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Chicken champions

Avian flu changes rules at Ag Expo

Avian flu changes rules at Ag Expo

July 31, 2002|by Liz Boch

lizb@herald-mail.com

For the first time in the 22-year history of the Washington County Ag Expo, judging for the grand champion and reserve champion chickens for the 4-H/FFA Poultry Contest was held after the birds had been killed.

Jeff Semler, a poultry judge and educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension Office, critiqued the chickens Tuesday morning at the slaughterhouse after they had been killed and processed.

The decision to judge the 22 capons after they were killed, and before Ag Expo begins, was in response to an April decision by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to ban poultry exhibitions because of cases of avian influenza. Cases of the disease that wipes out exposed poultry have been reported in West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The airborne disease is spread through fowl feces.

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"Once they get together, there's the possibility of them getting the disease," Semler said. "It's a matter of safety."

Semler said the chickens were processed before the judging because it lessened the chance of infection and the meat quality was easier to assess without feathers.

The 12 participants lined up in a garage with their chickens in coops and handed them to parents and farm workers. After the birds were killed, plucked and processed, participants held up their dead chickens for Semler to judge.

To be a contender, a capon - a castrated rooster - should have plump legs, a broad back and muscular wings. It must also have a pink skin tone, no blisters or scars and a well-proportioned muscle-to-fat ratio, Semler said.

"These are the roasters you have at the dinner table with mashed potatoes," Semler said. "There has to be enough fat for making gravy."

After the judging, the chickens were packed in coolers full of ice and taken home to be kept in freezers until they are delivered to buyers after the Aug. 9 auction that traditionally concludes Ag Expo.

Instead of carrying live capons for bidders at the auction, the participants will walk with photographs taken of their live birds Tuesday morning.

If the ban had not been ordered, the birds would have been judged alive at Ag Expo one day before the auction and processed after the sale. Judging would have been mostly on weight, then feather quality and meat quality.

Ralph Hamby, of Williamsport, said his son Garrett entered for the first time this year. He said he believes that whether the chicken is alive makes a difference.

"You're judging a carcass instead of a live animal," he said. "It's totally different. It doesn't matter to me, but it takes away a little from the kids."

Garrett, 12, agreed.

"You lose two weeks of time that you could use to get it a little bigger because the Ag Expo isn't for another week," he said.

The capon is a meat-production fowl that grows quickly, allowing for a 10-week to 14-week life span. As a result, raising a winning bird requires supervising the chicken, Ag Expo spokeswoman Joanna Calimer said.

"They put on so much weight so fast, they are prone to heart attacks," she said. "They'll just die on you at the snap of a finger."

Initially, 28 chickens had been entered for competition, but six died before the judging, two of them on Monday evening.

Courtney Smith of Clear Spring said even though judging the dead birds might mean more accurate scores, she preferred judging live fowl.

"I've never seen a chicken killed before," she said. "I can't believe I had to touch it. Eew. I personally don't like touching dead chickens. It's gross."

Tracey Forsythe, 11, whose bird was named the Grand Champion, said although she won for the first time, she preferred the live-chicken method.

"I kind of like it the way we used to have it," she said. "You don't have to hold them when they're dead."

The capon entered by Erin Canfield, 11, was selected as Reserve Champion. Erin said she was happy to place the first time she entered.

"I feel pretty good, but I like the other way better because weight counts more," she said. "They'd weigh more with feathers and heads. I don't want them to do it this way next year because what if I have a real heavy chicken, but he's not meaty, just really fat?"

Sue duPont, spokeswoman for the state agriculture department, said the ban will continue indefinitely until the state veterinarian feels avian flu is controlled in surrounding states.

Semler said although there has not been a confirmed case of avian influenza in Maryland and none since May 18 in surrounding states, the ban will not be lifted until three months pass without an outbreak.

Ag Expo begins Thursday and runs through Aug. 9 at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center off Sharpsburg Pike.

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