Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mammoth chickens

Why heritage chickens are better:

By Susannah Locke on

Here are three different breeds of chicken, raised on the exact same diet: Giant chickens with dates
The left-hand chicken is a breed from 1957. The middle chicken is a breed from 1978. The right-hand one is a breed from 2005. They were all raised in the same manner for this paper and were photographed at the same age. Vox added the dates to this image. (Zuidhof, MJ, et al. 2014 Poultry Science 93 :1–13)
The one on the left is a breed from 1957. The middle one is a 1978 breed. And the one on the right is a commercial 2005 breed called the Ross 308 broiler. They're all the same age. And the modern breed is much, much, much larger.
In just 50 years or so, chickens have been bred to be much bigger. The image above comes from a study done by researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, who raised three breeds of chickens from different eras in the exact same way and measured how much they ate and how they grew. This allowed them to see the genetic differences between the breeds without influences from other factors like food or antibiotic use. They recently published their results in Poultry Science.

What breeding has done to your chickens

1) Chickens today are much bigger than those in the 1950s: This one's pretty obvious. The 2005 chicken breed on the right ended up being about four times as heavy, on average, as the 1957 breed on the left — despite being fed the same foods.
2) Chickens today are more efficient at turning feed into meat: The reason for that is that modern-day chickens are more efficient at turning feed into breast meat. The researchers' metric for this was something they called the "breast conversion rate" of grams of feed into grams of breast meat. The 2005 breed was roughly three times as efficient as the 1950s one.
3) Modern chickens also have extra health problems: Previous research has noted increased boneheart, and immune system problems in some contemporary chicken breeds. Health problems could come from several factors, including both unintentional genetic effects and behavioral differences such as diet and carrying around all that extra weight.
4) But the growth of chickens has helped make chicken a popular food: Over the past few decades, chicken has become a much cheaper food. And Americans have been eating more of it. (The price of poultry has risen at about half the rate of other consumer goods from 1960 to 2004.) In 2013, Americans consumed more than 83 pounds of chicken per person.
Chicken consumption 5
According to the Poultry Science paper, our ability to breed bigger, more efficient chickens had played a big part in that.
Hat tips to John R. Hutchinson and Francie Diep for calling my attention to this paper.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Chickens and You Training

Pat Foreman is holding her Chickens and You Training this month! I'd recommend her class just to get to know her. She's lively and knows her chickens. If you are looking for a way to get started or want to expand on your flock knowledge, sign up here.

Primary Series–10 Classes
Begins Tuesday, October 21th, 2014, 7:30pm EST

"We guarantee that after completing the Primary Series, you will understand how to raise, keep and employ chickens to help feed yourself and your family for the rest of your life!"

After completing classes, and passing an exam, participants are awarded the Backyard Chicken Keeper Certification (with a diploma suitable for framing). Advanced classes and projects lead to the coveted Master Backyard Chicken Keeper Certification.

Text book for the primary series is City Chicks: Keeping Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Creators, Bio-recyclers and Local Food Suppliers, by Patricia Foreman.

LIVE ONLINE COURSES Facilitated live by popular author & speaker Patricia Foreman

• Convenient access of online training from wherever you are with a computer or phone.

• Receive class notes with copies of all slides for clear understanding of concepts, designs and systems.

• 24/7 replay of class sessions.

• Real time video streaming and chat during class.

• Chat room opens 1/2 hour before class and remains open after class for student interactions.

• Small classes for maximum participation.

• Available international through your computer & VoIP, or phone access.

• Continue connecting with other Chickeneers on a private Chickens and YOU FaceBook group. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Black Chickens

Lisa Munniksma blogs for Hobby Farms about black chickens, with a Halloween touch.

It's cute, a little offbeat. I acquired a black chicken this year, a Peruvian basket chicken, a diminutive bantam-size pullet. She has that glorious purple-green sheen on her glossy feathers. In temperament, she's rather wild. Smart, and stands up for the flock -- She stood outside and called the loudest alarm when a bobcat came by.
Peruvian basket pullet Pixie

 She's as big as she is going to get, compared with Standard Dorking Blondie. 
She was hatched from one of the eggs flown here from a farm in New Jersey. The other three that hatched were males and had to go back East, where they now live in Vermont. She missed them terribly and it took her a while to get over losing them. She didn't integrate into the flock for a while. Now, she is more sociable with the others. She eats with them instead of being easily bullied away and settled in with them all for a dirt bath the other day.

She hasn't started laying yet. I'm not sure whether she swill be a good layer or more seasonal, like a wild bird. That remains to be seen.

