COLUMBIA — Different brands of chicken feed and treats were on display on a fold-out plastic table at the Tractor Supply Company for an educational backyard chicken event Sunday. Happy Hen Treats. Harvest Delight. DuMOR.
But this is only a small taste of the evolving backyard chicken movement, which has spawned a multitude of new chicken products and variations on existing products, including chicken toys. Some people have gone above and beyond, treating their chickens as pets and dressing them and painting their nails or even creating aromatherapy perfumes for their coops.
"These things wouldn't exist if there wasn't a big movement," said Andy Schneider, who travels the country as the Chicken Whisperer.
The scale of the movement led Schneider to crisscross the country, educating people about raising chickens. His main purpose at these educational events is to debunk the myths and rumors posted online and to teach the basics of raising chickens based on his knowledge and experiences.
"It's like a chicken 101 class you take in college," Schneider said.
Schneider started out as the go-to chicken expert in his hometown of Atlanta. When the media caught wind of him, he became a national figure. Today, he is the host of Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer radio show, the national spokesperson for USDA's Biosecurity for Birds Program, the author of "The Chicken Whisperer's Guide to Keeping Chickens," and the editor-in-chief of Chicken Whisperer Magazine.
"It's kind of the American dream, to have a hobby you love and, without any planning on your part, having it come to life," Schneider said.
Most people have told him raising chickens is educational and provides fresh food. There are more benefits, Schneider said. For one, chickens are composters because they will eat almost anything. Their waste also makes very good fertilizer. They eat ticks, mosquitoes and other pests, making them good for pest control — and they can even make good pets.
"People will come up to me and say, 'They're all named, they wait on me when I get home, and they want their treat at the end of the day,'" Schneider said. "They're pets. People begin to realize this when they actually own them."
Interested in raising chickens?
But many people don't raise chickens properly, which is Schneider's main concern. At his Columbia event, Schneider made sure to detail exactly what to do and what not to do.
First, he suggested checking local laws to see if residents are allowed to own a chicken.
The next step is getting the chickens, for which there are several options.
First option: Chicken owners can use an incubator and hatch the chicks. Although incubation is a time-consuming process, Schneider suggested doing it at least once or twice for the educational experience, and then donating the incubator to a local school to use for educational purposes.
Second option: Chicken owners can order baby chicks and get them delivered. This requires paying for the chicks, shipping and a brooder, a heated container for chickens.
Third option: Starter birds, which are "teenagers," Schneider said, can be purchased. This does not require the time and money to care for chicks, but it does require a coop.
Once the eggs are hatched, a brooder is very important for the chicks. A Universal Box Brooder costs $238 from G.Q.F. Manufacturing Company.
If that's too pricey, chicken owners can use a large rectangular Rubbermaid bin with high sides, a refrigerator on its back or even a cardboard box. The brooder must have four components: bedding, a feeder, a waterer and a heat source.
"A tip — fill the base of the waterer with marbles," Schneider said. "It prevents them from walking in the water. Also, it's shiny, so it attracts them (which keeps them hydrated)."
For the heat source, heat lamps, though cheaper, can pose safety threats. Schneider suggested buying safer heaters, which cost anywhere from $75 to $129, such as EcoGlow. If someone does use a heat lamp, he said, secure it so that it doesn't fall and cause a fire.
When the chicks are old enough to be moved into a coop, Schneider's main concern is keeping them safe from air and land predators.
"If you want 100 free-range chickens, go ahead and buy 200, because predators will munch on them during the day and during the night," Schneider said.
But for those who keep their chickens in a coop, he gave some tips.
"The first level of protection may be a privacy tent around the yard," Schneider said. "The next may be a chicken run. Then, the coop."
For predatory birds, he suggested buying poultry netting. For animals that dig, he suggested digging the fence 18 inches deep, so it makes it too difficult for the animal to dig their way in. Another method is to bend the bottom 18-24 inches of the fence parallel to the ground and put something heavy, like a brick, on top, which will also make it difficult for animals to get in.
Although these methods can be time-consuming or costly, Schneider said they were very important and useful in the long run.
As for building the coop, the most important part is to make sure that it's protected and ventilated and that there is nothing that could hurt the chicken's feet, which could cause them to get an infection called Bumblefoot.
There are many coop options out there to suit individual needs, from coops that require no screwdriver for assembly to building plans for do-it-yourself people.
"It all depends on the person," Schneider said. "Everyone has specific reasons as to why they want chickens. There's no wrong reason. I'm just trying to give people the right information so the experience can be enjoyable the first time around."
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.