COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KXAN) - Jesse Huth is 21 years old, but he still goes by the moniker, "Chicken Boy."
The back story
"Everyone that knows me calls me, 'Chicken Boy,'" Huth told KXAN News back in 2004 , "'cause that's what I am, I'm Chicken Boy."
In those days, Huth was a 13 year-old chicken wrangler. He had over 100 of them on the homestead he shared with his parents. He watched over them like a mother hen and when one of them died, he grieved, especially the first time it happened.
"It was real sad," said Huth's mother, Jaci Kroupa, "and he cried and we made a little cross and, you know, took her down and put her in a special burial place."
"I did cry a little bit," the boy recalled then, "but you get over it after awhile. But if I ever lost all my chickens, I don't think I could handle it."
Most of Huth's birds, though, not only lived, they laid far more eggs than the family could munch, so Chicken Boy kicked off a little egg delivery business.
Too young to drive, he depended on his mom to get him from customer to customer.
Together, they managed some $30 a week in gross proceeds. Chicken feed, though, ran about $30 a week. You can do the math.
So why all the effort for a business that had little more to offer than busyness?
"I just like the way they look," Huth explained then. "I just love chickens. I can't really tell you why; I just love the way they walk, the way they look, the way they act."
Oh yeah, and the way they talk.
"There's kind of the announcement," Huth said in 2004, "that, it's like, 'I just laid an egg in this box; come lay your egg.'"
With that the boy reared back and let loose with the most convincing squawking and clucking this side of the hen house.
Asked about his dreams, the child was emphatic.
"I hope to have the world's largest chicken business," he said, "free range chicken business. I'm thinking of having a couple of million chickens. I love chickens."
It was all just too cute for words, but no one really expected it would stick. Stick it did, though; it stuck like chicken poop to the bottom of a shoe. Nothing could shake it loose or pry it off.
The trip to Aggieland
When Huth graduated from high school, he ran like a hungry hen to College Station. Texas A&M University was the only college he applied to. Admission was a foregone conclusion and the major was, or course, poultry science .
Then, when Chicken Boy graduated from Aggieland in December, he stayed put, joining the university's graduate program in chicken welfare and behavior.
Now, he works with faculty, conducting experiments into such things as how light affects the hatch rate of fertilized eggs.
Then, there are the stress tests, like the "inversion" test.
"You flip the birds upside down," said the 21-year-old version of Chicken Boy, "and count how many wing beats they flap and how much time it takes for them to calm down.
"And then we compare that to other type of stress like changing the color of the feed or putting a strange object in the feed and seeing how long the birds take to get up."
So why does anyone care about such things? In a word: Chillness.
"They all influence the ability to raise commercial chickens in large quantities," Huth pointed out. "If you can reduce the amount of stress the birds have, they'll produce better; they'll be a lot happier; the people raising the birds will enjoy it more and overall you get a much better product for less price."
In fact, you can take all this even further than that, using the test results to breed anxiety out of a given chicken population, especially the flocks a growing number of city-dwellers are putting into their back yards.
"If you're having a really stressed out chicken; it's flapping all over the place, hold them upside down by their legs," said Huth, "and they'll flap a little bit and then they sort of go into a little catatonic state almost and just kind of lay there.
"A bird that would flap longer, for instance, might indicate that it's a little bit more stressed because it's trying to struggle against whatever the force is that's holding it, versus another bird that just sort of lays back would have less of a chance to be stressed."
That, of course, would be the bird you want, so you would then mate it with a similarly laid back rooster. A few generations down the line you find yourself with a flock of chilled out critters.
"Currently everyone's just been breeding for either size in broilers or the ability to lay eggs in layer chickens," Huth said, "which has resulted in, especially the layer chickens being very flighty. So they're very prone to stress.
"You get low-flying planes or something around the house, they freak out and go crazy and then that can visibly impact your production."
But as Huth got more and more educated about the life of chickens, he came to understand that his 2 million bird free-range farm was all too childlike.
"I realized that that part of the market is pretty much already taken over," he said. "There are massive farms out there that have multiple millions
of birds just on one location.
"Some of these layer houses can cost $500,000, $600,000 to over a million dollars apiece. And you need many of those houses to hold all your birds.
"And currently, especially with the price of corn, profit margins aren't all that great. And it would take a lot of money to get into it and I'd be competing against these already huge, established, integrated companies."
So now, Huth has a different plan.
"Depending on how much funding I can get, I would like to get a doctorate…and then after I'm done with college, either with the masters or the doctorate, I want to go into consulting.
"I really like traveling, as well, so I'm hoping to be able to consult with large flocks all around the country or even smaller backyard flocks and get paid to go around, maybe give presentations or help people set up their houses, set up their flocks, and just get chickens growing a lot better in the country, maybe even out of the country."
And, as it turns out, what's good for the chicken can be just as good for the white wing dove.
"I've developed a few other interests that I might be able to supplement with," said Chicken Boy. "For instance, I've started doing bird surveys for people with wildlife management areas. I love bird watching, so I'll go out and tell them what kind of birds they have on their property.
"But still, that can go right alongside my chicken consulting business. In fact, I've started my own business and gave it a name, Huth Avian , so that I do birds and chickens."
So as the young man goes from cage to cage, hanging chickens upside down and gathering their fertilized eggs for study, the surrounding clucks and crows have the ring of a cash register for him.
"As a career, there's very good money in it," said Huth. "With a degree in poultry science, you're practically guaranteed a job, if you're looking for one, as soon as you graduate. There's no hunting around, no waiting for anything. So there's always a safety net to fall back on. I can go work for something in the poultry industry."
Still, the cash is really just a means to an end of another sort.
I just love chickens," said Huth. "There's not really anything I can explain about it besides they really, really interest me a lot.
"And other people are growing to love the chicken, too. "They're beautiful; there's a huge variation in color. There are all different shapes and sizes.
"There's a chicken out there for everyone and I just love all of them. Each individual chicken has its own personality. They all interact really well with each other. Even if they have disagreements, they can still get along with each other.
"I love to see more people raising chickens. For one, they're fun and they also are a very good source of nutrition. They provide eggs; they provide food; they provide enjoyment.
"For people with kids they provide something for them to be responsible for, but they're still fun. And they're very hardy; they can survive a lot of things."
Of course, Chicken Boy doesn't have his advanced degree yet. Never-the-less, he stands ready to "consult" with anyone who has questions or issues with their backyard coops.
"I already get calls from agricultural extension agents," he said. "I get calls from people out of the state, all over the country, because they hear about this guy at Texas A&M that actually works with backyard chickens and knows a lot about them."
Sooner or later, though, Jesse Huth will outgrow the Chicken Boy thing. He knows that. In fact, he's already looking forward to that Ph.D.
"If I get that," he promises, "I'll become known as Dr. Chicken."
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