Wednesday, December 31, 2014

APA National

The American Poultry Association Ohio National Poultry Show in November brought out some amazing birds and their dedicated breeders. Jeannette Beranger, program manager for The Livestock Conservancy made this video of some of them.More photos are posted here.

Happy New Year! This is a good moment to reflect on the past year and look forward to new goals in 2015. I'll be writing a new book, a new version of the Field Guide to Chickens. I look forward to learning more about the many heritage standard breeds and those that are not recognized by the Standard but nevertheless play a role in family life.

I'm enjoying the two Marans pullets my Wyandotte hatched this past year. Thus far, their eggs are ranging from 4 to 7 on this chart, but one early egg was purple. One started out laying double yolk eggs,  but that has settled down. The adventure of chickens!

I'm asking around locally to locate people who need chickens, so that I can let my broody hens set and hatch chicks this year. My coop is full, so I can't keep any more, but I'm finding future homes for them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Heritage Breeds podcasts

Jeannette Beranger, program manager for The Livestock Conservancy is making short podcasts about heritage breeds in general and chickens in particular. They're free and provide insights into why heritage breeds are important and how to improve your flock. 
This Fayoumi hen thrives in Egypt's hot, dry climate.

Conserving those heritage breeds is important, because those locally adapted breeds hold the genes that resist disease, tolerate extreme conditions such as drought, heat and cold. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is working to help local people maintain their herds and flocks of heritage breeds. Keeping heritage breeds makes you part of that history. 

Local breeds are the cornerstone of food production in rural countries. An egg a day is a significant addition to a poor child's diet.
Michelle Conrad's Russian Orloff is comfortable in the cold.

The Heritage Breeds podcast is brought to you by The Livestock Conservancy. In this podcast series you’ll meet the animals, breeders, and people working to save them from extinction. Visit to discover how you can get involved.

Introduction to Heritage Breeds
Protecting nearly 200 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.
What are Heritage Breeds
Discover more about Heritage Breeds and which ones are considered to be the traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These...
Getting Started with Heritage Breeds
Choosing a breed to work with is often the most rewarding and fun part of getting involved with heritage breeds. Linking your own interests, abilities, and facilities with the needs and status of the breed is exciting. Making sure the...
Pickin' Chickens - Part 1 &Part 2
Gather the knowledge you need for Pickin’ Your Chickens. Heritage Breed Poultry expert Jeannette Beranger will introduce you to breeds from around the world. Discover more about the English, Continental, American, Asiatic, and Oriental...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


 Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy, has acquired Crevecoeurs! These show their pure bloodlines in their red rather than white ear lobes. The white ear lobes are evidence of Polish crosses.

How's this for a stylish pullet?
These young cockerels are growing out beautifully.
Jeannette says he's having a Bad Hair Day, but I wouldn't mention it to him.
These youngsters are active and enjoying their perch.
I reported on her project in August. This lovely group bodes well for 2015, and saving this historic breed.

Note the unusual V-shaped horn comb. Crevecoeurs share this shape comb with Houdans, Polish, La Fleche and Sultans.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Toulouse Goose

My article about Toulouse Geese is in the December2014/January 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry.

Ah, the romance of the French! The Toulouse Goose, with its whiff of French cooking and its impressive size, is the very symbol of poultry history and cuisine. “For many people goose and Toulouse are synonymous,” says Dave Holderread in his classic The Book of Geese.

Jeannette Beranger of The Livestock
Conservancy's Toulouse Goose
That massive size makes keeping them a bigger commitment than a whole flock of bantams. They need pasture and water. They live 20 years or longer. Fewer breeders are keeping these masters of the poultry world. The rewards are in knowing these wonderful birds and being part of conservation of a classic breed.

“For someone with the space, they are a breed to go with,” said Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy. “If you can accept the challenge, you can have an impact on conservation.”

