The gray mallard, an Easter present from Grandma, stood in his cage watching spectators walk past in the poultry barn at the Missouri State Fair. A pink banner with the words “Missouri State Fair 2000 Reserve Champion” hung from the cage. Light glinted off ribbons from the American Poultry Association.
Jody Bryson has been showing chickens and other animals for years, but that show was Jody’s most memorable triumph. Receiving the Reserve Champion award, just one step away from Grand Champion, was an exciting surprise.
“I felt pretty special,” Jody said. “It was the first time I got that far.”
That competition wasn’t Jody’s only triumph, as her bedroom décor reveals.
At her home, a farm at the end of the postal line in Centralia, trophies from chicken and rabbit shows line her bedroom shelves. The walls are covered in award plaques, mixed in with posters of pop music’s teeny-boppers. Countless blue and pink ribbons from livestock shows are pinned to a corkboard above her desk.
And Jody is just 14.
She is a member of FFA/4-H, a service club, and is active in a drug and alcohol awareness club at Centralia High School. She sings in a choir, too. Yet this is a girl with a passion for knowing everything there is to know about chickens.
This passion began at an early age for Jody, who wanted to follow in her older brother’s footsteps.
When she was 8, her brother brought home a white leghorn chicken from his Agriculture Extension class.
That leghorn launched Jody’s show career. The bird didn’t turn out to be a winner, but she was hooked. Years later, she travels with ducks, chickens, rabbits and goats to shows across mid-Missouri.
Each year, Jody usually starts from scratch to produce a bird that has show potential. This includes hatching the egg, raising the bird and finally taking it to the fair.
In the fall, Jody and her mom collect two dozen eggs from the black Cochins and golden pencil Hamburgs. They store the eggs in the family’s house at room temperature until they collect enough to incubate.
A Styrofoam box with a see-through lid functions as an incubator and automatically rolls them from side to side.
The chicks can be heard cheeping even before they come out of their shells. Usually after 21 days, the chicks hatch. They then are put in a cardboard box until their down begins to disappear and their wing-tip feathers start to develop.
Then the birds are moved to one of four A-frame houses in the yard behind the house. The front consists of a chicken wire enclosure of the same shape that functions as a chicken run. The run allows the chicken “free range” to enjoy the sunshine and to eat. Every few days, the houses are shifted so their grassy lots remain clean and nutritional.
If it is too cold outside, the chickens live in the barn until the weather warms up. This year, Jody and her family will incubate the eggs in mid-February so that they hatch in March.
“Usually we try to time the incubation so that the chicks aren’t born in the dead of winter,” said Jody.
As the birds mature, the more promising ones are separated from the rest of the flock. Only about half of the two dozen make the grade, based on the color and patterns of their feathers. The noncontenders are sent to live with the rest of the flock and will produce fresh eggs for the family.
During the day when someone is home, Jody or another family member frees the noncontending Cochins to roam.
“We don’t usually let the Hamburgs out,” Jody said. “They’re a little high strung and hard to catch. They’d probably run away from home. The black Cochins will usually stay in the back yard.”
Jody said it is important to keep the show chickens in the A-frames until after all the shows. Otherwise, the birds may hurt themselves, lose an important tail feather or become sick.
Getting a bird used to a smaller cage is also part of show preparation. Even though a bird needs to be calm when it’s being held, it needs to react when the judges rap on its cage.
The bird could lose points if it’s too docile from being handled too much, said Jody’s mom, Roberta Bryson. The judges expect a chicken not only to look good but also to act instinctively. As Jody helps a new flock of chickens grow, she’s maturing, too. These days, even though she still wants to win the trophies and ribbons, she’s more interested in the cash prizes she can put in her savings account.