Ghostwood Farm


Chicken Diversity, I.
March 9, 2012, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming

You probably know this, but most (maybe all?) of the commercially-produced chicken in the US is one hybrid: the Cornish x rock cross. They gain weight extremely quickly and are very heavy in breast meat. Even many pastured and “free range” producers use this hybrid for meat production because it is the most efficient at turning feed into chicken. They truly are a miracle of breeding: They can reach a dressed weight of 3-4 lb. in only 6-8 weeks. The trade-off for this high feed efficiency is that they literally grow TOO fast: they often develop leg problems if they are kept, well, alive, forĀ  too long. Also, as hybrids, they do not breed true if bred–to get them, a Cornish must be bred with a rock.

So what?

Well, just like in nature, diversity in our food supply is important. The genes that code for different colors, shapes, combs, wattles and the like can be linked to those that provide hardiness to cold or heat, resistance to disease and parasites, and other traits that are important to survival. A reduction in the genetic diversity of our food supply is future trouble of this highest order. And a large number of breeds of livestock are endangered, some of them critically. This is true in cattle, sheep, goats, hogs…and of course in chickens.

In addition to girding the food supply against future challenges, the so-called “heritage breeds” behave more like chickens. They grow more slowly, but they are capable of finding much of their own food. They mate naturally (and often!). They have less breast meat, but what they have is intensely flavorful. The constant movement and varied food makes for a very tasty chicken. However, their slower growth rate makes them more expensive, because they eat more before they reach butchering weight.

This is a long way to say that I wanted to introduce you more fully to some of the breeds we have here at Ghostwood. I’ll start with the roosters in this post, and move on to hens and egg production in part II.

The Kingfish.

The Kingfish, Head Honcho, Stud Bull--my oldest rooster, a Black Australorp.

This fella is the King of the Roost, the head rooster. He’s the only one I kept of my first roosters, as he was the biggest and meanest. He is a Black Australorp, and no longer the biggest, but far and away the meanest. The Australorp is a breed developed in Australia from English Orpington stock. They were bred primarily for egg production. They have a single comb, which make them somewhat susceptible to frostbite, as the comb can get quite large (as you can see here).

My Murray McMurray catalog assures me that they are quiet and gentle. HA! This fella has spurs nearly an inch long and knows how to use them–he has pierced the skin on my wife’s shins through jeans with them. If he hears another rooster mating with a hen, he goes running and beats the other rooster about the head and face. He is feared by roosters and followed constantly by hens. So it goes.

As an aside, even though he regularly attacks my wife, he gets to live. I WANT him to be mean. I WANT him to protect his hens. If an opossum gets in the coop, or if a raccoon wanders by during the day when they’re out, this bird will give it a run for its money. That is the primary reason I keep roosters–that is how they earn their keep.

Barred Plymouth Rock

Barred Plymouth rock rooster, low man on the proverbial pole.

This bird, sitting on the compost pile, is a Barred Plymouth Rock rooster. He’s just as big as most of the roosters and bigger than some, but seems to be pretty mild. As you may have guessed by the name, the Plymouth Rock is an American breed, and among one of the most popular breeds in the country. They are an excellent “dual-purpose” bird, which means that they are good for meat and eggs. This breed (though not in this color) is one of the parents of the “Cornish x rock” meat bird I discussed early in this post.

I haven’t noticed a great deal of breed fidelity among most females–they don’t seem to be too particular in which roosters they hang out with–but the barred rock hens tend to stick around the barred rock rooster.

We had a barred rock in our first flock of roosters who was particularly obnoxious (though he, too, was low in the pecking order). Melissa took such a dislike to him that he earned the name “Brat,” which stood for “Barred rock asshat turdface.” He became a roaster. These birds are a bit difficult to clean, but not as bad as the black australorps. It is fiendishly difficult to get all the black feathers off their white skin.

Buff Orpington Rooster

A Buff Orpington rooster. Pretty, eh? The hen in the background is a Black Star.

These are among my favorites of the breeds we raise: Buff Orpingtons. I have two roosters and a hen. They are pretty easy-going, so far. They have white skin, which makes them very easy to clean. I was excited to get them in my last batch of mystery chickens. I have only one hen, though. We’ll see how well she produces. These roosters are bigger than the Black Australorp in the first photo, but much milder. I am not sure if that is because they are younger, or because the breed is naturally more mild. I’m guessing Option A. Both of these guys seemed to have suffered a little frostbite on their combs this winter. That is one of the hazards of single-combed breeds, something with which the next two breeds (below) do not have to deal.

Silver-laced Wyandotte

This is a silver-laced wyandotte. Gorgeous, isn't he?

The silver-laced wyandotte was the most numerous rooster in my last batch of chicks. They grew a bit slower than the others, but they grew to a good size and were easy to clean. Also, they have a rose comb, and so are less susceptible to frostbite than the birds with the large single combs. This is definitely a breed I would get again. They were among the first birds to begin hanging out with the older birds. I try not to anthropomorphize, but it’s hard not to see that as “accepting.”

Mystery...wyandotte? Rose comb, similar pattern to the silver-laced...but green legs. Aracauna blood in there?

I don’t know what this bird is. I have two. They appear very much like a Wyandotte, but I cannot find any pictures on the web of any Wyandottes with this coloration. They have the green legs of an Aracauna/Americauna, but no cheek tufts. They’re mild-mannered and have grown to the same size and shape of the Wyandotte. If I knew what they were, I’d get them again. As it is, we’ll see how true they breed when I start raising my own replacement stock, I guess!

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I discuss the hens we have. Hopefully it won’t take me as long to post as this one did.

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