Glacier FarmMedia – It all started with a 4-H project for 14-year-old Mac Dykeman.
A member of a 4-H poultry club at Langley, B.C., she was often dismayed when her orders from the United States arrived with dead birds in the shipment.
“I would receive them and open the box and many times find them with high mortality and high morbidity,” she said.
“I couldn’t change the birds but thought maybe there was a connection between the high mortality and the boxes,” she said.
Dykeman was able to research the problem through the 4-H science fair for students in Grade 7-12.
She ended up winning top honours in the junior category, earning a gold medal and platinum award for her project, “Safer Chick-ments: An innovative solution to reducing stress in chick shipments.”
Science fair organizers struggled to find the right category.
“It was a bit different. Usually the science fairs like to bring specialists in but they couldn’t find anybody. There wasn’t a subject for this in science fairs. This is a bit unorthodox,” she said.
Her out-of-the-box thinking resulted in one win after another. The 4-H win qualified her to enter the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa, followed by a chance to attend the 2019 International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona, with Team Canada. This fall she travels to another international science competition in the United Arab Emirates.
Using her winnings from these competitions, Dykeman has applied for a patent for her new design to ship birds in a more welfare-friendly way.
Her research started at the farm where her mother Megan Dykeman raises specialty layers and meat birds. Using the farm incubator, Mac raised chicks and started to test her theories that stress was killing her birds.
“I found overall it was just different factors contributing to the stress in the shipping,” she said.
She started by modifying commercial shipping boxes.
Her first prototype held 25 chicks and she scaled it up to 50, then 100 birds.
Her design is a cardboard box with a raised floor for a heating pad, different ventilation holes, sloped sides and a circular enclosure inside.
The circular enclosure keeps the chicks from crushing each other in the corners.
The 4-H science fair helps entrants find mentors so Mac consulted with Victoria Bowes, an avian veterinarian at Abbotsford, box manufacturers, hatcheries and poultry farmers.
She found a company to cut the boxes for her and the crew there offered some suggestions on cardboard weight and strength so the crates can be safely stacked.
She wants to see this project commercialized and has decided there is more research to benefit bird welfare.
Her boxes should work for all poultry, but she is considering testing it on turkeys because they express stress differently.
“There is much higher mortality rate with turkeys but I haven’t done any testing with it to see how they would react,” she said.
Her family raises quail for eggs, which are about the size of a robin’s egg. She has learned there is no research on domestic quail so she wants to pursue improved care for the tiny chicks.
“I plan on doing more science fairs again. I really like the area of agriculture and I think there is a lot of room for improvement and innovation in the farming community so I would like to continue doing research,” she said.
At 14, Mac has a range of talents.
Through 4-H she had to participate in public speaking competitions that gave her the confidence to pitch her ideas about bird welfare to adults and experts in the field.
“Watching Mac go through this process has been just amazing,” said Megan. A former equestrian, Megan had to leave the show circuit after a serious car accident. She decided poultry would be easier for her physically and it was something Mac and her older brother A.J. could help with on the farm.
Mac was homeschooled until the third grade and now attends the Langley Fine Arts School.
“They told me in Grade One that she would never read. She is dyslexic,” her mother said.
It was suggested she try music to learn patterns and with special help, she now loves reading but admits spelling is a challenge. Now a Grade Nine student she is a music major where she plays oboe and the harp in the school orchestra.
Megan decided Mac would come into her own when she was ready.
“When you spend time on a farm you realize not everything arrives at the same time. You have to have a little more patience with that world,” said Megan.