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Dr. Stewart Ritchie. Photo by Liam Ritchie.

Poultry powers B.C. vet’s career

For many people, poultry is simply another option in a long line of dinner ideas. But for Dr. Stewart J. Ritchie, president of Canadian Poultry Consultants Ltd. and S.J. Ritchie Research Farms Ltd., chickens (feathers) are a way of life.

And if you don’t believe it, just ask Ritchie what his friends and family know him by.

“My nickname is Chicken Stew,” Ritchie says, a satisfied chuckle accompanying the title. “Even my licence plate is CHKNS2. One of my clients gave me that name and it stuck.”

Ritchie, who graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in 1987, is a leading voice in Canada’s health and nutrition field for poultry. His career extends into seemingly every avenue in the area, wherein he has served as president of the American Association of Avian Pathologists as well as president of the Western Poultry Disease Conference. He also founded the Western Meeting of Poultry Clinicians and Pathologists and has taken part in numerous other professional and educational projects around the globe.

The first step on Ritchie’s path to a lifelong career in poultry came as a young boy, when he worked at his parents feed mill during his spare time. Those days were difficult and long, with arduous physical labour taking up much of his activities.

But along with the sweat and elbow grease came an introduction to the world that would one day become his calling.

“As a young boy — 10 years old — we were raised as labourers in a feed mill,” he says. “I was exposed to blending up vitamins and making feed, sweeping and cleaning, fixing pellet mill dies. I always joked that the highest I got at the company was cleaning the gutters.”

That interest only swelled once Ritchie reached the University of Saskatchewan. Though he’d been targeting a veterinary degree for years and specifically planned on harnessing it as an entry point into the world of poultry, the people and instructors that Ritchie met through the WCVM further inspired his curiosity about the world of feathered livestock.

“The professors are all amazing, hard working and generous, and the level of expertise there was over the top,” Ritchie says. “It still is.”

Today Ritchie’s work revolves around integrated preventive health, primarily governed through careful and considerate poultry management. Chickens are phenomenal animals to work with in this regard, he says, simply by nature of the practices surrounding their use as livestock.

“The old joke is that a flock of broilers is in for a bite to eat and a drink of water and away they go, so we get our data quite quickly,” Ritchie says. “We can make adjustments quickly. We’ll produce six flocks a year, and the leghorns — the commercial layers — are spectacular at converting feed and water into eggs.”

This reality also means that even minor changes can have a huge effect on the health and quality of livestock, which Ritchie says only highlights how vital management tactics are for farmers.

“If you are going to allow for a chicken to be outside and stressed by inclement weather or to be stressed with bigger numbers, this is a constraint,” he says. “A chicken is an omnivore, and if you're going to feed the chicken an all-vegetable diet, you’ve just added another constraint. When you do that, a chicken will drink more water and with that there are potential consequences with health — including less efficient utilization of resources.”

But what drives Ritchie more than anything is a goal that sounds less like the words of someone overseeing multiple high-level projects at once and more like the words of that same energetic, optimistic young man who once helped his father out as a labour hand.

“If you look at my picture in my yearbook from the U of S, it says, ‘Safe, wholesome and reasonably priced.’ I think that still holds true. I’ve been focusing on that for a long time. It is fun, and it is very interesting.”

HenryTye Glazebrook is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, B.C.

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