New Castle girl’s chicken wins boatload of awards
Post Independent Correspondent
NEW CASTLE — Ribbons and trophies fill the Matthews family dining table, not for athletic or academic feats, but honors won by a backyard chicken named for an aircraft carrier.
Later this week the best-of-breed pullet travels to Denver to compete against 600 fowl at the National Western Stock Show.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have a bird this good,” Sarah Matthews, 11, a three-year veteran of Garfield County 4-H, said of her prize bird named USS Lexington.
Lexington won the overall Grand Champion prize for poultry at the Garfield County Fair.
The story starts with a little mix-up.
When the longtime leader of Rocky Mountain Wranglers 4-H club stepped down in 2015, Hi-Way Feed in Silt filled the gap to order poultry for the club. Sarah chose a Jersey Giant based on a poster of chicken breeds at the ranch store and a catalogue that described the breed as “hardy, nice, and pretty good for show,” as she recalls.
Two pullets arrived in February, and she took up her regimen of feeding, watering, cleaning, handling the birds and record-keeping.
She named her chicken after a World War II aircraft carrier. Japan sunk the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Sarah and her brothers are home schooled, and World War II fascinated Sarah. She also named another chicken and a duck after warships.
At the Garfield County Fair in August, Sarah and Lexington won Junior Champion in showmanship and breeding, the top awards for the categories in Sarah’s age group of 8- to 10-year-olds. (She’s since had a birthday.)
John Baker of Parker, poultry judge at the county fair, noticed the pinkish color of Lexington’s toenails, sleeker lines and smaller size than he’d expect on a Jersey Giant. He thought it was a Black Australorp. He mentioned it to Sarah, but she was “pretty adamant” about the breed.
“My job is not to argue with the kids or to break hearts,” said Baker, but under his breath, he said to her, “Today we’re going to consider it an Australorp.”
With that out of the way, Lexington took the No. 1 spot as overall Grand Champion breeding bird out of the 119 that entered this year, including turkeys, ducks and other fowl.
Sarah’s mother, Jennifer Matthews, remembers Baker told them, “This bird is good enough to take to the State Fair. You should go if you can.”
The Colorado State Fair took place a few weeks later at the end of August in Pueblo. The whole family went, including Jennifer, Sarah’s brothers, Adam and Zechariah, and her father, Robb. “It was totally new for all of us,” said Jennifer.
But during the youth competition, Sarah found her chicken still in its cage with “Australorp” written on the attached identifying card. Sarah was upset, and Lexington was disqualified. The judge took time away form his duties to explain to Sarah that her chicken was incorrectly identified as a Jersey Giant. But he also said she would have been the winning bird.
The following day Lexington was re-entered in the Open Class contest, competing against adult owners. This time the awesome Australorp took first place in its class of English chickens.
Next, the Matthewses heard about the Rocky Mountain Feather Fanciers double poultry show in Brighton.
“We’re not the traveling poultry show type of people,” said Jennifer, but Sarah’s grandfather was visiting from College Station, Texas. He agreed to take daughter and granddaughter to the show.
‘REALLY, REALLY GOOD BIRDS’
Well over 500 fowl entered the show at the Adams County Fairgrounds, which drew a more elite class of birds and breeders than the county fair, according to John Baker. “There were really, really good birds there,” he said.
Lexington took first and second in the junior division and open show. But the biggest honor came when she was named Reserve Grand Champion in the junior division, second place among all 155 fowl — not just all the breeds of chickens, but ducks, geese, game birds, even peacocks. And then-10-year-old Sarah was competing against other fanciers up to age 18.
“Everything about that bird shined,” said Baker.
What makes a chicken a champion? According to Brenda Strong, poultry supervisor at the upcoming stock show in Denver, it’s the one that best exemplifies the standard for its breed. It should be true to type in body, color and feathers and free of bumps, bruises or broken feathers.
“The bird was beautifully conditioned,” said Strong. “Sarah takes excellent care of her birds.”
Baker can still feel the silky softness of Lexington’s irridescent black plumage. He could tell she’d been kept out of the sun, which bleaches and dries the feathers.
He also noted Lexington’s temperament and training, and remembers watching as Sarah placed Lexington on the table for judging, then stepped back. Baker said, “I can see her standing there with her chest puffed out” — Sarah, not the bird — “proud as can be. The bird never moved.”
The century-old National Western Stock Show runs for 16 days and began Jan. 9. The poultry show is next weekend, with junior showmanship on Saturday, Jan. 22.
“I totally forgot about Christmas waiting for the stock show,” said Sarah.
After the year of poultry shows, Sarah is set to train other kids in showmanship as a junior poultry leader for 4-H.
As for Sarah, “The friendship of my bird, who behaves whenever she’s with me, is the main thing.”
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