Don’t confuse the standard Dewlap Toulouse with commercial Toulouse. Commercial or production Toulouse are developed from a market cross of Dewlap Toulouse with another breed. They grow fast and are in good supply. It’s the classic Dewlap that is waning in numbers.

The Gray Toulouse was one of the original breeds included in the first APA Standard of Excellence in 1874. A buff variety was developed and recognized more than a century later in 1977.  The Standard dictates 26 pounds for a mature gander and 20 pounds for a mature goose, but males often top 30 pounds. That makes for a hefty table bird but won’t work in a breeding flock. Breeding birds have to stay in slim shape to be successful in mating to produce next year’s flock.

Frank Reese Toulouse in Kansas
“Males need to slim down and burn off the keel,” said International Waterfowl Breeders Association president James Konecny. “The keel can get in the way when breeding.”

Keeping them on pasture helps them stay slim. Geese are herbivores, almost to the point of being picky eaters. That quality made them useful on the farm as weeders. Because they would eat only the grassy weeds, they were used to “grass” the cotton, tobacco, wheat and oat fields. 

“There’s no better food for geese than grass,” said breeder Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. He’s raising 200 for the Christmas holiday market this year.

Reese adds fish meal and oil to their diet as winter approaches. He feeds them alfalfa hay and native prairie grass hay in the winter.

Train them to feed in their shelter, so that they will come back at night and be protected from predators. Toulouse, as large as they are, can’t waddle away to escape from predators.

Feathers on the left and center. Down on the right.
Water is important for geese, but a pond isn’t necessary. They can be happy bathing in a kiddie pool or a cattle trough. A natural or man-made pond can be an asset, though. Natural wetlands grasses and water lilies are some of their favorite foods. Make sure the pond is large enough to accommodate the number of geese using it.

Cold weather doesn’t faze geese. Their down is the warmest material known. There’s a market for it, for use in comforters and jackets. Geese can survive through a blizzard, hunkering down and letting snow cover them. Mr. Reese provides windbreaks to protect his geese from weather but otherwise lets them wander.

All that down can make hot weather more of a problem. That’s where shade and cool water can give them relief.

Konecny is rebuilding his flock after farming his 50 breeders out to colleagues for a move last year. He’s got six pairs and 11 young geese back. He finds them good layers with good fertility, hatching goslings that grow fast. Diet needs to be thoughtful, limiting protein when the wings are developing to avoid slipped wing and angel wing. He occasionally tapes a wing that’s developing poorly, to brace it to grow straight. He’s got the experience to know how and when to do that.

Toulouse geese aren’t a project for the novice. Start with a smaller breed, such as one of the medium or light geese, such as Romans or Pomeranians. They’re also on The Livestock Conservancy’s Critical List.

“Toulouse Geese are a project for somebody who is in it for the love of it,” said Mrs. Beranger

Beyond roast goose

Lucio Damiani, in his Foreword to The Goose: History, Folklore and Ancient Recipes, calls it “a walking larder… an animal that embodies the flavor of the past in every sense.” His book includes recipes that go beyond roast goose to goose ragout, goose sausage and goose salami.
“I pull his book out for the holiday season every year,” said Mrs. Beranger.

Save the goose fat! It’s one of the best parts, and can be used in cooking and baking. Mrs. Beranger pierces the skin and roasts hers on a rotisserie, collecting the fat as it cooks. Goose naturally bastes itself. She uses the fat to make confit, preserving meat in fat. “It’s liquid gold,” she said.

Mr. Reese harks back to his mother’s recipe, stuffing the goose with turnips and sauerkraut and roasting it in apple juice. His mother used the goose intestines to make German sweet sausage. To feed the large extended family of as many as 40 people, she would sometimes split open a goose and lay it over a turkey, to baste the turkey breast as both roasted.