2 Spooky Chickens No Real Farmer Can Afford
Fibromelanosis is a phrase causing big interest among chicken keepers—or a big-money interest, anyway. Those fuzzy-looking Black Silkie bantams are common to the U.S., but two other breeds exhibiting fibromelanostic traits—all black tissues, from feather to bone—are quite rare. The Ayam Cemani, hailing from Indonesia, and the Swedish Black Hen, from Scandinavia, look like they're ready for Halloween.

Both breeds have been imported by rare-chicken breeder Greenfire Farms in Midway, Fla. Owner Paul Bradshaw, who has been working with rare breeds since 2007, is attracted to these chickens because of their "un-chicken-like, exotically beautiful and vaguely sinister appearance.” He continues: "In a world of beige Ford Fiestas, the Cemani are black Lamborghinis.”

They're priced like Lamborghinis, too. As of October 2014, a pair of the Ayam Cemani sells for $1,999 and two Swedish Black Hens for $1,000 to $2,000. There are just a few breeders in the U.S. Greenfire Farms sells a few dozen a year and has about a dozen adult birds of each breed. Ewe Crazy Farms in Southern Georgia maintains six breeding Swedish Black Hens and might have 40 to 50 individuals on the farm at any time as replacement breeding stock and animals for sale.

Neither of these breeders have eaten the meat from these birds, but Ewe Crazy Farms owner Bryce Everett says, "I do have several friends who have tasted the meat and describe it as having a slightly gamier flavor compared to regular chicken. Most compare the taste to game birds, such as dove, quail or pheasant.”

Ayam Cemani

The Ayam Cemani—which means "completely black chicken” in Javanese and Indonesian—is from Indonesia. The USDA has banned the import of chickens from Indonesia, but Bradshaw was able to get his Ayam Cemani from a breeder in The Netherlands. According to Cemani Farms, a breeder in Indonesia, Ayam Cemani are renowned as having mystical powers in their native country.

Like many Asian chicken breeds, such as the Aseel and the Malay, the Ayam Cemani has a game fowl-like appearance. Its feathers are black with a metallic-green and -purple sheen, and the black coloration continues to the skin, muscles, bones and organs. The average weight is only 2¼ to 4 pounds.

Hens lay about 60 eggs per year. They go through a laying cycle of 20 to 30 large, cream-colored eggs, and then they stop laying for three to six months.

Swedish Black Hen

Called Svart Höna in Swedish, Swedish Black Hens are super rare. According to the Greenfire Farms website, a national poultry census confirmed fewer than 500 Swedish Black Hens in Sweden. Developed in a Nordic climate, Swedish Black Hens are cold-hardy and do well free-ranging.
"The Swedish Blacks (or Svart Höna) actually were not originally in my line of sight during the first [rare-chicken] import,” says Everett, who has been working with rare poultry since 2012. "My main concern was importing various colorations of English Orpingtons, and my contact providing the Orpingtons happened to also raise Svart Höna. One step led to another, and I eventually imported both eggs and adult Svart Höna from England after seeing photos of the stock. I was really lucky to find a breeder who was willing to export stock despite these birds being extremely rare, even in Europe.”

Swedish Black Hens have the same fibromelanosis trait that makes their feathers, skin, muscles and bone black, though some individuals have a mulberry-red skin. The birds weigh only 5 to 7½ pounds, and hens lay 140 cream-colored eggs per year.

Making the Investment

A price tag like the ones on these birds is scarier than an all-black chicken costume on Halloween.
"Like most pursuits, the more sophisticated and knowledgeable you become about your interest, the greater lengths you must go to in order to satisfy it,” Bradshaw says. His typical customer is a sophisticated chicken fancier who is drawn to the black chickens’ exotic look.

Everett only sells Swedish Black Hens that are high-quality representations of the breed to others who are interested in breeding the chickens.

"I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have stepped forward and offered assistance in preserving rare breeds by breeding and showing,” he says. "As more people get involved, the rare breeds have a chance to become established in the U.S., which helps move these birds off the 'endangered' breed list.”

A word of caution before spending a few thousand on a starter flock: Breeders may claim to be selling a certain rare breed, but you should do your research and verify the integrity of the breeder. "The single most important piece of evidence to support their claims would be a valid USDA import permit showing the origin of their breeding stock,” Bradshaw says. "Buyers should always ask for a copy of this permit.”

