Mahomet-Seymour's Delaney Smith is wild about chickens

Delaney Smith isn't a typical teenager. She rises early and spends most of her time thinking about chickens.

"Every morning she gets up and gets ready for school and then comes and turns her birds out," said Jennifer Smith, the 15-year-old's mother.

The Mahomet-Seymour sophomore has 18 bantam chickens and is a dedicated 4-H and FFA member, spending much of her time focused on showing her birds at county and state fair shows, along with open events.

Her efforts paid off tenfold this year as her silver blue modern game bantam chicken, Squirt, won the Champion Bantam Pullet division at the Junior Show at the Illinois State Fair.

Delaney Smith's efforts also won her the coveted Overall Grand Champion Female at the Illinois State Fair Junior Poultry Show.

"I was very surprised," Delaney Smith said. "When they came up to give the prize to me and said it was my silver blue pullet, I just got very surprised. I wasn't grinning very much. I was just in shock."

Delaney Smith raised Squirt from a hatch earlier this year.

"You have an incubator and it takes 21 days of incubation for the chick to hatch," she said.

Each January, the Smiths dedicate one room in their home to incubating more than 300 eggs.

"We have four incubators running all with different temperatures and levels of humidity," Jennifer Smith said. "We then use Rubbermaid totes that the chicks stay in until they get their feathers and can come outside."

For the pullet and cockerel divisions at the shows, birds must be under 1 year of age to show, which means they have to be hatched within the calendar year.

"The earlier you can hatch them, the older and more mature they'll be at showtime," Jennifer Smith said. "You want to hatch them as close to Jan. 1 as you possibly can, which means our hens typically have lights on them to trick them into thinking the days are longer. This keeps them laying eggs because otherwise they don't typically lay eggs in the winter."

The breeding process is a "fun" experiment for Delaney Smith as she carefully selects a male and female to make the perfect show bird.

"She references a book of standards, which is basically a book that tells you exactly what chickens should look like," Jennifer Smith said. "You want to breed as close to the standard as you can."

Getting a flawless cross can prove to be a difficult task. This year, Delaney Smith said her birds would have "good bodies" and good coloring or they would have good coloring but be "bad bodied."

"If you have a hen that has a lot of lacing and a rooster that doesn't, they're supposed to make good lacing but that doesn't always happen," Jennifer Smith said.

"It's kind of difficult, too, because she has an amazing body, she's nicely built, it's just that she doesn't have the right lacing," Delaney Smith added.

Much of what Delaney Smith learns is through pure trial and error. Last year, she purchased birds from Indiana and even Louisiana to build a quality program.

"You can get chickens from anywhere," Jennifer Smith added. "Most people think, 'Oh a chicken, it's probably like $5, right?' She's spending $50 to $75 for one chicken to bring quality into her program. She gets super excited about it and she doesn't even blink about spending the money. She's like, 'Oh, I need this!'"

But Delaney Smith's favorite part of breeding and raising chickens is showtime.

"I love to show," she said. "I like raising them and to see how quality I can get them. My favorite thing about this breed in particular is how easy they are to handle. They aren't even flighty. They come right up to you and they aren't going to go running when they see you."

The Mahomet-Seymour sophomore spends hours and many Sunday mornings on her front porch working with the chickens one-on-one, training them to pose correctly for showing.

"We use treats to get them to stand up," she said. "Whenever they come to a show, the judges are looking for them to pose, so they want them to stand up straight. We use food to make them think they're going to get something."

The week before a show, Delaney Smith prepares the birds by putting them through a series of baths in different bucket mixtures. It starts with a bucket of warm, soapy water to thoroughly cleanse the feathers, followed by a bucket of vinegar and water mixture to break down the soap residue and finally one last rinse of warm water.

"Showing chickens is its own thing," Jennifer Smith joked. "Parents of new 4-H'ers are like, 'Oh, we'll show chickens, that sounds easy.' But most never consider that you actually bathe chickens before a show."

But good hygiene is only one factor of prepping a bird for show. The real preparation begins with good nutrition and a deworming program.

"You can only make a bird look OK if it's not from the inside out," Jennifer Smith added.

But just like humans, chickens, too, are susceptible to sickness, especially with respiratory illnesses. With area veterinarians only having minimal knowledge about chickens, Delaney Smith has also had to learn how to treat her chickens when they become ill.

"She can look and say, 'oh, she's not acting right,' and I'm like, 'she looks alright,' but she'll say, 'no, no, no, that's not normal for her,'" Jennifer Smith said. "She starts to really learn their normal activities and behaviors so she can pick up on things before it gets to the point that they're not going to make it."

One of the ways Delaney Smith accomplishes this is through a great deal of research. Over the summer, she connected with University of Illinois animal science Ph.D. student Shameer Rasheed and Professor Dr. Ryan Dilger, who use chickens as a model for research, to learn more about the birds' digestive systems.

"I have never seen a kid get so excited about dissecting a chicken, taking pictures and using the experience to teach others about what she learned," Jennifer Smith said. "She was like, 'I got to dissect a chicken and I got to isolate the digestive tract!'"

The M-S sophomore aspires to become a veterinarian one day. Ambitions aside, Jennifer Smith sees the hobby as "broadening her horizons" for future career prospects and just good old-fashioned fun.

"If she decides not to go to vet school along the way, maybe she'll realize that there's other options and opportunities that are just as good," Jennifer Smith said.

But for now, Jennifer Smith enjoys watching her daughter succeed in her 4-H and FFA showings and the experiences she gains through such opportunities.

"She's made some really great friends through showing," she said. "We all just want to see our kids flourish and thrive and learn and grow. There's really nothing like sitting around in the barns at the county fair and all of the kids running around and playing together. They're covered in dirt, and at the end of the day, you're flat out exhausted, but by golly, you want to get up and do it again the next day."

Categories (4):News, Agriculture, Education, People

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