The usefulness of the chicken, especially on a small farm is difficult to understate. They bring incredible fertility wherever they pass if managed correctly – not to mention the potential in eggs, meat, companionship and more chickens.
Our first chooks at Milkwood were a motely crew purchased from the Windeyer trash and treasure sale – of inderterminate age and questionable parentage. Still, they did the trick and scratched their way through the tough grass of our hillside as we utilised them to clear and prepare the ground for our top food forest in their lovingly-made geodesic chook dome. Even got an egg or three two a week.
Soon after we graduated to 6 Isa Brown pullets for their superior egg-laying charms. Isa Browns are a hybrid (NOT a breed – do not get any chook-fancier started on this topic) which are produced by crossing a Rhode Island Red with a Rhode Island White. They produce lots of eggs, don’t usually go clucky and that’s all there is to ’em. If it’s eggs you want, then Isa Browns are an obvious place to start.
After the first egg-filled-honeymoon, however, we started to look past the egg. What other cool chicken breeds were there out there? Where did chickens come from, anyway? What heritage breeds were in danger? What did we really WANT from our chickens? We searched our progessively chook-fancying souls…
Chickens, like all domesticated animals, have an incredible variety of breeds across the planet – some bred for eggs, some for meat, some for looks, some for fighting, and some just to look truly and deeply weird. And also like many other domesticated animals, chicken varieties have taken a large dive in the last 100 years with the onset of industrialised agriculture and urbanisation. Many breeds which have been bred for hundreds (and for some, thousands) of years have all but vanished due to their not-quite-as-good laying, their unusually coloured meat or their inability to put on weight as fast as required in order to maximise profit.
To us, Isa Browns represented part of the industrialised camp, given their preferred usage in battery + free range egg farms. The world has planty of isa browns. So the least we could do was investigate other possibilities and participate in keeping a heritage breed or two alive by selecting some suitable new residents for Milkwood.
Enter the famous Mudgee Chook Auction. An annual event which sees the fanciest of chook fanciers from across our valley (and afar) come together for a grand gathering of feather, fight and fable. We went armed with a wishlist for what a Milkwood resident chicken needed to be: of heritage breed, good tasting meat, some eggs, good mothers, and robust in the face of our variable weather.
We came home with a variety – three indian game birds (robust, good foragers, protectors fo the pack), some frenchies called Faveroles (super-tasty meat, pretty, lays some eggs) and three Araucanas (lays blue eggs, good mothers, black bones, generally interesting). Buying them as ‘job lots’ we ended up with three roosters, so there will be a couple going in the pot sometime soon. Too many roosters (or more than one, in the relatively confined space of the chook dome) can cause problems in the pecking order and leave the ‘girls’ worn out, so to speak. That said, because we let the chooks out during the day to forage in the food forest, more roosters mean more protection for the hens.
So we’ll see how we go. I shall report back.