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Interest in small poultry flocks growing

Maybe it's the slumping economy or the interest in locally-grown foods, but Kansas State University animal science professor Scott Beyer is getting a lot of questions about raising small flocks of chickens.

"Judging by the number of phone calls and e-mails received in my office, it seems that public interest in owning a few chickens for a home flock is on the upswing," said Beyer, who is a poultry specialist with K-State Research and Extension. "Many of the calls are from people who have little experience raising any type of farm animal; other calls are from people who once had a flock, and now want to keep chickens again."

Beyer said the increased interest started in 2007, about the time that grain prices escalated and grocery store egg prices soared. But even as egg and feed prices have moderated, interest in egg and meat type poultry has continued, he said.

"One can't help but wonder if the economy has anything to do with this renewed interest in poultry husbandry," he said. Lately, he's asked more questions of the callers about why they are interested in raising poultry. The responses have been varied, but "the economy does seem to be a common thread."

"Some people have expressed a need to feel more self sufficient, especially with the problems in the economy," Beyer said. "When faced with difficult times, people seek efficiency and a return to simpler times. But there are also people who want to eat foods grown locally."

Some wish to support American products, while others want to reduce their carbon footprint and not purchase foods that must travel hundreds of miles from production areas.

"There is also a 'locavore' movement, where people wish to consume fresh foods grown locally in season, in a quest for improved nutrition, better taste and support of local farms," Beyer said. "Other locavores are motivated by the organic movement and animal welfare concerns."

He believes that some people have been drawn due to a national movement to keep chickens as a hobby. He cited articles in USA Today and Newsweek magazine, about keeping small flocks.

"Websites promoting small flocks have popped up offering equipment for sale and advice about poultry husbandry, sort of promoting an underground swelling of support," he said.

Beyer, who started at K-State 15 years ago, said Kansas had several small hatcheries then that hatched poultry and waterfowl. However, as the owners retired, they closed. That followed a national trend of smaller hatcheries closing their doors and leaving the business.

"Today, most poultry in Kansas is commercially produced, although there are still a few smaller hatcheries that focus on game bird production," he said, adding that that has been an important enterprise in the state. "This trend followed the movement of rural population to urban areas where livestock production is not possible. And with low prices and high quality, it has been more economical to pick up eggs at the grocery."

But things have changed, Beyer said. He recalled a discussion with one prospective flock owner who said, "'running into town' was actually a 50-mile round trip, and with gas at $4 a gallon, a dozen eggs could cost him $15!"

"For years, I've noticed that you can take a drive through much of farm country and you will soon notice a couple of things that seem to be missing--fewer people keep vegetable gardens around the house and most of the old chicken coops are closed up and decaying in the field," he said. "Specialized food production and off-farm employment are probably the biggest contributors to this change. But now seed companies are reporting a surge in seed and fruit tree orders as people try to reduce food costs and get back to self sufficiency. This could be the same reason for renewed interest in small poultry flocks."

Some callers are interested in heritage breed production, Beyer said. Heritage breeds are the older breeds that once populated small farms across the country. Many of these breeds have been in danger of disappearing as the commercial industry has specialized and small flocks evaporated. But groups interested in maintaining genetic diversity have emphasized the need to improve the quality of these old breeds so that producers have a reason to keep them.

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K-State poultry specialist gives tips for prospective flock owners

Kansas State University poultry specialist Scott Beyer has seen an increased interest in raising small flocks of poultry. Some of this interest has come from people who have never had poultry--or any type of livestock.

"Before anyone establishes a flock, they need to check with local agencies to determine if poultry are allowed," Beyer said. "Some municipalities have banned birds altogether, while others have placed limits on the numbers or have prohibited roosters. While one person might find the early morning crow of a rooster to be relaxing, others find them to be an annoying alarm clock. And, of course, we all have different opinions of farm animal odor."

Many municipalities that once banned birds have reconsidered after receiving pressure from local clubs and now allow birds with certain requirements.

"Interestingly, it seems that many non-farm communities that banned birds long ago are now reversing their decision, while communities in farm states seem to be banning birds for the first time," the animal scientist said. "Past reasons for banning poultry include noise, odor, and concerns about disease control. However, research hasn't really connected disease problems to any real threats to human safety, while pets of all kinds could be implicated in the spread of things like Salmonella. And other ordinances for noise and odor could be invoked to control anything that causes them, rather than simply banning one type of animal."

Other callers are interested in small poultry flocks for 4-H and FFA projects for children.

"Poultry make an excellent starting project since they consume much less feed than some other livestock. Plus, they require less space and don't require expensive equipment," Beyer said.



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