BYERS — In a typical year, Pratt native Shawn Ernst might sell 4,000 chicks from his poultry stock farm near Byers. But this past spring, he and his wife, Wendy, and sons Jacob, 17, and Blake, 15, sold over 4,000 birds in 45 days.
The demand has continued throughout the year.
"It's been just crazy," Ernst said. "The COVID-19 pandemic has been bad, bad for some, but it has been good for others, our family especially."
Ernst, who raises 21 different breeds of purebred chickens, along with turkeys, swans, geese, guineas, pheasants, ducks, peacocks and other birds, said there could be more than 600 birds on the farmyard at one time on any given day.
"I have emptied my sheds over and over this year," he said. "People are just nervous about the economy and about having eggs to eat this year. We all love our little chickens in our hearts, especially when they are laying eggs."
Ernst said that earlier in the year he placed one or two ads on NexTech Classifieds, an online farm site, but after that, word of mouth has kept customers flocking to his door.
"I'm making regular deliveries around the state to farm stores," he said. "Then I also have local buyers and people come from Topeka, Wichita, Denver. I even had a guy come from Tulsa just to buy a few laying hens."
A woman who traveled from Atlanta, Ga., to buy several Sebastopol geese might have been the customer coming the farthest distance this year, but Ernst said his chickens continue to be a big draw as 2020 winds to a close.
"There is still a big demand for laying hens," Ernst said. "Not everyone wants to spend the time it takes to raise chicks, but I was offered $100 a piece for some laying hens recently. I didn't take it, but people are willing to pay whatever it takes to get their chickens."
Ernst said he has been consistent with his pricing, keeping individual sales at $15-$35 per bird, at least for the more common breeds.
Some are rare and cost more, however, he said, listing Silver-Laced Orpingtons, Lavender Orpingtons and Mottled Orpingtons as English breeds that might cost more than the heritage breeds like barred rocks or Rhode Island Reds.
"We hatch out 200 chicks every 21 days," Ernst said. "From the incubators they go to the brooders, then from brooders we put them in groups in the sheds. It is a very labor-intensive operation. My boys may never want to see another chicken once they grow up, but for now it's good."
Ernst said that, not counting labor, he figured it takes about $4 to raise one chick from hatchling to adult. But the unlimited amount of time required he could not factor.
"Jake, he wanted to take over some of the breeds," Ernst said. "He deals in silkies and exotic pheasants. He does very well with those, and with the turkeys."
This fall, turkeys became a fan favorite, bringing $70 each before Thanksgiving.
"At one point we had 30 turkeys here," Ernst said. "We're down quite a bit. Sometimes the hardest part is holding on to the breeding stock so we can go again."
With Christmas coming, Ernst said, he already had orders for poultry presents.
"I had one woman who wanted to give her father some guineas for Christmas," he said. "We have those too. They are nostalgic for some people."
Nostalgia aside, Ernst said neither he nor his wife grew up on a farm, but when they got some acreage near Byers they wanted to find a way to utilize it profitably.
"We tried cattle, buffalo, sheep, etc., but people kept coming back to buy eggs and chickens, so eventually we sold all the other stuff and just raised chickens," he said. "It certainly is paying off this year."