Iowa's State Fair Poultry Queen enjoys looking for the 'perfect' chicken
Goats, cattle, horses, two sheep and a llama greet those pulling into the long farm driveway at the Jeff and Brenda Miller farm north of Hinton.
It is, however, a somewhat sizable array of chickens of chickens that vie unashamedly for the center of attention for anyone on the farm.
Mariah Miller is ready to see they get it.
Mariah, a 2012 Hinton High School graduate, readily admits she enjoys her chickens.
She is set to take her place in the Iowa State Fair parade later this summer, reigning as Iowa's Poultry Queen come State Fair time.
Mariah was invited to take on the title by Al Nichols, the fair's open poultry show superintendent as a result of her participation in many of open poultry events.
The 18 year old lets her excitement about her coming time as royalty show, along with her enthusiasm for working with the farm's feathered flocks, which are housed in the pens and cages at the end of the driveway.
"I like chickens because it's fun to try to get that perfect chicken," Mariah explained. "And, it takes time to get that chicken. You have to get to know what the judge is looking for, the show classifications, the condition of the feathers, an appropriate weight for the birds, their combs, their feet, pretty much everything, and what can disqualify an entry."
A member of Plymouth County's Hungerford TMT 4-H Club, Mariah has taken home more than one trophy from the Plymouth County Fair's 4-H poultry completion as well as having strong showings in the 4-H purebred beef classes.
The teen is also a competitor in open poultry shows throughout the Midwest.
Walking through the pen area on the Miller's farm, an assortment of possible contenders for this summer's shows crow for attention.
Incubator-hatched, the chickens must often reach breed maturity before a potential champion entry or entries is decided upon, Mariah said.
However, the occasional early favorite may stand out over his or her pen mates, she added.
Mariah concedes that while the family's chickens are not considered pets, one may inadvertently become a favorite.
One such bird was was Baby Betty, a Brahma and reserve champion three years ago in a Wisconsin show.
"I really don't know why I thought she was so special but she was spoiled rotten," Mariah confessed. "When we went to a show she got to stay in the car. The rest all had to ride in the trailer and stay there throughout the show."
Chickens began "flocking" into the family's livestock-oriented operation seven years ago, the teen explained.
"That was when another family asked us if we were interested in chickens. We said yes, built a shed and started out with 10 chickens," she said. "It's just grown from there to where now we have about 400."
Mariah smiles as she hears her mother confess the chickens were soon to become "an addiction" as well as hobby for all members of the Miller family -- Jeff and Brenda, Mariah's sister, Kourtney, and Mariah.
Of all the breeds on their farm, Mariah said she has a preference for the Jersey Giant, a "dual purpose" chicken developed in the late 1870s and 1880s in New Jersey. The breed is recognized for excelling as a large size meat bird with hens tending to be abundant egg-layers.
Another of the breeds seen in the farm yard is the Brahma, often described in poultry references as the "King of All Poultry," first imported into the United States from China.
There's also a small number of the familiar Buff Orpington dual purpose chickens and colorful Japanese Bantam birds.
Mariah said loading the chickens up for their various competitive events is much easier than getting her beef animals ready.
The chickens are also less expensive to maintain and work with, she said.
For example, 100 chickens can feed for a day on what is normally consumed by one of her beef animals.
Another advantage of poultry is the ability of an exhibitor being able to prepare the chickens by his or herself for the show ring, rather than having an added expense for the clipping or pre-show grooming of a livestock entry.
A member of the American Poultry Association, Mariah said the opportunity to meet and get to know others with interests similar to hers in the poultry industry is one of the things she enjoys most about showing her chickens.
"While I don't often meet many others my own age, there are a lot of other older exhibitors who have helped me out a lot and have been good to learn from," she said. "It's been good to see what everyone does differently.
The poultry shows aren't always about winning but more about enjoying the experience, Mariah said.
"And if you sometimes go into a show not expecting to win and do, it's that much better," she said.