Backyard chicken trend continues live chick shortage

Apr. 1—Rick Cairns knew, if he wanted to get baby chickens in on time this year, he would have to place his order early.

In January, the Greensburg Agway owner put in his first order with Hoover's Hatchery in Iowa — something typically done a few weeks ahead of when customers would purchase the animals. The decision came a year after demand for baby chicks first spiked, sending both hatcheries and related businesses scrambling to fill orders.

"It was a crazy year," Cairns said. "It started back a little over a year ago. It was panic with people. We're talking about feed and seed and everything else that people were afraid they weren't going to be able to get because of the whole country shutting down, but not us. It has been a struggle against the supply chain."

Last year's spike, which took off weeks after covid-19 cases were first reported in the country, coincided with some of the first shortages being reported in meat and eggs at grocery stores. The price of store-bought eggs rose alongside that demand, almost doubling between January and March of last year, possibly spurring people to buy backyard chickens.

While to a seemingly lesser extent than in 2020, demand for baby chicks still has been high in the weeks leading up to Easter, one of the busiest times for hatcheries.

At Freehling Farms in Armstrong County, owner Roger Freehling said he is struggling to keep up with demand. The farm, which hatches a few hundred chicks weekly while also working with other hatcheries to provide a variety of chicken breeds, generally sells out each week.

"Chicks are hard to find again," Freehling said. "The hatcheries that we deal with, they're booked for months and months out."

Some chicken breeds, he added, already are sold out for the year.

Hepler's Hardware in New Stanton is feeling the brunt of hatcheries struggling to keep up with demand. Co-owner Megan Orient said the store will not receive a shipment of baby chickens until mid-May. Normally, their first shipments start arriving around Palm Sunday.

"Even though we placed our order the time we would from year-to-year, you're getting a delay because there are more people trying to get orders in early or just more orders in general," Orient said.

Other local stores that were able to get in shipments also reported increased demand. By Wednesday, Apollo Milling Co. in North Apollo was down to 22 chicks — a mix of Golden Comet and Americana chickens. The store, which was expecting more birds Friday, receives about 100 chicks per week.

Like Cairns at Greensburg Agway, Apollo Milling Co. owner Dennis Reefer placed an order for baby chickens months in advance.

For Reefer, however, that decision was nothing new.

"We've been selling poultry for 100 years down here, so we know how to keep in stock," Reefer said. "Maybe some of the people that are experiencing shortages, they're ordering just when they need them. In our case, we order them four months ahead of time."

While Reefer reported seeing a gradual increase in people wanting backyard chickens before the pandemic, the company saw about a 20% uptick in chick sales last year.

"People were concerned about food cost and food scarcity," said Matt Julian, a salesclerk at the business. "This year, it's calmed down dramatically."

At Greensburg Agway, Cairns said placing orders for baby chickens early allowed the store to be ready for this year's demand.

"We ordered over 1,000 chicks way ahead of time, spaced out, and that way when people call in and they're looking for a certain breed or whatever, we can look at our schedule and say, 'Yeah, we've got 20 of those coming in the second week of May so we can reserve six of them for you, whatever you want,' " Cairns said.

Given the increased interest in raising backyard chickens, officials at Greensburg Agway and Apollo Milling Co. work to ensure people are willing to make the commitment. According to Julian, Apollo Milling tries to avoid selling baby chicks to people who are not willing to care for them past the Easter holiday.

"When we see people wanting a couple of peeps for their granddaughter for Easter, we just don't do that," Julian said.

Preferably, customers are buying the chicks to be a chicken owner and have eggs, which is a three- to four-year commitment, he said.

If a customer doesn't have an intention to raise the chick, not needing feed or heating equipment, "we'll just refuse to sell," Julian said.

"You can't buy chicks as temporary pets," he said. "Those days of buying colored peeps at five-and-dime stores are long gone."

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