CHICKENS… Pet or Livestock? Hobby or Business?

I would like to thank Ashley Kinney for November’s blog on CHICKENS… Pet or livestock? Hobby or Business? Ashley is currently a Senior at Winterset High School and is working at Winterset Veterinary Center after school and weekends. She has been showing chickens at the county and state fair for a number of years. We are so grateful for her contribution to our veterinary office and her willingness to write this blog and share her photos.

~ Thanks, Dr. Lonna

Photo by Teddi Yaeger

There are many different uses for chickens, one of the most popular usages being meat. Chickens grown for meat are known as broilers. The Cornish Cross is the most commercial of the broiler breeds. This breed is wide-set and built to grow fast. Cornish are ready to be harvested between 8-10 weeks of age and produce large amounts of meat. These birds are likely to have health issues due to their rapid growth, therefore it is not recommended to keep them past their harvesting age. Raising these birds in a pasture-like setting can help improve their overall health. Other broiler breeds include the Bresse, Barnyard crosses & other heritage breeds. These birds have fewer issues compared to the Cornish but take longer to grow and produce less meat. 

A Crossbred Rooster

Egg production is also a very popular use for chickens. White Leghorns are by far the best layers. They have thin bodies to make them food efficient and a distinct flopped-over crest. Leghorns are the ones that lay those large white eggs you can buy in the supermarket. Road Island Reds and Sex Links are also good layers and are desired in backyard flocks. Chickens can lay many different colors of eggs. The color of the egg a chicken lays can be told by their earlobe color. White earlobes indicate white eggs, red earlobes brown eggs, and blue earlobes blue eggs. There are some exceptions to this rule like the Silkie who has blue earlobes but lays cream-colored eggs. Laying hens do not need a rooster to lay an egg, but a rooster is required to produce fertilized eggs. 

A White Leghorn Hen

Dual purpose breeds are popular in homestead flocks. These chickens are bred to be utilized for both meat and eggs. Some of the most notable dual purpose breeds would be the Australorp, Orpingtons, and Barred Rocks. 

Hobby poultry have become increasingly popular in recent years. Hobby chickens are some of the wackiest of the chicken breeds. They can have interesting colors and patterns. Some have feathers growing out of their waddles (muffs), heads (topknots), and feet. Others have feathers that look like rabbit fur (silkies), feathers that curl up towards their heads (frizzles), and even a combination of both these features (sizzles). 

A Black Bearded Silkie Bantam Hen

Hobby chickens have a wide variety of combs. Some of their combs look like popcorn, pebbles, spike balls, or even a king’s crown. Sultans are a breed of chicken with the most of these characteristics. They are a small white bird with a “V” shaped comb, top knot, vulture hocks (feathers that extend down from the thigh), feathered feet, and an extra toe. Phoenix chickens are another impressive breed. They come in vivid colors and have tail feathers that never stop growing. 

This Black Sumatra Rooster has a tail similar to a Phoenix, however his will stop growing.

The largest of the chicken breeds include the Cochin, Brahma, and Jersey Giant. The smallest of the chicken breeds are known as Bantams.  They’re essentially the toy dogs of the chicken world who only grow to be half or less the size of a normal chicken. The smallest of the bantams include Serama Bantams, Sebright Bantams, and Game Bantams. 

A Dark Brahma Hen perched in a flower tree
(Photo by Carissa Gerwig)
A Golden Laced Sebright Bantam Rooster showing off to the ladies

Proper housing is a necessity when raising chickens. Chicken houses and runs need to be predator-proof which means unable to be dug into, squeezed into, climbed into, or easily broken into. It should also protect from weather such as snow, rain, and strong wind. The coop should be cleaned out regularly. Lastly, housing should have adequate space per bird (2 feet minimum inside the coop) and enough perch space for all the birds to perch comfortably. Chickens should be given more space if they don’t have access to free-range or a large run. When chickens are too crowded it can lead to cannibalism and health issues.

The flock is all perched up and ready to go to bed.

