The pandemic has created a run on chicks at farm supply stores around the U.S.

By Jelisa Castrodale
April 06, 2020
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One of the most popular posts on Modern Farmer right this second is a six-year old piece about raising backyard chickens, which lists the pros and cons of having your own flock of birds. Some of the positives are obvious—hens tend to lay eggs—but there are some unexpected negatives, like the fact that they don't always follow the egg-laying schedules that are printed in the chicken-rearing literature, and that they can smell like feathered death, despite your best efforts at coop maintenance.

It's not a strange coincidence or a weird algorithm that has pushed that to the top of the site's Most Read list; it's because people really are stocking up on live chickens right now, which is one of the more surprising impulse-buys that anyone has ever added to their shopping cart, either in-store or online.

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Farm supply stores in multiple U.S. states have reported selling out of chicks, or having to put per-person limits on them, or both. The Ogden [Utah] Intermountain Farmers Association told the Associated Press that it sold 1,000 chicks in a single day. Strutty’s Feed and Pet Supply in San Antonio said that customers have been making a "mad dash for the chickens" when their weekly shipment of 300-350 birds arrives. And the Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri, told NPR that it has been "swamped with orders" in the past few weeks.

The run on backyard birds has undoubtedly been driven by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, whether as a response to an increase in the price of eggs, in finding empty meat and egg cases at the supermarket, or as a way to try to become more self-sufficient for any kind of future disruption to the food supply.

Some parents have also used the chickens as an ongoing lesson for their now-home-schooled kids. "Chickens are a great way of tying in biology, animal behavior, math, and other subjects,” Erin Scheessele, an Oregon mom who just got a starter flock for her 9- and 11-year-old sons, told the New York Times.

But despite this newfound enthusiasm for becoming an urban (or suburban) farmer, experts suggest doing some research so you know what you're getting into—and what a long, involved commitment this might be. Marisa Erasmus, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, said that maybe mid-pandemic isn't the right time to start a backyard flock.

“If you’re thinking of buying chicks, do your work ahead of time,” she said. “Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. These animals are going to grow up and have very specific needs. They are reliant on us to provide for them and we have to be sure we can do that.”

Erasmus suggests that, at a minimum, you need to know what kind of structure you'll be housing your birds in, their nutritional requirements as they grow, and how to recognize if a chicken has become ill or has been injured.

Most importantly, you need to be aware that the chicks you buy today probably aren't going to lay eggs for another five to six months. “It’s an exciting time to see the backyard industry grow, but it’s also a concerning time,” Christie Quintanilla, who runs the Cluckingham Palace farm outside San Antonio said.

“My hope is that all of these people buying chicks and chickens will stay loyal to them, because the chick buyers aren’t going to see any eggs until at least late August or September, and the health climate is going to be different then ... I hope.”