Across America, August means Ferris wheels, funnel cake and thrill rides. It’s fair season, and fairgrounds from coast to coast are drawing thousands of attendees eager to try their hand at carnival games, feast on funnel cake and French fries, and cheer on the demolition-derby drivers.
Some fair goers enjoy touring the exhibition halls to see the competitive entries in pie making, vegetable growing, and canning. Others flock to the barnyards to see the swine, steers, sheep and other entries in the animal husbandry and showmanship divisions.
If you find yourself hovering by your fairground’s poultry barn year after year, perhaps it’s time to consider making the leap from fair goer to fair chicken exhibitor. It’s not as daunting an undertaking as you may imagine.
Participating as a poultry exhibitor gives you the opportunity to show your beloved birds. It’ll also allow you to meet other chicken keepers in your community. And who knows? Perhaps you may even bring home an award ribbon.
Intrigued? Here are seven things you should know to prepare your chicken (and yourself) for the fair.
1. Contact Your Fair’s Poultry Superintendent
Every fair division—whether it’s poultry, antiques or photography—has a superintendent who runs their part of the show. The poultry superintendent’s responsibilities include leasing the exhibition equipment, hiring blood testers, arranging for the judges and registering exhibitors.
Because they need to know how many show cages to rent, the majority of poultry superintendents make pre-registration mandatory. You’ll want to reach out to your fair’s poultry superintendent to find out when the deadline to register your chicken for the fair is.
The superintendent can also tell you:
- what the cost per bird is
- when you can check in your birds
- whether you or a fair volunteer will be responsible for feeding and watering your chicken, as well as and egg collecting
- when you can pick your birds up
Contact your fair office to request your poultry superintendent’s name, phone number and email address.
2. Pick Up a Copy of Your Fair’s Premium
Every fair publishes a premium, or fair book, which lists the entire events schedule, all the competitive classes and subdivisions, words of welcome from the fair director, and photos from previous years. Exhibitioners view the premium as a trusted guidebook.
Ask your fair office if they can mail you a premium. The fair’s web site may have a PDF version available to download and print.
Local feed, farm-supply and gardening stores may also have a limited number of fair books to distribute. My advice is to go through the entire premium carefully—and with a trio of neon-colored highlighters.
- Use green (for “Go!”) to highlight the division you will definitely enter.
- A yellow highlighter can mark categories you need to give a little more consideration before entering.
- Orange can outline exhibits you’d like to see but are not entering (at least not this year).
Believe it or not, color coding your premium will help calm any anxiety you might feel as a first-time exhibitor. Plus, it will aid in organization.
3. Decide Upon Your Entries
Now that you know which exhibition categories you’d like to enter, it’s time to select what chicken (or chickens) to bring to the fair. This is typically done months before the fair, but it’s okay if there are only weeks until show time.
If you have a backyard flock, you’ll have an easy time selecting your show birds. If you run a small-scale farm, you’ll need to spend some time amongst your flock to determine which birds to enter.
Remember that poultry exhibition is not a beauty pageant. It’s an examination to determine which birds most closely embody the Standards of Perfection (SOP) for their breed. If you are unfamiliar with your breed’s SOP, it’s vital that you learn them as soon as possible, as the SOP will clearly define what the judges will look for.
Familiarizing yourself with the SOP will ensure you don’t enter an Orpington with off-color shanks, a hard-feathered Silkie, or an overweight Cochin. If you can’t get a hold of a copy of the latest SOP—it’s updated yearly—check online at your breed’s national club or association site. With the SOP as your guide, choose your exhibition birds.
4. Pamper Your Poultry
For the weeks leading up to fair check-in, treat your chicken competitors as if they were royalty (which may well be the status quo). If at all possible, separate them from the rest of your flock—and each other. The last thing you want is a pecking-order injury.
Ensure your competition squad has clean shavings, fresh water and nutrient-rich rations. Inspect their talons and trim, file and buff them to remove jagged edges, chips and overgrowth. Check each bird’s beak for overgrowth as well, and carefully trim and file any away.
Carefully remove any broken feathers. A day or two prior to the fair, bathe your chicken in a tub of lukewarm water with a no-more-tears baby shampoo. Use a blow dryer on low to dry and fluff out your chicken’s feathers.
