Raising Show Chickens

It takes more than good breeding to produce blue-ribbon poultry.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: John Donges/Flickr

With 2015’s comprehensive ban on exhibiting poultry now lifted throughout the U.S., fanciers and 4-Hers alike are in full-scale preparation for an active season of community and county fairs, specialty and state exhibitions, and even national breed shows. If you’ve ever raised chickens for exhibition, you’re already well versed in the immense amount of effort and investment required for success. If you’re new to the world of competitive poultry and are considering entering one or two of your birds in an upcoming exposition, you’ll want to follow these guidelines to raising show chickens.

Raise Your Standards

As sweet and docile as your hen Goldie may be, if she’s a barnyard bird of indeterminate parentage, she’s best left behind when you go to your show. Except for the smallest local fairs, hybrid or “mixed breed” birds are not deemed showable. It’s not that these kinds of chickens are prohibited; it’s that there is simply no way to standardize the millions of possible breed combinations in order to properly and fairly judge hybrid birds.

In order to participate in a poultry show, you must have an entry that meets the definitions for one of the breeds recognized in the American Poultry Association’s American Standards of Perfection. In other words, you’ll need to raise purebred chickens. Fortunately, there are literally dozens of bantam and large-fowl breeds from which to choose. Selecting a breed can be purely subjective (you think Polish are pretty or you like the feather patterns on Barnvelders), practical (you have limited space, so you choose Japanese Bantams, or you have plenty of room and go for Jersey Giants), or even purely competitive (you did some research and know that nobody in your area raises Houdans). Whichever breed you rear, be certain to familiarize yourself with the standards for that breed. You’ll need to know these criteria when it’s time to select which members of your flock you plan to show.

Conduct A Market Study

The barnyard isn’t the only venue to avoid when shopping for show-quality poultry. Steer clear of feed stores and farmers’ supply centers, where chicks are bought from hatcheries that favor quantity over quality. These “chick days” specialists are known to often mislabel the breeds of baby birds they sell, so you may go home thinking you just bought a half-dozen Barred Rock chicks only to learn they are really Black Star hybrids. Give a wide berth to auction houses, as well; the vast majority of birds found at auctions are there because their owners no longer want them: They may be laying poorly, getting old, have a bad temperament or be sick. There’s always the possibility that they are simply surplus birds, but when those situations arise, farmers tend to keep the better birds.

Your best bet is to purchase your birds directly from local breeders. How do you find these individuals? On the internet, of course! If you know which breed you wish to raise, search for that breed’s national club, check their website for a breeders’ list, and then contact the breeders closest to you; their birds will already be acclimated to your area’s climate. You can also contact your state’s poultry-fanciers group and see if anyone on their breeders’ directory raises your bird of choice. If you’re looking for heritage chickens, The Livestock Conservancy is an excellent resource—this national organization maintains a detailed directory of breeders. Be prepared for price-tag shock, though. Show-quality purebreds can be quite pricey, even as chicks, with rare varieties commanding jaw-dropping prices (for example, $50 or higher per unsexed lavender Wyandotte chick versus a $2 to $3 Wyandotte chick sold at your local feed store).

Know Your Limits

Chicken Math isn’t a course in agricultural mathematics. For some, it’s a downright incurable affliction. The chief symptom: buying more chickens than you can properly maintain. This is often the case with backyard-flock owners who enthusiastically collect a few chickens of every color and variety possible. The result is a veritable rainbow of birds, beautiful and entertaining to look at but completely unconducive if you plan on raising show poultry.

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If your future plans include becoming a regular on the poultry-exhibit circuit, you’ll need to narrow down your breeds to a number you can reasonably house, rear and nurture. Most experienced fanciers stick to two to five breeds or varieties in an effort to maintain quality, not to mention sanity. Those new to the exhibition world often have one or two birds competing in every poultry class and can be recognized by their crazed, harried look as they dash back and forth amongst the rows of show cages, trying to care for all their chickens.

Housing & Chicken Development

When raising show poultry, three main precepts should be followed to ensure your birds are fit for exhibition.

