Backyard flock provides endless opportunities for fourth grader

Growing up in rural Delaware County, Okla., Susie Niehus watched as her toddler son became enamored with chickens.

Susie, a self-described “cattle girl” from Northwest Arkansas, said chickens were not on the top 10 list of things she wanted to have on their 200-plus acre ranch near Zena.

But by the time Naaman turned 4, Susie saw the writing on the chicken coop – her son was “going crazy” with chickens.

Naaman, now 10, has a backyard chicken flock of Rhode Island Reds, Cochin, Bantam and Buckeyes. He’s raised everything from Black Australorps to White Leghorns, and Brahmas to Dominiques.

Naaman has traded friends for some of his flock. He’s also bought a few. A family friend helped him search the internet to figure out what chicks to purchase from Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Mo.

The fourth grader at Grove Upper Elementary School has also utilized an incubator in his bedroom to raise chickens from fertilized eggs – his favorite option because it lets him track everything start to finish.

Naaman starts his young brood out on chick starter. As the flock ages he switches to cracked corn, laying pellets and even table scraps.

His coop is a 6-foot by 6-foot building with a 10-foot by 6-foot run. Naaman’s parents helped build a chicken-wired covered box in the coop. When his chicks are 3-weeks-old, they transition from his room into this box.

“The part I like is when I get good hens laying eggs,” Naaman said, “It’s just satisfying to look at the eggs.”

Life lessons

Things haven’t always been easy for Naaman. Predators, including snakes, raccoons, foxes, opossums and skunks, have wiped out his entire flock on three different occasions.

Most recently, he grieved when his favorite Banty rooster managed to get out of the run – predators found it before Naaman could get it back in.

“You just cry, then get some more,” Naaman said, describing his rebuilding process.

Learning beyond school

Naaman admits he’s not a fan of school. After a particularly hard day at kindergarten, Naaman informed his mom he “liked his teacher, the food and other kids at school, but there was just too much paperwork.”

A dyslexia diagnosis within the last year and a half helped his parents piece together some of Naaman’s struggles, giving them a chance to develop strategies he can use in school. Learning about chickens, from books and YouTube videos, has sparked his interest in science.

“From day one, the only books he was interested in were about chickens and calves,” Susie said, adding chickens also help Naaman relax after school.

“It’s therapeutic for him to come home from school, when he’s stressed out, and sit and talk to his chickens and hold them,” Susie said. “Seeing how much he likes them, makes me more interested in chickens. His enthusiasm is contagious.”

Last fall, Naaman exhibited at the Ozarks Farmsteading Expo in Neosho, Mo., giving people a chance to see his favorite birds and learn a bit more about backyard flocks.

In March, Naaman traveled to John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., to teach a lesson about incubating chickens to a group of future elementary science teachers.

The opportunity came thanks, in part, to his grandmother Marlene Schwerin, an adjunct professor at JBU.

“The coworker knew she has an agricultural background,” Susie said. “When the coworker started to ask a bunch of questions about chickens, [my mom] laughed and suggested they consult Naaman – and the professor did.”

More about Naaman

Naaman and his parents, Susie and Nate, and little sister Natalie live on a 250-acre ranch overlooking Drowning Creek. Nate operates a tree service, but hopes to eventually focus solely on the ranch. Susie works as the children’s minister at First Christian Church in Grove. She’s also pursuing a master’s degree in leadership. Natalie is a kindergartener at Grove’s Early Childhood Centre.

Beyond chickens, the family runs a 200-head commercial Angus cow/calf herd and a locker beef operation, selling farm-to-table processed beef to local patrons.

The family feeds their cattle a grass and hay regiment, supplemented by a bulk feed ration mixture of soy hull pellets, cracked corn, dry distillers grain, rice brand, calcium and salt from Cattlemen’s Feed in Colcord.

“I’ve learned to respect animals,” Naaman said, admitting chores aren’t always his favorite thing to do. “But I love being on a farm because of the freedom.”

This spring, Naaman exhibited his Angus heifer, Annabelle, at the Delaware County Spring Livestock Show.

He helped purchase Annabelle for $1,375, writing his first check from the account started with his 2019 premium sale earnings.


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