“We use everything but the honk,” she used to say.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving turkey

I picked up my 13.25 pound Bourbon Red turkey from Erin Krier in Nipomo on Monday. She calls her poultry business Babe's Birds, after her grandmother. She charged $6.25 a pound, which I am confident compensated her fairly for her work.
Linn Ennis' photo of one of her Bourbon Red turkeys
She was having a meeting of 4-H poultry leaders at her dining room table, so I shared some books with them. They were thankful for the books and I am thankful for their work!

Erin included a Mary Mackey poem with her turkey:

One November
a week before Thanksgiving
the Ohio River froze
and my great uncles
put on their coats
and drove the turkeys
across the ice
to Rosiclare
where they sold them
for enough to buy
my grandmother
a Christmas doll
with blue china eyes

I like to think
of the sound of
two hundred turkey feet
running across to Illinois
on their way
to the platter,
the scrape of their nails
and my great uncles
in their homespun leggings
calling out gee and haw and git
to them as if they were mules

I like to think of the Ohio
at that moment,
the clear cold sky
the green river sleeping
under the ice,
before the land got stripped
and the farm got sold
and the water turned the color of whiskey
and the uncles lay down
and never got up again

I like to think  of the world
before some genius invented
turkeys with pop-up plastic
in their breasts,
idiot birds
with no sildenss left in them,
turkeys that couldn't run the river
to save their souls

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pullet eggs

The new pullets are starting to lay. This year Pixie, the Peruvian Basket chicken, joined the flock in March. The Welsummers and Marans hatched at the end of May.
Marans pullet
Tiny pullet egg
This might be from one of the Welsummers. The Peruvian Basket chicken hatched from a white egg, so I expect her to lay white eggs, too.
Brown spotted egg
Initially, I thought this might be from one of the Marans, but after finding the unusual egg below this morning, I think it may be from one of the Welsummers.
This one is almost purple!
A truly unusual egg. I don't have a trap nest, so I'm not able to be certain yet who is laying what. None of the mature hens is laying right now. They are taking their fall rest.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


My Ancona hen normally has a beautiful, lavish bright red comb. I was alarmed when she entered a molt this year and her comb shriveled to a pale wrinkle.

I added supplement to her diet. Actually, of course, that means adding it to the flock. I'd have to isolate her and that hardly seems worth it to feed her separately. I added Farmer's Helper BabyCake and UltraKibble. They all love pecking at the BabyCake. 
She's looking much better, but still far from her usual crowning glory. Her feathers are recovering as well. She has a tail again!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

People love duck eggs!

Emily Liedel writes in Modern Farmer:

Hilary Brooks never thought she’d be in the business of selling duck eggs. When starting Fork Creek Farm in North Carolina, she planned on selling duck meat, and maybe eating a few of the eggs herself.

