I had a request for an article on chickens. Not knowing much about chickens, I began my research. I quickly learned there is a lot to know about chickens. I certainly haven't learned it all, by any means, but I garnered some interesting facts for sure. So, Karen, here we go.
Chickens are one of the most common and widespread domestic animals in the world. There are more than 100 breeds of chicken in the world. In the United States, 30 to 60 breeds are common. Today, specific breeds of chicken are raised for meat and others to produce eggs. It wasn't always that way.
In the 1800s through the early 1900s, chickens were raised at most households whether it was a small farm or just in the backyard. These chickens supplied eggs and an occasional chicken for Sunday or holiday dinner. Flocks tended to be small because the chickens fed themselves through foraging, with some supplements of grain and food scraps. The lack of refrigeration also limited the size of flocks. Eggs were more easily transported, but chickens were mostly transported live to the buyer or local butcher. Poultry and eggs were considered luxury foods.
Chickens did not thrive in the winter. Egg production, incubation and meat production in the winter were all very difficult, making poultry seasonal and expensive. That started to change with the discovery of vitamin D in 1922 and as researchers began to understand the importance of the photoperiod (cycle of sunlight and darkness) and its effect on production. It became possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round.
In the 1920s and 1930s, more focus was given to meat production. Two kinds of poultry were generally offered as meat. The broilers or "spring chickens" were male chickens that were still young and tender. "Fowls," or "stewing hens," were old hens that were no longer good egg producers. Agricultural research aimed to develop a better broiler - a bird raised specifically for its meat. Broiler production was initiated in locations such as Delmarva Peninsula, Georgia, Arkansas, and New England. Factors in geographic expansion of the industry were favorable weather conditions, adequate land and water, and access to supplies of corn and soybeans (major components of poultry feed).
Mrs. Wilmer Steele of Sussex County, Del., is often cited as the pioneer of the commercial broiler industry. In 1923, she raised 500 chicks intended to be sold for meat. She was so profitable that by 1926, Steele was able to build a broiler house with a capacity of 10,000 birds.
Around the same time, egg production was increasing as well. Improvements in production and quality were accompanied by lower labor requirements. In the 1930s through the early 1950s, a flock of 1,500 laying hens was considered to be a full-time job for a farm family. But by the late 1950s, egg prices had dropped significantly.
Farmers compensated by adding more laying hens, which just flooded the market with more eggs driving prices down further. Many egg farmers left the business. This marked the beginning of the transition from many small family farms to the much larger operations of today.
The poultry meat production had also changed greatly by the late 1950s. Responding to the increasing consumer demand, large farms and packing plants could grow birds by the tens of thousands. Chickens could be sent out to be butchered and processed into fresh and frozen prepackaged products ready for sale.
Today poultry and eggs are not luxury foods, but everyday staples. The United States is the world's largest poultry producer - about 43 billion pounds annually, 18 percent of which is exported. We are the second largest egg producer with about 90 billion eggs. Seventy-five percent of the eggs are used for domestic human consumption and the remaining eggs are used for hatching new laying hens. It takes unimaginable resources to feed the people of this country. We eat a lot of chicken and eggs. There are many farmers, but fewer than ever before feeding more people than ever.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of riding with my maternal grandma on her egg route. There was barely enough room for her and I to sit in the car. The rest of the space was full of eggs. The only stop on the route I remember is Perry Feed and Coal. I am told that at one time, in the 1950s, the egg route included a stop at the Lake County Courthouse.
Mary Smallsreed is a member of Trumbull County Farm Bureau and grew up on a family dairy farm in northeast Ohio.