As more people look to have control over how their food is grown, many are planting gardens for the first time. And some are even turning their backyards into chicken coops. It’s the time of year when hardware stores and agricultural supply companies share space among the lawnmowers and grass seed with live baby chickens.
Some venues offer informational seminars to help customers get started. On a recent Thursday night at a Cedar Falls farm store, Cargill animal nutrition specialist Jodi Holmes said people came with a lot of questions.
“How much space do I need, how much feed will I go through, do I need a rooster to get eggs?” she says.
Hobby farmer Janeece Downs from nearby Denver says she and her husband just needed a quick refresher, since they’ve raised chickens in the past.
“We want it for the healthy eggs, for chores for the kids to do," Downs says. "I grew up on a farm and we had chickens and other birds and animals. I had a blast spending hours catching them and playing with them. It was a good time.”
The rookies are here, too. Paul Keller and his family raise organic vegetables near Janesville. He says they spent a good deal of time doing research before deciding to add poultry to the mix.
"We did a lot reading and a lot of video," he says. "We just got our chicks and we’re setting up the hen house. We make to make sure we’re doing it right and don’t have any major mistakes."
Animal specialist Holmes admits sometimes finding out what it takes to be a backyard farmer is enough to curb the enthusiasm. She remembers a recent customer who learned she would need a brooder and a heat lamp, in addition to items for feeding and watering the chicks. She decided not to pursue the hobby.
“That’s ok because that’s where the education part of these seminars comes in," Holmes says. "Because if you get into it and lose a whole batch of chicks, it’s frustrating and people will likely never do it again.”
Iowa had a costly brush with avian flu last spring which killed millions of the state’s chickens.
Holmes says now there’s extra attention being placed on bio security, and that has resulted in a number of additional safety steps.
"That's making sure they’re washing their hands and their tools, not sharing between their farm and their neighbor’s farm, quarantining new birds until they’re proven healthy before they’re introduced to the existing flock,” she says.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey says while most of the bird flu was confined to large commercial flocks it would be foolish not to be vigilant about what’s going on in our backyard.
"Watch those chicks and make sure they’re healthy and if they’re not, we want you to report to us or the local veterinarian a concern that they would have so we can test for avian influenza and control the spread of the disease,” he says.
Northey says these projects are small scale, not regulated by the state. Some are used for 4H and FFA exhibits. By the way, to answer the question at the beginning of the story about whether you need a rooster to get eggs, you don’t.