But when the owner of a natural foods store placed an order for duck eggs, she quickly sold out. Business has been up ever since.
“Each month I was doubling my sales, and they were running out,” Brooks says. “I had to stop telling people about it, because I didn’t have anything to sell them.” She even had a distributor for Asian grocery stores offer to buy more than 1,000 duck eggs per week — far more than the 150 to 175 per week her 25 layers could handle.
When it comes to eggs, chickens have a near monopoly on the American market, so much so that the USDA does not collect data on sales of any kind of egg other than chicken eggs.
But John Metzer, who has been operating a large waterfowl hatchery in California since the 1970s, says that consumption of duck eggs in the U.S. has been inching upwards over the past 30 years and really taking off in the past three to four years. He sees two main trends in the duck business: A sharp increase both in the popularity of duck eggs and in the number of small farmers and hobbyists raising ducks on pasture and selling their meat and eggs locally.
Metzer says his sales of fresh duck eggs have gone up 10 percent per year since 2011. Sales of day-old ducklings in his two primary laying breeds, Golden 300 Hybrids and Great White Layers, have also increased 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, per year since 2011. “We typically sell out for much of the year — in other words, we could have sold more,” he says.
Mike Badger, the director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers’ Association (APPPA) says, “What I see is anything duck increasing in demand.” Dave Holderread, who runs a waterfowl conservancy and hatchery in Oregon and wrote Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, agrees that demand for ducks and their products is on the rise. When he started raising ducks in the 1960s, Holderread says, most people didn’t know duck eggs were edible.
The rising demand for duck eggs has caught many farmers by surprise. Metzer says his sales of fresh duck eggs have gone up 10 percent per year since 2011.
The rising demand for duck eggs has caught many farmers by surprise.
Rachel Kornstein and Evan Gregoire got into ducks as a form of pest control: They bought a small flock to help with a snail and slug infestation in their urban garden. Eight years later, they’re the owners of Boondockers Farm, a 75-acre concern in Oregon, where they raise rare Ancona ducks.
“We’ve helped create the demand for the product,” Kornstein says. Trained as a chef herself, Kornstein approached local restaurants about buying duck eggs. Like Brooks, Kornstein struggles to meet the demand for the eggs despite producing around 18,000 eggs last year. Boondockers Farm also sells around 1,500 day-old ducklings per year to customers around the country – and they’ve sold out every year since they started the hatchery.
Once duck egg producers put in some preliminary work developing a market for their products, they seem to have no difficulties finding customers, Badger says. “People who know about food tend to seek out duck eggs.”
So who’s buying the eggs? There are three main, sometimes overlapping markets for duck eggs. The first is among chefs and foodies, especially those who bake. Duck eggs are somewhat larger than chicken eggs, with a yolk twice twice the size. The larger yolk gives duck eggs more fat and, as a result, a richer taste. Joshua McFadden, the executive chef at Ava Gene’s and Roman Candle Baking Company in Portland, Oregon describes duck eggs as a “more intense chicken egg.” He uses the eggs mostly for fresh pasta, mayonnaise or simply soft-boiled and crumbled over a salad. Serious bakers appreciate duck eggs for giving the final product a richer, more moist texture, especially in gluten-free baked goods.
Secondly, many are attracted to duck eggs for nutritional reasons. Most people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs, as duck eggs lack the protein many are allergic to. Duck eggs are also more dense in nutrients than chicken eggs, with higher concentrations than chicken eggs of 17 of the 20 essential vitamins and minerals measured in the USDA National Nutrient Database. Duck eggs also have more protein, more fat and more cholesterol than chicken eggs.
Many farmers actually started raising ducks because of personal nutritional needs, and then found that there was a demand for duck products almost by accident.
Many farmers actually started raising ducks because of personal nutritional needs, and then found that there was a demand for duck products almost by accident. Brooks at Fork Creek Farm is allergic to chicken meat and started raising ducks primarily so that she would have access to poultry that wasn’t chicken.
Scott Tyson of 180 Degree Farm in Georgia started raising ducks when his son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age four, and was advised to eat alkaline proteins – which include duck eggs, but not chicken eggs. Tyson didn’t expect to sell the duck eggs, but then a local baker found out he was raising ducks, and asked if she could buy some eggs. “It just kind of blew up on us,” Tyson said. Today, Tyson’s son is a healthy 11-year-old who is an inspiration to Tyson’s customers, many of whom seek out the farm’s products after being diagnosed with a serious illness.
What he had thought would be at most a very small, niche part of his farm turned into one of his primary markets, with Tyson now owning around 65 laying ducks and selling 10,500 duck eggs last year. He plans to almost double both numbers in 2014. Tyson says his profit margin is higher on duck eggs than on chicken eggs, because a laying duck eats the same amount of feed as a laying hen but produces a larger, more valuable egg. Many duck breeds are also more prolific layers: According to the American Livestock Conservancy, Campbell ducks lay up to 340 eggs per year and several other duck breeds can lay over 250 eggs per year, while the top-laying chicken breeds, Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, top out at 300 and 250 eggs per year, respectively.
Lastly, there is a strong market for duck eggs, both fresh and salted, in Asian communities. Richard Chang, from Grand Asia Market in Raleigh, North Carolina explains that the store’s customers don’t consider duck eggs and chicken eggs interchangeable: They choose which type of egg to use based on the dish they are preparing. Grand Asia Market has always stocked duck eggs, but Chang says that they have recently become more difficult to source. “The demand is higher than the supply,” he says.
“It’s not as if ducks are going catch up to chickens,” Metzer admits. But the market for ducks eggs seems like it may be poised to break out of its shell.