What a chicken eats depends on what it is used for. Broiler chickens are fed a high protein diet to help them grow fast. While laying hens need extra calcium to help them produce eggs. Laying feed and meat bird feed can be found in most farm stores. Chickens also need grit, especially if they don’t free range. Grit is a rough ground substance that helps aid in digestion and keeps a chicken’s crop healthy. With proper housing and nutrition, your chickens can live their lives happily. 

Some hens enjoy a watermelon slice as a snack on a hot summer day.
(Photo by Carissa Gerwig)

When it comes to showing chickens the Standard of Perfection is your best friend. The Standard of Perfection is a book containing all the recognized chicken breeds in the American Poultry Association and American Bantam Association. The book outlines nearly everything about the breed from the number of points on the crest to what angle the tail should be held. At some shows, the birds are brought up to a table and examined there. Other times, the birds are kept in their cage and the judge comes to them. At the show, chickens are divided into classes. In the large fowl category, chickens are divided up based on where they originated. While in the bantam category, they are divided up based on crest type. In each class, a reserve champion and grand champion are picked. Then all the reserve champions and grand champions are pooled together and the grand champion overall is picked. Judges judge based on the book, but personal preference can also play a role in their judging. To do well in a chicken show, your bird should follow the standard of perfection and be in good condition, meaning healthy and no feather damage. Taking good care of your chickens and knowing the Standard of Perfection is the key to success when showing poultry.

A Grey Japanese Bantam Hen poses with her Grand Champion Bantam and Overall Grand Champion trophies.

Further Information:

This website is loaded with information and allows you to read, talk, and ask questions about chickens from experienced poultry owners: 
https://www.backyardchickens.com/

This website contains information regarding show poultry: 
https://www.poultryshowcentral.com/

Baa Baa Black Sheep

I would like to thank Randall Parkin for being our guest blogger this month. The Parkin’s have been clients of Winterset Veterinary Center for a number of years and she graciously consented to helping me with our sheep blog. I hope you enjoy her pictures and words as much as I did. I have really learned a lot from the guest bloggers I had this year.

~ Dr. Lonna Nielsen

In 2003 we bought a farmstead complete with house, pastures, and a barn on 10 acres in Madison County. For the next Mother’s Day, my husband gave me a gift certificate for 2 sheep and a llama. At the Iowa State Fair that year, I met a Lincoln Longwool breeder, and was hooked. In September, we drove to their farm, and I picked out a Natural Lincoln (white) ewe and a Colored Lincoln (black/grey) ewe. On the way out of the sheep shed, another ewe put her front feet on a fence rail and demanded I pet her. She was a Corriedale, and I HAD to have her. Corriedales, like Lincolns, are generally friendly. I had found three sheep and no llama.

The llama was supposed to provide protection for the sheep, but we acquired three miniature horses instead, who performed well and were much more fun.

Most sheep producers in Iowa raise sheep for meat, or sheep to sell to 4-H and FFA youth for livestock projects. As a long-time knitter and very beginning spinner, I wanted the sheep for their wool. Most producers don’t want to deal with the wool, which only brings pennies per pound.

In contrast, my little spinning flock grew wool that when processed into yarn or sold as doll hair sold for $40 per pound. Even raw fleeces could bring $5-7 per pound. One of the main differences was that I kept the wool cleaner while the sheep grew it, kept it organized when it was shorn and removed the icky parts before the fleeces were packed in bags.

Fleece

Lincoln sheep originated in Lincolnshire, England. I first chose Lincoln Longwool sheep because they were a people-oriented breed, and looked really cool. With wool that grows about an inch a month, I sheared them twice a year, in contrast to most breeds who are shorn once a year. Lincoln wool is lustrous and grows in curls – I found a market for the white wool in artists who make those fabulous Santa Claus figures with long white hair and beards. I washed that wool by hand and sold it to a doll hair wholesaler.

Lincoln Wool

I named my first Lincolns Victoria (the white one) and Jasmine (the colored one).

Corriedale sheep are a Merino/Lincoln cross that originated in New Zealand and Australia. (Merino, or Spanish Merino, are believed to have originated in Spain, and produce a very fine wool.) My Corriedale ewe quickly became my favorite, and I named her Corinna. Corriedale wool became a favorite for spinning, and produced yarn that was comfortable even against bare skin. Corinna and I would sometimes just hang out watching the other sheep. I would sit on the barn threshold, and she would stand beside me and lean into me.

