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Backyard chickens? 'It's never quiet around here' as this county gives chickens more room to roam

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When Jessica Lynch and her family were looking to relocate from North Carolina, Chesterfield County checked off a very specific box for them: allowing backyard chickens.

Having pet chickens made it easier for Lynch’s two children to leave North Carolina and move to a new state. After settling in Chester in 2017, the family began acquiring chickens the following year.

Chesterfield allows residential backyards to have up to six chickens, as long as the neighborhood homeowners association agrees. Lynch has six: Dancer, Elsa, Belle, Henrietta, Hen Solo and Pookie.

The chickens are fed pellets as well as treats consisting of fruit and vegetable scraps. Some favorites are the tips of strawberries, watermelon rinds and cantaloupe.

Chesterfield recently amended its zoning ordinance that pertains to residents keeping chickens in their backyards. Residential and manufactured zones in Chesterfield can increase their outside run areas, or their enclosure space, from 40 square feet to 56 square feet and the minimum permitted area per chicken from 5 square feet to 8 square feet.

The additional space prevents overcrowding, allows for ample room to exercise and overall maintains the health of chickens, according to a county presentation.

The amendments were made to reflect the guidance from Virginia Cooperative Extension, which is a partnership between Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The guidance from the Cooperative Extension said that they just need a little bit more room to move around and they’ll be more productive. So that’s kind of the angle we took,” said Rachel Chieppa, a county planning manager for comprehensive planning and research.

Over the years, residents’ interest in keeping chickens has grown, Chieppa said.

Chesterfield residents are not required to report how many chickens they have to the county, but no roosters are allowed.

Stephanie Rector, who owns Hidden Triple Oak Farm, said the county needs to update its ordinance regarding keeping roosters.

“The problem that I run into a lot in Chesterfield with having backyard chickens is that people find out some of their chicks are roosters,” Rector said. “They have raised the bird up but can’t keep it because it crows; it’s disheartening.”

When Lynch discovered one of her chicks was a rooster, she traded for one of Rector’s chickens.

“Not allowing roosters is a big problem because they have nowhere to put them,” said Rector, adding that many people come to her with their roosters. Rector is allowed to have roosters because she lives in an agricultural zone.

Rector’s farm, located off Courthouse Road, has roughly 100 chickens. Six years ago, Rector and her family started out with three chickens and six baby chicks. The farm has since grown, and all of the chickens are the responsibility of Peyton Petrella, Rector’s 15-year-old daughter.

Peyton raises the chickens, sells their eggs, and sells baby chicks and grown birds. Rector’s farm also has turkeys, horses, ducks, cows and pigs.

“It’s never quiet around here,” Rector said with a laugh.

Sierra Seekford, an agriculture and natural resources extension agent with Chesterfield Cooperative Extension, receives a lot of calls from residents concerning their backyard chickens.

Common questions surround the feeding process, building a chicken coop and what to do if a chicken is losing its feathers.

Chesterfield Cooperative Extension, a local office of Virginia Cooperative Extension, teaches Chesterfield residents about agricultural and natural resources and 4-H youth programming.

Seekford co-leads Chesterfield’s Feathers and Feet 4-H Poultry Club, which meets monthly to educate children about poultry nutrition, anatomy and more. The club also participates in the annual county fair, where children can watch baby chicks hatch and show off their chickens.

Several families are members of the club, many of whom have little backyard coops in residential zones, Seekford said. Each meeting consists of an educational component and then a fun craft or activity.

Rector, the other co-leader of the 4-H club, said children have learned the differences between turkey and chickens and, in the spring, they will learn about ducks.

“With raising chickens, there is so much people can learn,” Rector said.

Lynch has learned a lot from Rector and Seekford. As some of her chickens were getting older, she consulted Rector, who recommended daily vitamins for the birds.

Seekford also works with teachers in Chesterfield County Public Schools to develop a curriculum and a guide for hatching chicks in the classroom.

All of the efforts to expose and educate children about chickens provide more than having a pet, but learning about the development of a living being and how to care for it, Seekford said.

“Having chickens is really fun, they are smart and social animals,” said Seekford, who grew up with chickens and is planning to get new chicks in the spring.

Lynch, whose home-schools her children, said the 4-H program is not only educational and a confidence builder, especially when participating in the county fair, but it also helps children make friends with similar interests.

“We love those little chickens,” Lynch said.

jnocera@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @jessmnocera

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