Chet Utterback, known to some as “Chet the Chicken Man,” tends the flocks of chickens on the campus poultry farm between Kirby Avenue and St. Mary’s Road. With the help of one full-time staff member, Utterback sells the eggs, helps researchers conduct nutritional studies, trains students and is the staff adviser for the Illini Poultry Club, which he helped hatch about two years ago. Utterback, who began his career at the UI in September 1986 as a poultry worker, became foreman in 1990 and then poultry research farm manager in 2004. He and his wife, Pam, a research specialist in animal sciences, met when she was a student at the university and worked on the poultry farm. They live on a 100-acre farm near Atwood with their 11-year-old son, Harlen, who enjoys helping out with the annual Explore ACES event.
What does your job entail?
I make sure the chickens are hatched monthly and get the chickens organized for the studies. On Tuesdays, we sell 100-200 dozen eggs to the public and sell another 40-50 cases containing 30 dozen eggs each to Mussman’s, a commercial egg supplier. Very soon we are also going to be selling eggs at the Meat Science Lab on the days that they sell meat.
I help teach the animal-handling course, which was developed to teach people who have no experience with livestock. A lot of the students get a real eye-opening dose of reality when they come to the farm.
A lot of the nutrition studies done here, where we feed ingredients to baby chickens, are translated to humans and swine. Years ago, we did research on riboflavin in baby formula. We’re working with doctors at UIC and Rush Medical Center on ovarian cancer research; we’re also seeing if flax seed in the chickens’ diets is beneficial. The UI is one of a few universities that have the capacity to do that type of study, which entails about 600 hens. We’ve done groundbreaking research on amino acids and on molting.
Many people have no idea the UI has a chicken farm. We don’t just have a few eggs and a few chickens. In total, we have about 10,000 chickens. In mid-April, we hatch chicks to replenish the flock. The UI’s poultry farm covered 40 acres when it was founded in its current location in 1925. The farm is being relocated to South Race Street in Urbana to make way for the expansion of the sports complex. I’m looking forward to getting the new facility up and running. It will be state of the art.
Did you grow up on a farm?
My parents are grain farmers, and my grandparents had a farm with dairy and beef cattle and chickens. I became familiar with the UI’s poultry farm when I worked for a large commercial chicken operation near Weldon and used to pick up eggs here.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
That depends on your religious convictions. According to the Bible, God created the fowl first. By means of evolution, I firmly believe chickens are descended from dinosaurs. The skeletons for chickens and the Tyrannosaurus rex are very similar, with scaly legs. Some breeds of chickens have feathers that grow under the scales on their legs.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I work on my farm growing corn and soybeans.
I’ve also been a sound technician for a number of bands. I’ve mixed sound for the Danville Symphony Orchestra when it played with a 63-member choir, for musicians who played instruments made from gourds and a Grammy-nominated Reggae band. Most of my friends I’ve met through either chickens or music.
I’m also a blood and platelet donor. I’ve donated 31 1/2 gallons of blood so far and donate platelets every two weeks if possible. I had a brother who died in 1976 of leukemia. Donating platelets is really rewarding. There was a little girl from Fisher who had an allergic reaction to platelets, and they ended up giving her mine. I told them to call me anytime she needs platelets. I did a TV commercial and a radio interview last summer promoting blood donation.