Joe Moritz had his hands full of sometimes squawking chickens Tuesday morning at the 65th annual Berkeley County Youth Fair.
Moritz, an associate professor of poultry science at West Virginia University, worked well into the afternoon judging 86 sets of chickens.
Using his trained eyes and knowing hands, Moritz handled laying hens, pullets (immature laying hens), fancy fowl, meat birds and a couple of turkeys.
He was helped in the judging by WVU students Ashley Evans, Alina Corey and Angela Lamp.
Among the breeds cackling away in dozens of cages stacked up in the poultry shed waiting for Moritz were Rhode Island reds, black star, golden comet, red sex-link, barred rocks, silver sebright, buff orpington, silver grey dorking, silkie, porcelain, cochin and rose comb.
Moritz, who has been judging chickens for 10 years, checks for confirmation, conditions of beaks, feathers and flesh, and for the presence of parasites.
He likes to see laying hens and pullets with wide hips and rectangular bodies, “so they’ll be able to lay an egg every 23 1/2 hours,” he said.
It takes 18 weeks from hatching to maturity for a hen to start laying eggs, Moritz said.
Chickens raised for the fast-food restaurant market have a much shorter life, 35 to 42 days, before slaughter.
It takes turkeys 14 weeks to reach the Thanksgiving table, 18 weeks if they go for further processing for use as lunch meat, he said.
“Poultry is the No. 1 agricultural product in West Virginia,” he said.
Pilgrim’s Pride, the world’s second-largest chicken processor, according to a corporate website, processes 2 million birds every week in the Mountain State.
Poultry is the last stand for family farming in the state, Moritz said. Also growing in popularity are backyard flocks, even in urban areas.
Residents of Shepherdstown, W.Va., for example, can keep up to 27 hens in backyard pens, but no roosters, according to zoning rules.
At 21, Mike Withrow of Martinsburg, is exhibiting his Rhode Island reds for the last time at the youth fair.
A student at WVU, Withrow is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and Extension agency education. He’d like to work as a West Virginia agricultural Extension agent in Berkeley County after he graduates with a master’s degree in 2015, he said. If not, he’ll teach agricultural education.
Last year, Withrow said, one of his chickens won the grand champion overall showmanship ribbon.
Lisa Duvall chairs the poultry-judging event.