Poultry Science at UMass
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By Morgane Golan
My name is Morgane Golan and I am the head teaching assistant for the Poultry Management course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Poultry Management is one of the two-credit, two-part management classes offered by the Veterinary and Animal Sciences Department. These Management classes provide students the opportunity to assume the role of a farmer or producer of the species they choose to work with. Our students lovingly refer to the class as “Poultry.” For instance, “are you enrolled in Poultry this semester?” and “is Poultry meeting at the barn today?”
We start with day-old chicks and raise them through the end of the semester, til they’re about 13 weeks old. Our course instructor, Dr. Helene Cousin, works with a team of passionate teaching assistants to put together a comprehensive class that is very student-driven. The students take responsibility for the health and welfare of the birds, and engage in every aspect of their care. Each semester, we undertake feeding, cleaning, and record-keeping duties for about 30 dual-purpose/layer hens.
The class has changed immensely since its inception in 2011, when a group of students enlisted Dr. Cousin to oversee a club for managing broilers. Despite the significant growth we’ve made since those days, the primary learning objectives of the course have always been the same. We aim to promote biosecurity and the study of avian anatomy and physiology. The class curriculum varies between the fall and spring semesters, but our students look forward to lectures and activities discussing avian influenza, reproduction and embryo development, as well as the maintenance of a personal backyard flock.
In addition to traditional academic study, our students are trained in 4-H-style poultry showing. At the end of each semester, the class participates in a competition based on the holds and positions we practice weekly. The Poultry Show represents the culmination of a semester’s worth of work in bird handling, in a practical exam designed to test students’ competency, poise, and knowledge of poultry species. Students can bring home a ribbon, or gold chicken trophy, which inevitably becomes a prized possession.
I’m writing this piece to reflect on my three years in the Poultry team, and to share my experience as a college-aged poultry fanatic. As my undergraduate education comes to a close, and I move on to my next steps as a veterinary student and research scientist at the University of Georgia, I have begun to consider how Poultry has shaped my life and refined my interests. Because of my experience with the hens, I have decided to pursue avian medicine and research, to improve the poultry industry and support backyard farmers around the country.
I enrolled in Poultry in the fall of my sophomore year, thinking that I would start small and eventually work my way up to handling the livestock animals that weigh a ton. I quickly grew attached to my Wyandotte pullet, Darkness, and became totally enamored with the flock. That semester, I was named the Grand Champion of the poultry show, and I decided to take on an apprenticeship position in the spring, so that I could be a TA the following semester. I simply couldn’t imagine moving on from Poultry and working with any other management team or species.
For the last two years, my role as a Poultry TA has been largely focused on class operations and the student aspect of the class. The class is unique in that it bridges both the benefits and shortcomings of a standard university course, with the added trials and tribulations of animal husbandry. For example, a portion of the students’ grade consists of Chick Checks, for which students are paired up to perform morning chore duties. Working with students is not unlike dealing with a flock of chickens, however: they are eager and excitable, but sometimes easily confused and subject to nerves.
Every semester includes at least one phone call from a pair that has peeked into the Poultry Room and is worried that all the birds are dead — “They’re all laying on their sides, not moving!” We reassure the students that chicks, much like people, sometimes relax. They are relieved to find that the birds are perfectly fine and basking in the warmth of their heat lamps. Another guaranteed phone call goes much like this, “One of the bulbs has gone out, what should we do?” How many Poultry students does it take to change a light bulb?
I’ve heard it all.
“Do I have to put on boots and coveralls to go into the Poultry Room?” — Yes.
“Can I bring my family to meet the birds tomorrow night around 9pm?” — Absolutely not.
“Am I holding this chick correctly?” — Yes, good job! Do you want another?
“I think I just heard crowing from the room … is that possible?” — Uh oh.
“I can’t tell if this is my Barred Rock, and the legband is smudged. Do you see a six or an eight?” — I think that’s a zero.
“I called dibs on that bird and she stole her!” — There’s no dibs in Poultry, and I promise you’ll love any bird you train.
Sometimes my chicken senses will go off and I’ll rush to the farm to see that the cap of a waterer has been left on, and the birds haven’t had water for a couple hours. Or maybe I’ll open up the brooder to discover that a chick has died. Situations like these are difficult, particularly when you have to break the bad news to a class of chicken lovers, and even more so when you have to hold students accountable for their mistakes. Things don’t always go according to our plans, but that’s alright, and every day presents a new learning opportunity. Plus, the Poultry team has a pretty great sense of humor.
All in all, I’ve had so much fun helping Poultry students blossom into adept and confident showmen, and sharing my love for chickens with them. I feel blessed to have found my place on the team, and to have worked with these incredibly sweet, amusing animals for the last few years. I look forward to having my own backyard flock in the very near future and to applying the lessons I’ve learned in Poultry Management to my own birds. I am saying goodbye to Poultry with endless gratitude and appreciation for Dr. Helene Cousin and my co-TA turned best friend, Michelle Milanov.
To keep up with the ongoings of the class, like UMass Poultry Management on Facebook!
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.