LONOKE — County, district and state fairs are months away, but preparations for poultry contests started April 13 with the distribution of more than 25,000 baby chicks to youth across Arkansas.
The chicken distribution is part of the Poultry Chain program, organized by the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The goal is to teach Arkansas 4-H youth about animal husbandry and poultry management. These skills are particularly important in Arkansas, where agriculture is the leading industry and poultry is the largest agriculture commodity. The state currently ranks third in the nation for broiler production, according to the Arkansas Poultry Federation.
More than 1,400 4-H members in 66 counties received a flock of two-day-old chicks. They will care for their flocks until fall, when they will take their best birds to the Arkansas State Fair.
Managing the health of a flock is an essential skill — even more so this year, because of the highly pathogenic avian influenza. The chicks came from a certified flu-free hatchery.
As of April 14, no cases of Avian flu had been reported in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The strain, however, has been reported in 26 states, including some states neighboring Arkansas, said Dustan Clark, extension poultry veterinarian for the Division of Agriculture.
“As cases of avian influenza continue to break in other states, it is very important that any poultry flock owner in the state of Arkansas practice biosecurity protocols and procedures,” Clark said. “Commercial growers should follow company protocol, and individuals with backyard and hobby flocks can find biosecurity recommendations for their flock on the extension website.”
Arkansas 4-H members started preparing for the chicks’ arrival before Wednesday. They’ve learned about biosecurity guidelines, including recognizing signs of illness, cleaning and disinfecting and practicing vermin control.
“Being aware of threats and knowing how to recognize signs of illness is part of managing their flock and keeping their birds healthy,” said Scharidi Barber, extension poultry instructor for youth programs.
The youth have been preparing for their flocks’ arrival. For the first couple of weeks, the chicks will live in brooder spaces outfitted with 250-watt heat lamps designed to keep the chicks warm. Pine shavings or rice hulls added into the brooder spaces provide bedding and added warmth.
The chicks are fed a high-protein mash or crumble diet designed to aid their growth and development.
Through the Arkansas Poultry Chain project, youth learn flock management skills, personal responsibility, record-keeping and entrepreneurial skills.
“Every year, we have youth who launch egg-selling businesses,” Barber said.
Most participants will eventually take their best birds to their respective county fairs and state fair in October. In these contests, luck has nothing to do with winning.
The kids start on a level playing field. They each received 17 chicks that are the same age and the same breed from the same hatchery. This year’s chickens, hatched April 10, are all Lohmann Browns, a hearty year-round egg layer that begins laying eggs around 18 weeks.
“Winning the state fair comes down to how well you’ve taken care of your birds,” Barber said. “The husbandry and management really shine through if you’ve done it right.”
County fairs are typically held in August and September, and the state fair is in October.
The Arkansas Department of Agriculture issued a 120-day emergency rule on March 23 that prohibits any poultry shows.
“That will lift hopefully in July, and we’re hoping at that point, we can continue on with county fair shows,” Barber said.