An uptick in poultry farming due to the pandemic and resulting food shortages has highlighted a need for animal welfare education, helping new and existing farmers make conscientious decisions about obtaining and raising birds. University of Maryland Extension (UME) poultry management and welfare specialist Shawna Weimer, and colleagues from several cooperative Extension programs, created the Poultry Extension Collaborative (PEC) to educate farmers on making scrupulous decisions for their animals.
Recent delays in the shipping of mail-order chicks at the already encumbered U.S. Postal Service has brought chicken welfare headlines to the forefront of news media. Delayed shipping caused numerous deaths of baby chicks in transit, presenting biosecurity and health concerns. The PEC, developed in early 2020 and consisting of animal science and welfare Extension specialists from UME, Purdue University, North Carolina State University, and Virginia Tech, is addressing these concerns, as well as other pertinent animal health and welfare issues.
“The information we disseminate is meant to build awareness and educate poultry enthusiasts,” said Weimer, who originally came from Iowa and has worked in agriculture all of her life. “The COVID pandemic has created unprecedented times for everyone and we should make informed decisions about online purchases in the current climate.”
Chickens were in short supply during early spring due to a rise in new startups as a means to improve food security during the pandemic. The PEC team was poised to address the need to educate these new farmers, coming together to create a website, social platforms, and a monthly newsletter.
“We are a unique group of researchers experienced in working with a broad range of poultry species,” said Leonie Jacobs, assistant professor of animal behavior and welfare at Virginia Tech. “We aim to help poultry farmers, both on a small and large scale, by providing science-based information that is focused on animal care and animal welfare.”
“The mission of the PEC is to advance the science of poultry care and well-being while making it accessible to the general public,” said Marisa Erasmus, Extension specialist with Purdue University, providing information on a variety of topics related to raising chickens, as well as other birds like turkeys and ducks, including enrichments, biosecurity, and specialized topics like mail-order chicks.
Mail-order chicks themselves are nothing new, said Weimer. The U.S. Postal Service began shipping chicks in 1918, and animal welfare science has created a standard and reliable delivery process with specialized packaging for the health, nutrition, and comfort of hatchlings.
“Normally the baby chicks would be fine,” said Weimer. “The problem isn’t mail-order chicks -- the problem is delayed shipping due to increased volume in sales coupled with longer delivery wait times. That’s where consumer choices and making conscientious decisions come in.”
“New farmers can use the educational materials developed by the PEC as a research tool or guide in poultry care and well-being as an integral part of their farming experience,” said Prafulla Regmi, Extension specialist with North Carolina State University. “Existing producers can look forward to educational tools and comprehensive information on emerging issues that will help them use management or husbandry interventions to ensure optimal poultry welfare.”
Weimer and her colleagues suggest several solutions for obtaining chicks despite delays in shipping. If a hatchery is local to backyard farmers, she suggests people simply pick up their own baby chicks and transport them personally. However, local hatcheries are few and far between and that may not be an option for many East coast farmers.
“One solution is actually hatching your own chickens. You can get eggs and reasonably priced incubator kits to hatch your own babies,” she said. “If you have kids, you can create a science experiment out of it and watch the eggs incubate and hatch.”
Ordering from local tractor supply stores is another option, although many of them may also receive their chicks through the mail as well, Weimer said. “If you are going to order chicks, keep tabs on them. If you’re planning to order that day, then look at the weather for the upcoming week,” said Weimer. “Make conscientious decisions about the welfare of your baby chicks.”
To hear more of Weimer’s take on mail-order chicks, see this month’s Poultry Science Association’s Let’s Squawk About it (Ep. 5) on Mail Order Chicks.
For more information on the Poultry Extension Collaborative or to sign up for the newsletter, go to https://www.poultry-welfare-extension.com/. For more information on the University of Maryland Extension, go to https://extension.umd.edu/.