You know Steve Brown is from Texas right away. Vernon, Texas, to be exact. Home of the Red River Valley Museum, that features native sons trombonist and singer, Jack Teagarden and singer-songwriter, Roy Orbison. Brown’s drawl and easy manner draw you in. But, there is something else in his voice – maybe a hint of an Eastern clip? Perhaps a touch of wry Midwestern humor? And, what about the creative way he describes raises chickens in the north?
Technology and Tinkering
All of these are part of Dr. Stephen Brown who has lived, studied and worked in Upstate New York, Kansas, and now Alaska. “I grew up raising chickens since age eight,” he stated. “I love the soap opera of the coop,” he added. An engineer and self-professed “tinkerer” Brown is smart, innovative and ambitious. Above all, he is good with people. Pretty important qualities since he is District Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension Service Agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District of Alaska. He integrates his specialties of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with agriculture and the environment.
He applies his advanced degrees in Environmental Sciences from the University of Texas at San Antonio and the State University of New York, and his numerous publications and presentations practically for those living in the far north.
As Alaskans learn to raise poultry, till the soil, and ward off predators Brown is right with them. “I get to remote homesteads by boat, airplane and snow machine,” he said. “I may be the only extension agent in the country with reimbursement mileage for a snow machine,” he quipped.
Adapting the Coop
“Chickens can adapt to the cold when they have a safe coop,” explained Brown. After arriving in Alaska about a dozen years ago, he experienced some of the challenges of “high latitude farming.” He researched and presented keynote talks across the US and Canada. Then, he adapted methods that fit with homesteader lifestyles and pocketbooks. “You have to be practical because of the costs,” he explained. For example, temperature extremes make watering farm animals a problem. Since you don’t want to haul fresh water out every day and everything in Alaska is expensive, Brown adapted dog water bowls to stay heated in the winter for the low cost of about 15 bucks.
Brown also addressed other barriers to raising poultry in the far north. “Frostbite and ammonia build up are the two largest killers up here,” he explained. To prevent frostbite on chickens’ toes, Brown simply installed flat perches instead of round ones, so the chickens’ feathers covered their toes when they roost. Frostbite solved.
Animals also need to be safe from predators – bears and mosquitoes. So, the coop must be sturdy, have mosquito netting inside heavily wired windows, and have good ventilation. He converted an old horse stall to a secure, ventilated and warm chicken coop. He affirmed that chickens can handle the cold and only adds a heat lamp when temperatures really drop into the double-digit minus degrees.
Tom Sawyer Method
The deep litter method works well to keep the coop fresh and prevent ammonia build up. Spread a thin layer of fresh litter about once a week and toss in some treats for the chickens to scratch and keep the litter turned over. A couple of times a year he uses the “Tom Sawyer” method of cleaning up the coop. “I invite local gardeners to come over to my place twice a year and clean out the deep litter. I show them how to use it in their gardens to improve their soil for better crops,” he explained. Win-win.
Some poultry techniques he teaches in “Chicken U” classes which fill up. These include such basics as how to safely catch, hold, and butcher a chicken. Classes are booming and so is poultry husbandry. According to Brown, in the past eight years, chicken orders have skyrocketed from single thousands to well over 120,000. He gets to experience the great results of good husbandry and farming in part because he is president of the Alaska State Fair board of directors. The State Fair runs late August.
Marathon Man and Mountaineer
In his position, Brown is passionate about more than chickens. He has been on the cutting edge of promoting Rhodiola rosea as an important cash crop for Alaskans.
And, he is not all work and no play. His recreational pursuits run deeply, too – literally. He’s a marathoner and mountaineer. Since 1979 Brown has summited numerous peaks and seeks to summit on all continents. He even mused about taking a chicken to the top of Denali. “Even though I am no a spring chicken myself, I think it’d be kinda fun,” he said.
Call him up some time to chat chickens and crops. You’ll know him at the Alaska State Fair by his drawl and friendly manner that draws you in.