Heirloom crops

NPR has a story about preserving Appalachia's heirloom crops.

"Appalachia may be one of the poorest regions of the U.S., but when it comes to heirloom crops, it's got the riches.

"James Veteto is an anthropologist at Western Carolina University and an apple farmer who directs the Southern Seed Legacy Project. He's has spent the past 16 years traveling throughout Central and Southern Appalachia, talking with farmers about the heritage fruits and vegetables they grow.

"That journey lead him (and other researchers) to realize that, with some 1,500 heirloom fruits and vegetables under cultivation, Appalachia is the most diverse foodshed in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico. Among that bounty are 633 distinct varieties of apple and 485 distinct varieties of bean."

They haven't gotten around to heirloom poultry or chickens yet, or even heirloom livestock in general. but they are on the trail!

Back to front: Speckled Sussex, Blue Laced Red Wyandotte, Welsummer and Ancona.
 These girls are having a nice social dirt bath together in my yard. Right now, in November, none of them are laying. The senior hens are molting and the spring chickens haven't started to lay yet.

I started thinking of them as slackers, but then realized that it's all in how I think of it. It's a normal cycle to slow down as the days get shorter. I know they will start to lay again after the solstice. Why do I want to be demanding on them? I enjoy them whether they are laying or not.

There's a farm outside town where I can buy eggs. They don't have many at this time of year, either. so I get there early.

Better to slow down and take some time off. Another lesson from my hens.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween chickens

from Backyard Poultry magazine's Healthy Chickens Bulletin:

A dragon
Little House on the Prairie
Thanks to Brigid for these photos from her 4-H group.

We thought this piece would be relevant, as we know that many of you might be considering dressing up one of your chickens this Halloween or holiday season. This piece published as part of a previous edition of Backyard Poultry magazine, and gives you some safety tips to ensure your chicken won’t get injured during all the fun. Thanks to Wendy Thomas for writing it. Subscribe today by clicking here.

Whether it be for a competition, holiday, or just for pleasure, many people enjoy putting clothing and accessories on their chickens in order to dress them up. If you are going to costume your chickens, advises Brigid McCrea, PhD, associate professor at Delaware State University and extension poultry specialist, for the health and safety of your birds keep the following clothing guidelines in mind:
  • Watch the weight of the costume, as chickens will get flustered if an outfit weighs them down.
  • Along with fabric weight, be careful to not use fabrics that will overheat the bird. Polar fleece is a lightweight material but if worn for a long period, it may make your chicken too warm.
  • Chickens are naturally attracted to the color red and will peck at it; be careful of where red is used in the bird’s costume.
  • Make sure that the chicken can move her wings and that the outfits do not in any way restrict her wing movement.
  • If you are putting something around the chicken’s neck (necklace, bandana), make sure that it is lightweight and does not hang down so low that the chicken could potentially trip over it.
  • Try not to use hats or head coverings. Chickens are prey animals, meaning they are constantly on the lookout for predators who may be after them. A hat restricts vision and won’t be tolerated very long by any chicken.
  • Be careful of beads and hanging decorations that the chicken may be tempted to try to eat them. Likewise, inspect the construction of the outfit to make sure that it does not have loose, dangly threads or that it might fall apart while the chicken is wearing it.
  • Allow for waste to happen (because you know that with chickens it eventually will); either leave the back area open in a costume or prepare the chicken to wear a diaper.
  • Lastly, make sure that the costumes are made from washable fabrics, and for bio-security reasons, wash them after each wearing in order to avoid possible contamination among chickens.

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.