The printed advertisement created by the U. S. Department of Agriculture reads:
“Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens and raise chickens. Every backyard in the U.S. should contribute its share to a bumper crop of poultry and eggs.”
That advertisement, dialing up a feeling of patriotism, appeared in 1918 as World War I was winding down. But old ideas sometimes become new again.
A resurgence in backyard poultry is bringing a wave of business to feed and livestock stores in northern Nevada.
Among the beneficiaries are Jim and Debbie Deem, who opened 1-Stop Ranch & Feed on Glendale Avenue in Sparks nearly three years ago.
“We jumped into our business at the worst time, but we’ve managed to hold on. When we first opened, I’d say 70 percent of our business was with horse owners, the rest was poultry. Today, it has reversed,” Jim Deem says.
He says the bulk of his business comes from residents of Reno and the surrounding Sparks area.
“We get customers from Quincy, Susanville, Lovelock and Minden, too,” he says. “This year, we’ve gone through 500 chicks and, of course, the feed and wire it takes to sustain an urban chicken environment.”
One weekend a month, the Northern Nevada Poultry Fanciers Association conducts chicken swaps in concert with feed and seed shop owners.
“The swap brings in hens, roosters, geese and ducks and our sales double every time we have a poultry swap,” says Deem.
Deem orders most of his baby chicks from Ideal Poultry in Cameron, Texas, and his most popular seed comes from Bar Ale located in Williams, Calif.
“When I began selling seed I bought from Bar Ale, and my customers told me they noticed egg production increasing, and the yolk color was more vibrant, so we are sticking with that company,” he says.
Scott Green, manager of Green’s Feed near the Bonanza Casino on North Virginia Street, says the 25-year-old company sees strong increases in poultry sales.
“Last year, we sold over 6,500 baby chicks. This year, we are at 7,300 and we only make such sales over a three month period, from roughly early March through the end of May,” Green says. “I have 13 employees who spend tireless hours working with customers helping them to design a chicken-raising facility that works for them in their backyard space.”
The growth in backyard poultry in northern Nevada is part of a trend that has seen cities such as San Diego, Seattle and Portland lowering barriers and allowing citizens to keep hens and raise chickens for their eggs.
One strong proponent is Melody Hefner, a University of Nevada Cooperative Extension specialist who has been raising chickens for their egg production in her backyard for years.
“For a minimal amount of effort and space, chickens produce a product that your entire family can use,” she says.
The Spanish Springs resident says it is important to make a distinction between a production facility and literally homegrown chickens.
“In a production facility, chickens lay eggs for two years and are then harvested and themselves become food. At my house — I don’t know about other people — every chicken gets a name, so harvesting is not an option, especially when you have kids as I do.
“We have six-year-old hens that still lay a few eggs,” she says. “A chicken can live for more than 10 years, yet the best laying years are perhaps three, so you have these old lady chickens hanging around unless you are heartless enough to harvest them.”
Raising chickens in an urban environment, however, is not without pitfalls. Some communities have ordinances that prohibit the practice. Reno allows it; Sparks does not unless the property is zoned agricultural.
Washoe County allows urban chickens, but a homeowners associations in some neighborhoods might impose restrictions.
Hefner suggests working with area feed stores who can assist in understanding what communities have restrictions.
“All the feed stores in town have chicks at this time of year, and there are a lot of hatcheries that will mail chicks to you overnight, but a lot have a minimum of perhaps 25 chicks,” she says, “So that’s why most go to feed stores where you might find a three-chick minimum.”
A healthy adult hen may lay up to 300 eggs per year and if one had five hens, they might supply upwards of 30 eggs a week to meet the needs of a typical family of four.
Hefner says would-be chicken owners “definitely need a game plan if you plan to raise your own chickens for the eggs. You need a nesting box. You need a coop. You need a manure management plan. And you should get a balanced feed for your birds. You also need to remember you live in the desert and you must provide sufficient water. A chicken is 60 percent water and the egg is 65 to 70 percent water, so if the chickens don’t get enough water, you won’t get eggs.”
Hefner recommends working closely with feed store experts and notes there is a wealth of information on the Internet.
“Do your research and enjoy the result,” she says. “I look for a breed of chicken that has a docile personality, breeds that are reliable producers and don’t cause a lot of problems. What you want is a lawn ornament that just happens to be alive, and they can really be comedians that are entertaining as well.”
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