatic about them: “They’re a source of income,” she said.
For those considering getting started with chickens, Orfield suggest learning the basics first. “There’s so many directions you can go, but there is a core of information you need,” she said.
Designing coops and watering systems is less important than understanding the importance of biosecurity, health care and predator control at first, she said.
Biosecurity measures include restricting access to your birds, and cleaning all clothing and equipment that comes in contact with them, she said. Diseases can be easily transferred from one coop to another by poultry cages, gloves and boots, even car tires that drive from one farm to another.
Health care is often overlooked by beginners, Orfield said. Vaccinations are as important as proper diet and fresh water, even for small flocks.
Predators like snakes, weasels, dogs, coyotes and hawks will take any chickens they can get to, she said. However chickens are housed, a little care an ingenuity will be needed to keep your birds out of the food chain.
The Cooperative Extension will hold a poultry training day 8-1 p.m. June 24. Register by calling (336)846-5850