Alternative Genetics For Free Range Pastured Poultry Production
There are many factors that influence free range pastured poultry production, however, one of the most significant issues currently facing Australian producers is that of genetics. The imported commercial strains of meat and layer chickens have been selectively bred for many years for high-performance traits, but this can lead to problems when they are placed in a free range pastured environment.
Today's commercial layer strains now lay on average 300+ eggs per year. Their incredible rate of production takes these birds right out to the very edge of what their bodies can cope with - in reality they have become ‘a life support system for a reproductive tract’. They now put so much of their energy into egg production, that without all their needs being met precisely, and on time, these amazing little performers can quickly “fall over”. Not just a drop in egg production, but more importantly they succumb to health and welfare problems. When these birds are managed in an outdoor production environment, they are exposed to external stressors which challenge their physiological and metabolic systems, these stressors include extremes in weather conditions and seasonal changes to vegetation in the forage areas. When combined with the dilution in nett nutrient intake that occurs as a result of grass ingestion, the potential exists for a number of severe animal welfare issues to arise. Good stockmanship skills and a sound understanding of their precise nutritional requirements are essential for managing these birds.
Michael has undertaken some basic breeding trials with layers - seeking to develop more robust strains with sustainable production rates for free range range pastured environments.
From 2001 to 2017 Michael was involved in a project to develop slower growing meat chickens with the genetic capacity to exploit more fully a free-range pastured environment. This includes traits such as active foraging behaviour, enhanced physiological capacity to utilise grass and other plant materials, increased heat-resistance, balanced body confirmation, strong legs, slower growth, improved mobility and good liveability with improved, natural resistance to diseases endemic to Australian poultry flocks. All of these factors contribute to a bird with far better animal welfare outcomes than the high-performance broiler strains, particularly with regard to mobility and heat tolerance. 'Sommerlad' meat chickens (as they are now known) have unique Australian heritage genetics, and when combined with artisan farming practices result is a truly differentiated table bird. Today, a dedicated group of Australian family farmers are now responsible for the care and continuation of the original Sommerlad pedigree breeding flocks, and you can read more about them here.