What’s your idea of the perfect chicken? Do you want the fluffiest? The biggest? The smallest? The most color variety? The least color variety? The friendliest? The meanest? The fastest? The slowest?
Everybody has a dream chicken–at least all Murray McMurray Hatchery customers. And it’s an eclectic mix of fantasies. At the risk of sounding pontifical, here’s my dream laying hen:
1. aggressive grazer
2. smart enough to run from hawks
3. never sick; vibrant health
4. big enough to make a nice stewer (4 lbs. at least) at the end of her productive life
5. lays 220 eggs year one and 180 eggs year two
6. purebred (nonhybrid)
Notice I don’t give a hoot about color or feed conversion. I want longevity, hardiness, and thrift. Nearly 50 years ago, when I got my first batch of 50 straight run heavy breed specials from Sears and Roebuck (18 pullets and 32 cockerels–yeah, right, straight run) they were bullet proof and big. Of course, I realize everything is bigger to a 10-year-old, but even up until a couple of decades ago, these standard bred dual-purpose layers typically weighed more than 6 pounds and yielded a nice 4.5-5 pound golden-fat, plump stewing hen.
These Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, Black Australorps and White Rocks were the mainstay of both broiler and egg production. But as the double-breasted hybrids like Cornish Cross became possible, then popular, then industry-standard, the meat quality of the dual purpose bird gradually fell into obsolescence.
Even traditionalists and backyard breeders began selecting smaller body phenotypes. Pasturing fell into disrepute as well, reducing the need for brains and brawn. Routine antibiotic feeding, vaccination, and indoor housing changed the genetic goals. On our farm today (Polyface Farm) we keep some 4,000 non-hybrid layers in rotated Premier poultry net corrals (electrified portable fencing) or free-range Eggmobiles pulled behind grazing cattle.
In an outdoor setting, our biggest management issues are weather extremes and predation. But we also have another desire: high quality eggs. That means we need birds that hunt and graze aggressively. We move these flocks almost daily to new pasture areas, giving them unimpeded access to fresh, succulent forage and the full spectrum of insects, worms, and bugs that live there.
Even with that ideal pasturage situation, however, we have quite a variety of egg quality. In any given dozen, we’ll have several extremely dark orange yolks (indicating high Omega 3 fatty acids–that’s good). But we’ll also have lighter shades and even a pale egg occasionally. What’s the difference? The pale eggs are coming from lazy birds that just hang around the feeders and lounge inside.
To my knowledge, nobody in the world is selecting genetics based on yolk color. In the world of nutrition, however, yolk color is the gold standard for everything regarding nutrition. From folic acid to riboflavin, taste and nutrient density all find their nexus in yolk color. If it’s so important, why is nobody breeding for that? Because they haven’t been asked. As the pastured poultry movement takes hold to address the local integrity food tsunami, I’m hoping someone will begin selecting genetics based on yolk color.
The other criteria on my wish list–longevity and hardiness–took second place to egg production. As the meat industry reduced the need for the dual purpose bird, these traditional dual-purpose breeds could only find value in non-commercial egg production. The overriding genetic selection criterion was feed conversion to eggs. That mandated a smaller body phenotype. When that happened, the birds became more fragile, more flighty (less docile), and more stupid.
Routine vaccination and medication mask genetic weaknesses. While some in the animal rights movement would charge me with animal abuse, I would rather not treat a sick animal to let its weaknesses self-select into culling-by-performance, rather than create crutches that mask weaknesses. Why do some birds, even in flocks infected with Marek’s disease or Newcastle’s disease, never get sick? What could we learn if we didn’t vaccinate or medicate, and simply let survivor genetics reveal themselves and become the new breeding stock?
In my nearly 50 years of raising poultry in a non-industrial commercial setting, I’ve seen profound degradation in hardiness, brains, and thrift. How do we get back to the functional non-drugged chicken? We don’t do it by continuing to over-protect, vaccinate, medicate, and confine. If we’re going to create what I call survivor genetics, we have to give the seed stock the conditions we’ll ask of their progeny. And we can’t coddle.
I know this may sound terribly mean and unloving to some readers who view their chickens as their children and pets. Folks, I’m glad you’re out there. But even so, don’t you want a hardy, thrifty, smart pet? Please appreciate that those of us at a more commercial scale see more nuances and have a broader comparison basis. While we may not name our chickens, our desire for their health and happiness is no less acute.
That means if we’re planning to raise the birds out on pasture, we want the parents raised out on pasture. If we want birds smart enough to head for cover when a hawk circles, we need their parents exposed to some predation pressure as well. I’d be happy for a bird that lays 20 eggs fewer per year if she stays alive in a chilly rain storm or flees when a hawk comes. Goodness, I’m just looking for birds who know it’s beneficial to find shelter at night.
Breeders can create anything their goals articulate. The goals of pastured poultry producers are different even from back yard chicken coop operations.
About 15 years ago we had two rogue layers (Rhode Island Reds) who wandered away from the eggmobiles and lived half a mile away from the house for an entire summer. They never received an ounce of feed, yet thrived and even laid eggs–we found their nest. But we couldn’t find where they spent the night. They stayed healthy and productive throughout the season. A predator never found them. I remember mentioning at that time: “If we could take those eggs and hatch them, just think what kind of pasture-perfect birds we’d have.” We never did, but the idea has intrigued me, especially as I’ve seen what I call the genetic nose-dive even in non-hybrid specialty poultry.
The upshot? This spring, we purchased six different dual-purpose heavy bird varieties from Murray McMurray Hatchery, 100 each. We also purchased an incubator. We’re keeping the cockerels and hope to breed these birds to each other after 2 years–the survivors. If we keep breeding the old survivors back to each other, I’m hoping that in 20 years we’ll create a Polyface-centric, dark-yolked, grazing, smart, docile, long-lived chicken. And I really don’t care if she’s purple with pink polka dots. Here’s to the pastured poultry nutrient dense future.