READSTOWN - There are a few things that truly make spring feel like spring. April showers, green grass, fresh baby lambs and of course fluffy little chicks.
Traditionally, many looking to start or add to their flock would visit their local feed store and order their chicks from one of the many hatcheries across the United States. However, in recent years, chicken enthusiasts have started hatching and raising their own for personal use and sale.
These small backyard hatcheries are probably one of the best kept secrets around. Although larger hatcheries certainly have their place in the farming food chain, able to provide a wide variety and large number of chicks on demand. Smaller hatcheries offer more controlled breeding towards poultry perfection, personally cared for chicks, and often less stress situations for the little peepers.
Emily Peterson of rural Viroqua has been working one such operation with Ridge and Valley Farms-Poultry for the last few years.
Her husband, Lee is a professional farmer, raising sheep and meat goats at their farm Ridge and Valley Farms. Having always raised chickens himself, he introduced the love of poultry to his wife after their marriage in 2014,
“I started with a few different breeds that we just purchased from the local feed store,” Peterson shared. “And then four years ago I bought some Brahmas from a friend and fell in love with the breed.”
According to The Livestock Conservancy, Brahma chickens are often referred to as “King of All Poultry. The Conservancy shares “the Brahma chicken is appreciated for its great size, strength and vigor. By 1901 some individuals were documented to have reached the incredible weights of 13-14 pounds for hens and 17 to 18 pounds for cocks. This breed, together with the Cochin, fueled what became known as “Hen Fever” a national obsession for poultry that hit both American and England around 1850.”
Brahmans are described by the Conservancy as “large chickens with feathers on shanks (legs) and toes, pea comb, smooth fitting plumage with dense down in all sections, and broad, wide head with skull projecting over the eyes-termed ‘beetle brow.’” The recognized colors for this breed as accepted by the American Standard of Perfection is the Light, Dark and Buff Brahmas.
“I love Brahmas because they’re gentle giants,” Peterson explained. “A lot of people can be intimidated by their size and even avoid them, but they’re big teddy bears. They’re docile, and very personable. They’re also very winter hardy with their feathered feet and exceptional layers in the winter, often laying through the entire cold season when some of the other birds slow down.”
As previously noted, small scale hatcheries, like the one operated by Peterson, offer many benefits, one of which being superior conformity of the chosen breeds.
“I do a lot of research and spend a lot of time looking at pictures online of chickens,” Peterson explained. “I also often refer to and study the American Standard of Perfection book. Although I raise Project and Partridge Brahmas (not recognized by the American Poultry Association) I still want breed perfection, with the wide skull, beetle brow and good full feathers among the other standards.” Peterson notes that she also raises Light Brahmas to be able to provide an ideal choice for 4H participants or those interested in showing chickens.
In addition to her gentle giants, Peterson also hatches birds that land on the smaller side of the spectrum.
D’uccles are another fun addition to the Ridge and Valley offerings. A true bantam breed, they are often on the more visually appealing end of the small chicken variety. With fluffy beards, feathered feet and stunning color patterns.
The D’uccles are classified as an “ornamental” in purpose with their egg laying being noted as “fair” and averaging two eggs a week.
But as Peterson notes, they make a great chicken for 4-H showing with their flashy good looks. They’re also considered to be a good option for people who choose not to free range their birds, as they tolerate confinement quite well.
“With both the breeds of birds we raise, we try to grow them out and improve them every year,” Peterson shared. “Last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic the demand for chicks was crazy. But also, in general we’ve seen demand increase as people are catching on that they can have chickens in town and they make a great pet. They’re great for teaching kids responsibility with feeding them and collecting eggs and cleaning their area.”
To help control her breeding pen, Peterson has several large enclosures for her poultry.
“Although they’re in a pen, the amount of square footage per chicken there is, technically labels them as free range,” Peterson explained. “It is important for the breeding program to keep them separated so we know we are focused on breeding the best birds we can.”
Peterson and her family got their start incubating with common small Styrofoam incubators that are widely available at farm stores.
“We had the smaller ones but we just couldn’t keep up,” Peterson shared with a laugh. “We now have a larger cabinet model that holds around 200 eggs and we hatch twice a week. We candle the eggs each week and monitor their development closely.”
For Peterson though, one of the biggest drives for what she does is providing accessible, high quality poultry, locally.
“I’m very passionate about the birds I raise. They’re great with kids and we are happy to have so many return customers who are also falling in love with the breeds. At this time I don’t ship my birds,” Peterson shared. “With the delays in the mail service I’m really paranoid about something happening to them. Maybe someday in the future, but not right now. We put a lot of care into them and want to make sure they have the best start possible. Our biggest goal is to have high quality birds at an affordable price. We want family’s to be able to buy nice birds to raise for 4-H without feeling the risk that comes with a very high price tag. I am just very excited to share them with people because we love them so much. It’s so different from what you get from a large hatchery with their size and quality. It’s very fulfilling to see. I just want to continue to improve the program and hoping as my kids get older they’ll also be interested in participating in their care more along with continuing to offer the best birds possible.”
As part of her work, Peterson and her chickens are NIPP Certified. This means that the flock at Ridge and Valley Farms are tested yearly for various diseases and salmonella. This not only allows Peterson to sell her chicks across state lines but also ensures that they’re meeting the highest health standards.
The 2021 Breed List for Ridge and Valley Farms Poultry includes the Standard Brahmas (Light as well as Project/Partridge colors), D’uccles that come in the Mille Fleur, Porcelain, Black and Mottled varieties as well as the occasional Easter/Olive egger or Maran hatching eggs and chicks for those interested in productive backyard birds. “These are not bred with the intention of meeting show standards, but rather are bred for hardiness, egg coloring and egg production,” Peterson notes.
All chicks are sold straight run with on farm pick up, unless otherwise specified as juveniles or grow outs.
“We are a small family run farm and availability of chicks varies based on demand as well as the fertility and egg production of our flock,” Peterson added.To learn more about Ridge and Valley Farms-Poultry or to add some of their happy birds to your own flock you can contact Emily at the Ridge and Valley Farms Poultry Facebook page, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 608-606-2047, however Emily notes that cell reception isn’t the greatest and she asks that you please leave a message and she’ll be sure to get back to you soon.