If you have an old silk scarf or silk pajama, use this to “polish” your bird’s feathers. Something about silk brings out the shine in feathers, especially black feathers.
5. Prepare a Care Package
You won’t need to pack a suitcase for your chicken’s time away from home. But you will need a few things for a successful exhibition-barn stay.
- First and foremost are show cups. These small, plastic bowls interconnect with show-cage wiring, which hold cups in place, elevated off the cage floor. You’ll use these cups to hold your bird’s food and water.
- Next is a place for your bird to sleep on. Show cages are not equipped with perches. Furthermore, they tend to be stacked, so litter and straw is impractical. I’ve had great success with disposable nestbox liners. Your bird can scratch and shape it into a soft bed to use for the duration of their stay. And they can be easily removed and shaken out should they become messy.
- Finally, you’ll want to pack a backpack or tote with an airtight container filled with your flock’s chicken feed. Familiar food will lessen your bird’s stress. Plus there are no guarantees that the fair will provide chicken rations.
You may also want to pack a jug of water, since exhibition-hall water sources tend to be mobbed by other animal owners. You’ll keep this backpack or tote in your car, ready to bring to the poultry hall every day.
6. Time to Go!
Quite possibly the worst part of poultry exhibition is transporting your birds. Somehow, you’ll need to put each chicken in a small, enclosed carrier and listen to them freak out as you drive to the fairgrounds. To be honest, I’m not sure who gets more stressed out, the chickens or the humans.
Hard-sided, individual pet carriers make excellent transporters. They are easy to clean and well ventilated, and they allow your bird to see out. I use rabbit carriers, which have individual cubbies with dividers to keep animals isolated yet together.
I’ve seen exhibitors bring their birds in cardboard boxes, in Rubbermaid totes and in soft-sided cat carriers.
Whichever conveyance you choose, make sure to protect your car’s interior by putting down a heavy-duty tarp prior to loading your birds. You may also want to have a friend or relative sit in the back to comfort the chickens as you drive … or to have them drive as you sit with your birds, reassuring them with your voice.
7. Checking In
Even if you are pre-registered, expect a long line at check in. Each individual bird must be blood tested by an NPIP tester or avian veterinarian to ensure it is not infected with pullorum or fowl typhoid.
Occasionally, fairs also test for highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Once your bird’s health status has been approved, the poultry superintendent will assign you a show cage and hand you a show card to place on the cage exterior. Occasionally, the show card may have been filled out for you by the superintendent. More than likely, you’ll need to fill it out for yourself.
Write clearly in print, not cursive. The judges will use the information on the card to identify your bird and will write their score and notes in the designated section. Show cards commonly ask for your bird’s breed, variety and age/gender (pullet or cockerel for birds less than a year old; hen or cock for birds older than one year).
Double check your information. I’ve seen birds disqualified for having the wrong variety (“NOT AN AMERAUCANA”), wrong color (“BLUE, NOT GREY”) and gender (“NOT A PULLET”).
If there’s room on the show card, add your bird’s name (“Hi! I’m Sweetheart!”). This won’t sway the judges to your chicken, but fair goers will love it. Make sure you hang your show card high enough on your cage’s exterior so that your bird doesn’t tear it to shreds. It never hurts to ask the poultry superintendent for a spare card, just in case. Better to ask them now, when they have the show cards in hand, than in four days, when they have to take time away from the exhibition to search for a spare.
Now, Enjoy the Show
Once your bird is settled, you can relax and enjoy the fair! Okay, you’ll probably spend most of your time at the poultry exhibition, looking at all the other chickens, taking note of breeds that interest you and evaluating your direct competition. A lot of poultry exhibitors also chat with each other, trying to determine which bird will win the coveted Best in Show.
Be sure to check in on your chicken in the morning and in the evening to ensure she has plenty of water and to pull any eggs. Arrive extra early on competition day to quickly inspect your bird before the judges arrive. You won’t be allowed in the exhibition hall during judging, so go have a fresh-squeezed lemonade, take a stroll through the funhouse, and try your luck throwing darts at balloons before going back for the results.
At the very least, you and your chicken will have enjoyed the entire fair exhibition experience. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a rosette hanging on your chicken’s show cage.