Picking Out Chicks!

It’s spring, which means it’s time to incubate and brood baby chicks. But which ones to add to Jo-Erl Farm this year? Normally, we purchase  50-75 new laying hen chicks to diversify and stabilize production. I think of these hens as the workhorses of the farm.

Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns are what my grandfather had on our farm when it was solely a poultry, before my father made it into a dairy. My grandmother used to say with a certain eye roll that they had to have both brown egg and white egg layers in those days because people were particular about which type of egg they bought. Both of these breeds are great layers (6-7 each a week) and are bred for the cold New England winters.

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My grandfather George Parker on the farm with some of his free-range hens back in the 1950s.

When we added chickens back to our farm we started with the heritage breed Rhode Island Reds and then added some others: Dominiques, which were what the Pilgrims and other European settlers brought with them to the New (to them) World and Araucanas, a breed from Chile and the only chicken breed that lays green and blue eggs uniquely shaded to each individual bird. Really! You can tell which bird laid which egg by the shade of the bluish green in the egg. (We think that’s extraordinary; every morning our nesting boxes have eggs that call to mind paint flecks in colors like seaglass, freshwater, thermal spring, or blue Nile.)

Why Heritage Breeds?

In the last century, we have lost nearly 75% of our food diversity because of the focus of large commercialized poultries on single breeds. Some of those old fashioned breeds had nearly died out because of disuse. Heritage breed farmers commit to bringing those breeds back, adding genetic diversity back into the food supply, as well as into our diets. We can think of a lot of reasons why we like heritage breeds here at Jo-Erl Farm. It just seems right to have the breeds milling about that were common when our farmhouse and barn were built pre-Civil War. And we know that the diversity that these breeds add to a farm promotes disease resistance.

Each year we add one new breed, so we can keep track of the age of the birds. One year, we’ll add Rhode Island Reds (which are conveniently red); the next year Dominiques (which are speckled black and white.) But what to add this year? We do not currently have all black or all white birds, so the obvious choice in our garanimals approach to chicken farming is one of either all white or all black heritage birds.

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So what did we order? (Drum roll please. . . )

Black Australops, which are designated as “recovering” on heritage breed lists. They are great layers, with a friendly disposition, and also considered to be dual purpose (meat and laying) birds.

We’re also offering all natural fed, free-range heritage meat birds this year: The Delaware, which grows to an average of 6.5 lbs. Unlike the birds bred for commercial chicken meat, which are hybrids bred to grow frighteningly quickly, this bird will take a full four to five months to mature, making them available for meat CSA customers in August.

We are also entertaining the odd request from one of the children or Farm Campers—mostly to satisfy a whim. We really want a couple of these crazy looking Polish Hens! They don’t lay many eggs, but they sure are cute.

(Shhhh. There’s talk about starting a Chicken Showroom (TM) in one of our other barns. . . So you might want to plan a visit to the farm this summer. More surprises in store.)

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