Even if an all-black chicken isn’t the next animal you’ll be adding to your farm menagerie, learning about rare breeds, like the Ayam Cemani and the Swedish Black, can open to your eyes to a whole new (and colorful) world of livestock.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pure Poultry

Victoria Redhed Miller followed her path from urban life to an old farmhouse miles from 21st century comforts. She finds a lifestyle that suits her and brings us all along in her memoir, Pure Poultry: Living Well with Heritage Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks of how this city girl goes off the grid.

She and her husband move to his family farm after he retires from his city job. That’s the first indication of their willingness to step outside the mundane and take a chance. The old place needs work and is far from the Seattle they have called home. They step out into the eastern Washington countryside, willing to do what it takes.

And it takes chickens, ducks and turkeys! She’s a novice, but soon gets up to speed on the chickens she acquires, from a retiring farmer and later, more deliberately, by choice. She learns the advantages of heritage breeds for small flocks: good foragers, hardy in all weather conditions, willing to brood and raise the next generation.

Thankfully, she’s also a thoughtful diarist, keeping track of what happens and how it works out. She keeps good track of her poultry experiences, too. That’s invaluable for improving breeding and monitoring costs. Breeder records are crucial to heritage flock keeping. The records are testament to how each breeding works out. She tracks egg production and feed costs.

She’s willing to do what it takes, and open to new experiences. When a local restaurant wants to buy her eggs, she’s ready with the required state licensing to sell eggs legally. She brings with her a capable background that helps her navigate new experiences.

Chopping her own wood for heat and canning her garden and flock surplus immerses her in sustaining the small farm. From her experiences, she draws some general principles to conclude her book: Purebred birds are more sustainable: Shorten the food chain; Challenge the ‘Get Big or Get Out’ adage; and Have fun!

As a newcomer to poultry, she learned by doing. From that experience, she created a Poultry from Scratch Worksheet. It’s a useful tool for anyone without experience considering poultry. Going over her questions and pondering the answers – What do I plan to do with hens who are past their prime laying years? How much time am I willing to spend learning about poultry health issues? – will spark the family discussion that needs to be part of entering into small flock poultry raising.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Heritage breeds for the small flock

From an article I wrote for the April/May issue of Backyard Poultry magazine:
People have raised all kinds of poultry for at least 8,000 years. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, guineafowl and even ostriches have been domesticated – that is, they have become genetically able to live and reproduce among humans. Domestication itself is an interesting process. Of 148 large mammal species, only about 15 have ever been domesticated.

A Junglefowl rooster photographed in India
Chickens are descended from Junglefowl, which still roam wild in India and other parts of Southeast Asia. Most domesticated ducks are descended from mallards, but domesticated Muscovies from the Americas (that name has its own history) are also raised. Geese are descended from Western Graylag geese and turkeys from wild turkeys, which still roam the countryside. Wild guineafowl and ostriches are common in Africa, but their domestic relatives live on farms.

That wild heritage includes a lot of variety, both in appearance and in those invisible genes. That’s one of the values of heritage breeds, their genetic variability. You see it in their body shape and conformation and their colorful plumage. Equally important are unseen qualities such as disease resistance, broodiness and egg production. Choosing heritage breeds for your backyard flock puts you and your birds in the long history of traditional poultry.

Hybrid chickens may lay more eggs and the Cornish-Rock cross is the fastest-growing meat bird, but they lack the genetic variability of heritage breeds and many of the less visible qualities. Broodiness is bred out of hybrid layers, so that they don’t take any breaks from laying. They may be spent, have laid as many eggs as they will ever lay, in three years.

My Blue Laced Buff Wyandotte with her brood.
“Any chicken that lays 300 eggs a year will not live past three years,” said Frank Reese, life-long poultry breeder of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. “You do have an animal who is highly productive, but they are hyperactive, short-lived, dead-end animals.”

Because they are hybrids, with the vigor of cross-breeding, they can’t pass that on to their offspring, even if they were able to brood them. Cornish-Rock crosses do little but eat and grow. They are physically unable to reproduce.

“Healthy, balanced heritage breed birds have a healthy immune system,” Reese said. “They are like athletes who have trained. Don’t expect morbidly obese animals to be athletes. They are bred to be what they are.”

Reese has worked with the Livestock Conservancy and others to develop a marketing definition of Heritage Chickens (abbreviated version, see sidebar for the full definition): “A Heritage Egg can only be produced by a Standard-bred Chicken admitted by the American Poultry Association. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a Heritage Egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard-bred Chicken established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.”