Corinna

We ended up breeding our ewes by taking them to the farm where we got them, then the next year purchased a Lincoln ram from them. I named him Duke – since our address was Earlham, he was thus the “Duke of Earlham”.

Our first crops of lambs were born in January and February, which is common in Iowa sheep operations. Lambs sold for 4-H or FFA projects need to be of a certain size early in the project year. Winter is a miserable time of year to be traipsing up to the barn to monitor lambing, so I finally started breeding my ewes in November so they would lamb in a much more pleasant April!

Because our ram was a Lincoln, some of our lambs were Lincoln/Corriedale crossbreds, and they also produced really nice wool. It had some of the luster of Lincoln, and some of the characteristics of Corriedale wool – a finer wool, and the desirable crimp.

I started to spin on a wheel after I got the sheep, and though my wool crop got pretty out of hand after my flock became larger, I did have a great time making yarn to sell.

I was much more a dabbler in the business, though I know several women in Iowa who have made it a profitable endeavor. It didn’t take long to decide to send my wool to be processed into a form that was ready to spin, but I washed and carded my first few fleeces by hand. Victoria’s first fleece became a wonderful knitted afghan that I swear is like wearing a heating pad.

Eventually, I purchased a few Jacob sheep, and then some Babydoll Southdown. Jacob are an ancient breed with four horns and multicolored fleeces. Babydolls are a small version of the Southdown sheep, which originated in England.

There’s a fabulous web site that covers the topic of sheep beautifully: www.sheep101.info. According to information on that site, I learned there are over 1,000 breeds of sheep worldwide, and over 60 breeds here in the US.

We now live in Winterset, and our sheep days are in the past, but we are glad we got to experience raising sheep. My mom raised sheep when I was growing up, and I have always loved them, especially lambs. Having my own flock was a way to connect to my childhood.

Big Event in September

Allow me to share another milestone in our household. Our son got married this past weekend at a resort in Wisconsin. The weather was perfect and venue accommodating for all family and friends that were able to attend. We were able to spend some quality time with our children and grand-daughter.

JD and Alison will continue to live in the Chicago area once they return from their honeymoon. The ceremony was at 1:00 and the reception started at 5:00 so they could do pictures between. It has been a long time since I was at a wedding where the groom did not see his bride prior to her walking down the aisle. It was emotional for JD (or the sun was in his eyes), but I did see him tearing up. As with all weddings, you hope and pray that these young couples are able to weather the storms that come their way. Marriage is hard but if they commit to working as hard on their marriage as we work at our jobs and other relationships the rewards are endless. My parents have been married next month for 64 years, Dan and I celebrated 37 years in June, so I have high hopes that this marriage will carry on the tradition of until death do us part. Congratulations JD and Alison. We love you both and are excited for you as you begin this journey together.

I was excited that my parents were able to drive from Iowa to Wisconsin to attend the wedding and festivities. They are pictured with our immediate family in this photo. It is exciting that we have 4 generations with the addition of our grand-daughter, July. It is fun to watch my mom in her great-grandma role enjoying the smiles and laughter of July. I think every parent and grandparent enjoys watching others oooh and aaah over their children or grandchildren. It was amazing how many people wanted to hold July that were new acquaintances. Some people are baby crazy even if they get spit up on. Our daughter and her husband have been great about socializing July so she has no reservations with new faces. I am prejudice as most grandparents are, but July is pretty cute and special!

I enjoyed having all 3 of our daughters in the wedding as bridesmaids. Had to capture this moment since that will never happen again. They did not think it was a big deal. As their mom, I felt differently. Alison is now our daughter as well and we all love and adore her. Many fun years ahead for our family as we gain numbers by marriage and births!

We do not have any additional milestones planned for this year. I think the birth of a grandchild and the marriage of our son to his sweetheart Alison is enough excitement for one year. Thank you for letting me share these events with you as they happen. Happy Fall!

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