by Paul Burdziakowski
Large fowl varieties of chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys have been an important part of New England farming for generations. Breeds such as the Rose Comb Ancona have played an important role in sustaining farms by providing a source of food and income. Unfortunately the last several decades have been highlighted by improper breeding, frequent cross breeding and bad practices in large scale production have led to the loss of the original defining characteristics of these large fowls.
Today many traditional large fowl livestock breeds are endangered and only limited amounts remain. Preservation through active engagement and proper breeding methods are the best ways to ensure that these great birds remain the way they were suppose to for today’s generation. Restoring a nearly lost breed is not something that can be done quickly or halfheartedly. It is a disciplined professionalism that requires breed appreciation, knowledge, commitment, attention to detail and a lot of hard work.
Barrington, NH is one of several cities in New England that celebrates a rich cultural heritage in poultry farming and the place where Joseph Marquette has been effectively preserving several species of large fowls including White Dorkings and Rose Comb Ancona chickens. Marquette is one of two co-owners of Yellow House Farm, which was started in 2009 and specializes in the preservation and promotion of the endangered heirloom breeds using an earth-rooted and bio-secure philosophy.
Marquette conducted a seminar earlier this year at the Northeastern Poultry Congress in West Springfield, MA where he was able to offer his opinions and ideas on traditional poultry husbandry and preservation methods.
The first piece of advice when it comes to large fowl preservation is being very aware of your infrastructure, limitations, temperature, moisture levels, space, time, money and willingness to work. Environmental factors such as temperature and moisture will allow certain breeds to fare better than others. Environmental conditions determine your time as well since you may have to frequently move your birds in at night and put them out during the day to protect them from the weather. You don’t want to make the mistake of attempting to raise a particular breed of bird that won’t thrive because it’s in the wrong environment. For example, most single combed bird varieties are not equipped to cope with the cold and enduring winters in New England.
The next step in the art of preservation is to choose one breed and do it well. Just as important as working with fewer breeds is working with fewer numbers of birds.
“Raising two large fowl is a lot,” said Marquette. “If you get into too many birds you won’t be totally focused and you will not be making a lot of improvement when it comes to preservation. Simply treading water is a failure but one large fowl done well is a huge accomplishment.”
After you select your breed, make a one-time investment of good stock from a reputable breeder. Good stock is not inexpensive but it doesn’t need to be extremely costly either. If anyone asks you for more than $20 or less than $5 for a chick just chuckle and walk away.
It is best to purchase approximately 50 day-old chicks. Remember not all chicks are created equal and if too few are purchased you may not have enough quality birds to choose from once they get older.
Be prepared for the arrival of your chicks by providing a comfortable home. Marquette suggests a high-sided plastic tub because it is easy to clean and less of a fire hazard than using a cardboard box. The tub should be lined with a layer of newspaper and an inch or two of pine shavings. This will keep the chicks off slippery surfaces and help you avoid the dreaded casualties that come from straddled leg. Another key accommodation to add is a heat lamp. If your chicks will be brooded outdoors use a 250-watt bulb but if they will be indoors 125 or 90 watts will do. To avoid a fire place the heat lamp 18 inches above the bedding.
Marquette follows the three pillars of poultry health: correct diet, correct level of cleanliness and proper floor space. During the first eight weeks you should feed your hatchlings a commercially prepared chick starter. A good way to avoid uncleanliness is to keep waterers and feeders off the shavings and onto shielded pieces of board that can be lifted out and cleaned daily. Overcrowding among chicks can lead to many different health issues including coccidiosis, aspergillosis and even cannibalism. Keep a close eye on your chicks and if you notice overcrowding upgrade to a larger sized tub.
After eight weeks the chicks can be moved to a coop with an outdoor run during the day. This is also a good time to begin to wean them from the heat lamp by lowering the bulb wattage and unplugging it during the day. You should also switch from chick starter to a mixture of grower ration and grower pellet. Feed is the most expensive part of raising poultry and pellets are the best for less waste and spillage.
At around 10 to 12 weeks pullets begin to experience frequent annoyance and stress within their small quarters from the aggressive cockerels. During this time it is best to provide a larger outdoor run for more spacing or separate the sexes by providing two different housing units.
At 14 weeks cockerels begin to show early signs of excellence. This is the time to start the culling process. Use the American Poultry Association standard of perfection to help you choose the best birds. Focus on the criteria of vigor, weight, shape and color. If you have between 12-25 birds try to narrow it down to your best six. You can fatten up your remaining cockerels with a mixture of corn, fat and finish pellets and slaughter them at around 16 weeks.
At 18-20 weeks your pullets will begin laying eggs and it is also the best time start breeding your best birds. There are many different breeding methods but the one reviewed during the seminar is a tradition known as the rolling breeding system. It consists of maintaining your flock in two parts. At any given time you will be breeding first year cockerels with second year hens and second year cockerels with first year pullets. It is a simple method of going between generations following the rule of mothers to sons and fathers to daughters.
Marquette closed his seminar by offering the following words of advice. “Having a community of people who preserve is an important resource. “Go to everyone who will help you. Have your mentors and follow them. Hear, read, listen, know the discipline and go with that.”
For more information on traditional poultry husbandry visit: www.yellowhousefarmnh.com .