That definition is a foundation on which to build a market for traditional breed poultry and educate the public. A USDA-approved definition would require producers to meet that definition in order to label their products as ‘heritage,’ and sell for a premium price. One of Mr. Reese’s goals was to write the definition so that it would not be subject to being subverted by the poultry industry the way ‘natural,’ ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ often are. A precise definition is necessary to prevent unqualified companies from labeling their products with it, until the term loses its meaning and the producer loses the market premium.

The American Poultry Association has a Flock Inspection Committee to explore how the APA could lead in certifying flocks in the marketplace.

Breeds for backyard flocks

Identify the breeds that suit your needs. Just as a hunter wouldn’t choose a Chihuahua for a hunting dog, small flock keepers should choose breeds that suit them. Silkies, Dorkings and Cochins have gentle personalities that make them desirable birds for households with young children. Bantams are small breeds, easier for small hands to hold.

Wyandottes, Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshires, Orpingtons, Polish and Houdans were commercial production breeds in the early 20th century. Javas, Dominiques, Buckeyes, Delawares, New Hampshires, Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are among the historic chicken breeds that are appearing more frequently at poultry shows. Some breeds, such as the New Hampshire, are often shown, but most do not meet the Standard.

Mr. Reese has focused on New Hampshires and is making good progress with them. “It takes years of commitment, but it’s so satisfying to walk out and look at your flock and be happy with what you see.”

Attend a poultry show and meet the breeders. Consider visiting the farm where they raise their flocks.

“Seek out those people who have dedicated their lives to quality and proper breeding,” Mr. Reese said. “See how the Mom and Dad birds treat you. Find out what it takes to maintain a good flock of these birds.”

Breeds may be familiar, such as the Rhode Island Red, the state bird of Rhode Island, or obscure. Sultan chickens were bred as ornamental birds for Turkish royalty by the 19th century. They are decorative indeed, with full flowing white crests, muffs and beards, long feathers gracing their legs. Their feathery legs, called vulture hocks, are undesirable in other breeds, but in the case of Sultans, they add to the allure. To keep those feathery feet attractive, you won’t want them spending time around the edge of a muddy pond.

This photo of Sultans comes from Cackle Hatchery.
They have five toes, like the Dorking and the Silkie. They are a medium sized bird, at 6 lbs. for a rooster and 4 lbs. for a hen. Bantams top out at 22-26 ounces. They are good layers of white eggs, your bonus for keeping such distinctive birds.

Bantams are small chickens, generally one-fifth to one-third the size of large fowl, weighed in ounces rather than pounds. Most are small versions of standard size chickens, but some are True Bantams, such as Nankins and Silkies. They require proportionately less space and feed.

These Nankins live at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Modern Games, both large fowl and bantams, were bred exclusively for showing. They have an unusual, modern art appearance. Japanese bantams hold their black tails high above their white bodies. Silkies have unusual hair-like feathers. Bantams come in every color imaginable.

Many bantams retain good mothering characteristics and will happily set on eggs and raise chicks for you. Their eggs, though small, are tasty. A friend finds one regular chicken egg too small for breakfast and two too large, but two bantam eggs just right.

Add ducks to your flock

Mandarin ducks and Wood ducks look as if someone painted them, with distinct brightly colored green, red, brown and white markings. The drakes, at any rate. The hens, like so many waterfowl, have camouflage plumage that is less striking. They happily nest in boxes and will raise a clutch of youngsters for you.

Mandarin ducks
Wood ducks are native to North America, one of the few duck breeds that nest in trees. That first step out of the nest can be a big one for ducklings – jumps as long as 290 feet, without injury, have been documented. They naturally produce two broods in a year. You may attract some wild ones to your pond, or you can acquire domestically raised birds. Trimming the primary flight feathers on one wing will keep them from flying away, although domestic birds may willingly stay in the comfortable surroundings you provide.

Mandarin Ducks are Asian cousins to Wood Ducks. While they are not native to North America, they do well here. Their stunning plumage makes them popular in private collections. While their wild numbers in China are declining, they are doing well in domestic flocks. Pairs bond for life, making them a symbol of marital love and fidelity, often used to bless Chinese weddings.

Not everyone finds the caruncles of Muscovy ducks attractive, but they are a conversation point. The fleshy growths on their heads are warty and strange. These large ducks, native to the American continents, can be friendly companions. The hens are good mothers and naturally lay quite a few eggs. Crested ducks have feathered knobs on their heads, giving them an eye-catching appearance. Runner ducks are often described as ‘wine bottles with legs.’ With supportive diet, they lay as many eggs as chickens, and come in many colors.