Don’t Let Your Breeds Mix

This is self explanatory. The second your Dark Brahma boy lays eyes on your Welsummer girl, you can kiss your purebreds goodbye. Almost as important is keeping your varieties separate. If you keep your white, partridge, blue and barred Cochins all in the same coop, it will be nearly impossible to determine the parentage of the ensuing chicks, which might result in angry customers down the road, especially when the supposedly partridge Cochin chick they purchased from you yields fluffy blue babies.

Don’t Let Your Flocks Range

This often mystifies those fanciers new to show poultry. Sunlight, fresh air and forage usually combine for a healthy bird, so why restrict a rooster or hen from roaming? The answer is because of Murphy’s Law. Let your stunning Speckled Sussex out for a stroll and chances are she’ll come back limping because she tripped on a chipmunk burrow, stinking from an afternoon scratching in a compost pile, or bleeding because she tore up her comb on a pointy branch. One sunny stroll can sideline your chicken—and you—for most of the exhibition season. Why risk it? Be a well-intentioned meanie and restrict your flocks’ range.

Don’t Let Your Birds Socialize

This is the third and, for many new poultry exhibitors, the hardest rule of thumb to enforce. Chickens are social animals. They establish a complex community with a distinct pecking order—and it’s this very social structure that can wreck havoc on your birds. A hen who has missing back and neck feathers due to an amorous rooster won’t stand a chance against her fully feathered competition. Neither will any bird who has been injured or is skittish due to constant hen pecking by higher-ranked birds.

Dedicated poultry exhibitors provide their show prospects with special enclosures that house two to three birds total. These chicken condos provide the birds with enough room to move, enough companionship to keep from being lonely, and enough isolation to keep them safe, unmarred and ready to wow the judges. Housing your show birds shouldn’t break the bank, however. Affordable options are portable rabbit hutches, large dog crates and movable chicken tractors. Add feeder, waterer and litter, and your prize pullets can move right in.

Cull, Cull, Cull

Remember those Standards you need to know for each breed you raise? As show time draws near, you’ll need to put that knowledge to use so that only your very best birds are entered in the upcoming competition. Which of your birds has the beak color, shank color and earlobe color that best matches the Standards of Perfection? Which has the best-formed comb, the best-developed feathering, the proper keel and body weight? In other words, which of your chickens is as close to perfect as possible? That bird is your show bird.

As you gain experience raising show poultry, you’ll develop a better eye for imperfections and will be able to identify these earlier in a bird’s life. Once you determine which members of your flock have traits that don’t conform to the breed’s Standards of Perfection, you’ll need to cull those birds. This doesn’t necessarily mean killing the substandard hen or rooster. Many poultry keepers sell these imperfect birds as “pet quality” poultry to people who simply want to keep chickens. Others keep an everyday laying flock of show-bird rejects (albeit quite far from where their exhibition birds are housed). And yes, some send their undesirables to “freezer camp.” No one ever said it was easy raising show poultry. Learning to set all sentimentality aside is a skill you’ll eventually develop.

Be Prepared

Despite all of the hard work you’ve put into your flock during the months leading to your first fair or show, something unexpected may come up that may throw you for a loop. Among the more interesting surprises I’ve seen in my years exhibiting poultry:

  • A corrected show card on a Dutch Bantam’s cage, marked up by a judge in big black marker: NOT A HEN (Note: Learn to identify your bird’s gender.)
  • A trio of eggs in the corner of a show cage purportedly containing three Cornish Cross cockerels (Note: Yes, really … learn to identify your birds’ gender.)
  • A Barred Rock rooster bolting around the show tent, crowing madly and eluding capture by every breeder present (Note: Securely close your show-cage door … and keep a net handy.)
  • An unsupervised toddler happily wandering up and down the show-cage rows, cheerfully opening the doors to all the cages (Note: Securely buckle your child’s stroller belt … and keep an eye on your birds.)
  • A flight delay resulting in entries being judged by the show superintendent versus an APA-certified poultry judge (Note: Don’t be picky about your judge, even if he’s barely 20 years old.)
  • Grown women reduced to name-calling and hair-pulling over a 5-gallon bucket of layer rations each claimed as her own (Note: Label your belongings … and don’t apply pecking-order behavior to your fellow exhibitors.)

In cases like these, do your best to be flexible, keep your sense of humor, and consider everything a learning experience that will help shape you into a better show-poultry breeder. Remember, you wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t enjoy raising birds, so keep calm and show-chicken on!

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