Aug. 16, 2012 - Most of the chickens Mary Ann Fordyce raises at Blue Star Ranch near Bellville are destined for backyard coops and small-scale poultry operations around the state. Some have even gone on to star on stage in two Houston performances of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which was, of course, centered on an establishment known informally as the Chicken Ranch.
The chickens Fordyce raises are not raised to be stars of stage or screen, but to be happy, healthy and safe. Beyond that, they are raised to be sold to people who want their own chickens. In the five years that Fordyce has sold chickens from Blue Star Ranch, she has gleaned a wealth of information, which she shares with fellow poultry enthusiasts on her website and in person if they visit the ranch to buy chicks or hens.
"There is lots of misinformation about the care of chickens as well as 'missing' information," she said. "So many people getting started with chickens tell me, 'It looks so easy, my Grandma had chickens, so I think I know what to do' and they rely on tidbits of information from the Internet instead of talking with a real poultry farmer. I can fill volumes of books with information I have learned about chickens -- real world knowledge."
Fordyce is afflicted with Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS) and uses a cane and walker to get around. She does not consider herself handicapped. Her fascination with raising chickens has helped her cope, she said.
"I consider myself a very lucky person," she says. "My 'handicap' is just an afterthought as the chickens are my love. They keep me going."
In that spirit, she is more than willing to get fellow poultry enthusiasts going with their hobby or vocation, whatever the case may be. A lot of what Fordyce has learned, mostly through trial and error in the early days, is on a DVD titled "Chicken University" that she sells on her website.
The first thing to do if you're considering buying a chicken is to have a plan and stick with it, she said. It's one thing to have a few chickens to supply good, fresh, healthy eggs for the family and quite another thing to sell the eggs (or meat) commercially.
"Know where you're headed before you start out," she said. "You don't want to 'wing it.'"
Fordyce sells her chickens from her ranch. She said that selling eggs or chickens off the premises, including farmers markets, brings with it a certain amount of government regulation. The exact nature of those regulations can vary from one county to the next. She recommends contacting your local county Extension agent to find out what licenses are going to be required to sell eggs or chickens.
Fordyce started out with 35 baby chicks in her garage and now has between 200 and 1,200, depending on the season; spring and fall are her two busiest seasons. While there is no denying that baby chicks are cute and fuzzy, she said the cost of raising that $3 chick will end up being between $50 and 75. She recommends buying juvenile chicks that are eight to 10 weeks old or starter pullets that are 12 to 16 weeks old. The eggs will start coming sooner and the overall cost will be lower.
As for breeds, Fordyce prefers the hardier breeds like the Barred Rock, Rock Island Red and White Leghorn. Some of the other breeds like the Polish, Bantam and fluffy-footed breeds don't do as well outdoors and their immune systems are not as strong, she said.
No breed is tough enough to stand up to predators.
"If you let them out of a pen or an enclosed area they have a 100 percent chance of being killed by predators," she said. "Free-range chickens attract predators in abundance."
One tip that takes some people by surprise is her advice to never put chicken wire on a chicken coop. "Chicken wire is good for keeping chickens in the coop," she said. "Raccoons and other predators can get into it with no problems. You want a good, hard wire mesh for security."
That doesn't mean the chickens should always be kept inside the coop. Quite the opposite, she said. They need to spend as much time outdoors as they can for optimum health.
"You can put a 'run' outside of the coop or get a mobile chicken tractor. It's important for the chickens to be outside so they can eat grass and bugs," she said. "The mobile chicken coops on wheels are real good for that because it allows you to utilize an area and then let it rest when you move it somewhere else. The important thing is to keep them safe at night."
A product that she recommends highly is called Nite Guard, which mimics the beady red eyes of other predators and will, Fordyce said, make the real predators decide to go elsewhere for a meal.
When it comes to supplementing what the chickens eat on their forays beyond the coop, she recommends whole grains over chicken pellets.
"You should always get a high quality feed," she said.
Fordyce's chickens are immunized and she strongly urges buyers to get their chicks or chickens in that condition.
"If they are not immunized, they will get sick," she said. "Beyond that, the chickens should not be overcrowded, too wet or stressed or they will get sick."
Another tip that surprises some people is her insistence that chicken coops not be over cleaned. A brand new, sterile coop is actually not good for the chickens' health because chickens need a PH balance of "good and bad" bacteria to be healthy. Fordyce said the chickens need bacteria as much as they need, grass, bugs, grain and water. An aged, dry compost covered with fresh grass is a good way to remove the sterility of the coop, she said.
Barn lime can be applied to the dirtiest parts of the coop, like directly under the roost, and layered with mulch. Many tree services have tree mulch available, which she said is ideal because it has a thriving population of bugs that the chickens will eventually be able to eat.
She has her own niche in the chicken market and likes it pretty much the way it is. More than anything now, she enjoys sharing what she has learned with others.
"I love what I do," she said. "At this point, I don't think a whole lot about getting bigger or dealing with more chickens, but I do enjoy sharing my experiences with others. I probably drive my family nuts with it, but I just love raising and talking about chickens."
For more information on Blue Star Ranch or raising chickens in general, visit Fordyce's website at bluestar-ranch.com.