Harvey Ussery's Muscovy ducks in Virginia
Bantam ducks, weighing less than two pounds, may suit you. Call ducks were originally bred to attract wild ducks by calling them down to the hunter’s blind. They retain their inclination to call, and are vocal and sociable. East Indies ducks glimmer with greenish iridescence on their black plumage.

Geese are beautiful

Historic geese breeds such as Embden, Toulouse and Pomeranian have smooth feathers, but Sebastopol geese look as if someone curled theirs. Their soft, flowing ruffles give them the appearance of fantastic dream birds. Their feathers are as much as four times as long as normal feathers, with flexible shafts that spiral, draping down to the ground.

Dave Kozakiewicz raises these Sebastopols in Minnesota
They are an ancient utility breed, hardy and respectable egg layers of 25-35 eggs a year. Goose eggs can substitute for chicken eggs in cooking and are especially valued in baking. Their albumen is heavier than that of chicken eggs, so don’t bother trying to get them to whip up light.

Sebastopols are considered medium geese, weighing 12 to 14 lbs. at maturity, making them good table birds, if you are so inclined. They are gentle and enjoy human companionship. Keep them away from aggressive birds. They enjoy bathing those lovely feathers in clean water.

All waterfowl feathers and down make the warmest insulation, both for the bird and for clothing and bedding. No man-made product is as good as goose down and feathers. Geese stay warm in the harshest winter weather, but the loose feathering of Sebastopols makes them appreciate protection when it’s especially cold, wet and windy.

Don’t worry about them flying away. Those long, curly feathers are useless for flying. Like all geese, they mate for the duration, which may well be for life. They love raising a family and will happily adopt youngsters of other species. Give them a place to nest and you will have years of happy families.

On beyond turkeys

All turkeys are the same breed, but their different colors separate them as varieties. Royal Palm turkeys have striking white and black markings. Although Royal Palms have been selected for their beauty, they did not lose their ability to forage for themselves. Royal Palm turkeys will also raise their own poults for you.

A Royal Palm tom.
Wild turkeys are plentiful around the U.S. now, having made a recovery from being hunted into extinction in many areas. If you keep domestic turkeys, you may find a wild male eager to join your flock for a season. Farmers of the past generally welcomed such interlopers, for their contribution to the vitality of the flock. The offspring won’t retain the distinctive coloring of Royal Palms, but that may not be important to you. All turkeys are sociable and companionable with people.

Royal Palm turkeys are relatively small, with toms topping out at around 22 lbs. and hens around 12 lbs. They are good table birds, if you find yourself with more than you want.

National Chicken Month

September is National Chicken Month, a promotion of the poultry industry and retailers to encourage consumers to eat more chicken. that's certainly not a goal I'd oppose, but I'd like to see it somewhat broader.

Frank Reese posted this photo of a Cornish-Rock cross from 1968, to compare it with the current version.

As I searched for images of current Cornish Rock crosses on the Internet, nearly all of them showed the birds sitting down. Their bodies grow so fast that their bones can't keep up. They have difficulty standing and walking.

Cornish are a valued heritage breed. there's nothing wrong with crossing them with Rocks to get a faster growing bird, but the industrial emphasis on bottom lines has thrown the system out of whack. The birds raised so rapidly -- they are slaughtered at 6-7 weeks of age -- don't develop flavor and their living conditions are horrible.

Check for humanely raised heritage breed chickens at your local farmers' market. I'm fortunate to have a local breeder who raises chickens, ducks and turkeys. I've had her turkeys for the past two Thanksgivings and they were delicious. I'm looking forward to a duck from her.

Her products are always in more demand than she can meet. Industrial chicken piles up. I'd rather have one good chicken than industrial chicken every day.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

100 years for the American Bantam Association!

The American Bantam Association celebrates 100 years in 2014! I've already got my commemorative blanket and the Yearbook arrived last week. What a terrific volume!
If you are getting started or have been involved with Bantams forever, this is the book to have. It's a handbook of tips on husbandry and breeding, along with complete lists of everyone who is anyone in bantams. If you need some birds, you will find a breeder who can provide them in here. Along with testaments to their excellence, as demonstrated by the many awards they have won over the years.

I especially enjoyed the Time Capsules, letters and articles from the past hundred years. An article from Backyard Poultry magazine back in 1981, before it was resurrected in 2006. What a great heritage to reflect on!

Seeing so many active chicken lovers gives me hope for the future. Take advantage of the special offer of membership plus the Yearbook and the blanket if you are not already a member.