DECATUR (AP) – Beyond the classrooms, labs and offices at Richland Community College reside about 50 noisy, feathered tenants with a habit of rolling around in the dirt.
“Most people think chickens are brainless barn animals, but they’re really these filthy, happy little individuals with their own personalities,” said Anni Heldt, chicken caretaker at the college. “We spoil our girls, and the happier and healthier they are, the better the eggs.”
Heldt, a horticulture student, collects about two dozen eggs from the hens each day, which are then washed, candled, labeled, refrigerated and packaged to sell at the Richland Student Farms Saturday Produce Market for $3.50 a dozen.
Candling involves looking at each egg in a dark room under a bright light to identify any cracks or imperfections in the shell that would allow bacteria to get in. Eggs are covered in thousands of tiny air holes. The inner membrane, a sack of sorts, keeps the yolk from leaking through the holes.
The college serves as the only institution of higher education in the state licensed by the Department of Agriculture to sell eggs, said David McLaughlin, professor and director of the Agribusiness and Horticulture program. Profits from the eggs are cycled back into the program.
“We raise chickens in order to teach others how to raise and properly care for chickens,” he said. “We are showing people that, with a small urban farm in the backyard with a vegetable garden, some chickens and maybe some honeybees, they can sustain their family.”
In Decatur, an individual can raise hens as long as the area is 75 feet from a neighboring residence and sanitary conditions are maintained. Because of noise, roosters are not allowed.
Since the amount of light hens are exposed to can affect egg production, McLaughlin said it is important that the chicken coop has plenty of illumination, whether natural or artificial. The college’s coop, which was built by the Amish from Arthur about 4 years ago, contains skylights in the roof.
The structure contains rows of recycled paint buckets for the hens to nest in as well as a doggie door allowing the chickens access to an enclosed outdoor area. Each day, Heldt releases the chickens so they can forage and scratch throughout the student farm fields.
“Chickens love to scratch; it’s their favorite pastime other than getting a dirt bath,” Heldt said.
Though the chickens will eat up to 150 pounds of a feed mix each week, along with frozen vegetables, college farm coordinator Deanna Koenigs said the chickens’ ability to range freely allows them to be healthier. Chickens have a way of sensing what nutrients they are lacking and obtain them while foraging.
The varied diet the chickens receive makes their eggs more desirable for baking, as they produce fluffier results, Heldt said The Culinary Arts Institute uses 10 to 15 dozen of the eggs a week.
Heldt’s 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, who helps collect the eggs and feed the chickens, said she prefers the taste of farm-fresh eggs compared to store-bought.
“When you buy eggs from a store, you don’t know what they did to them, and the stuff might not be very good for you,” she said.
Chickens operate through a pecking order in the flock. A rooster’s role is to protect the flock from its many predators including coyotes, raccoons, dogs and hawks. If a rooster is not present, a hen will take on its protective role.
Heldt said one of the most challenging aspects with raising chickens is accepting that some will die by the pecking order as fowl that do not follow the flock’s rules are pecked to death.
“Nature takes a tax on everything,” she said. “It can be hard to get used to that farmer mentality that things die, but that’s just how nature works.”
Though chickens can be violent in their society, they are not without their comical moments.
Heldt once encountered a hen that was so excited about laying an egg that she belted out the “egg song,” a series of loud bak-bak-baks, for 45 minutes.
“They are all like children,” McLaughlin said. “With frozen peas or a worm, they will all dash in, and whichever grabs the pea will run around the yard with the rest chasing her for it.”