Sommerlad slow growing heritage chicken.
Photo @Mel Arnott
The loss of genetic diversity in the Australian chicken meat industry
Since the 1920's chicken meat production has changed out of all recognition. Farmyard fowls have given way to intensive factory farming, controlled by a decreasing number of large organisations.
Around the 1990's, due to the never ending pursuit of low cost chicken meat, the Australian industry abandoned their own genetic work, and Australian strains of meat chickens, to import faster-growing ones. There are now only two strains of meat chickens used in the Australian industry: 'Ross' from Scotland and 'Cobb' from America.
An increasing loss of genetic diversity has been observed in all species used in agriculture, and poultry genetic resources are considered to be the most endangered. Selective breeding by humans has led to the creation of breeds characterised by high productivity, leading to the displacement of local breeds.
Michael Sommerlad, founding director of Sommerlad Poultry, gained an inside understanding whilst working for one of Australia's largest chicken meat integrators: managing their parent bird farms and imported genetics' facility.
'Something new from something old'
In 2001 Michael began the long and costly process of breeding and developing slower growing meat chickens, specifically suited to Australian conditions. He deliberately chose a diverse range of Australian heritage table poultry breeds, and carefully cross-bred them, based on his poultry breeding knowledge and desired outcomes. His underlying aim was optimum animal welfare and food quality. After more than a decade of commercial development, Sommerlad chickens are now making their impact as truly unique Australian table fowl - something farmers and foodies can be proud of.
Keepers of traditional knowledge and genetic diversity
Michael began breeding poultry when he was 13 years old. He was privileged to be mentored by some of Australia's 'old-timer' poultry breeders, as well as extensive reading of poultry production 'classics', written long before factory farming. Now, Sommerlad chickens are developed using many of the traditional techniques Michael learned. Four generations of breeding birds are managed on the Sommerlads' home farm. Each natural breeding team of roosters and hens represent many generations of selective breeding and record keeping, as they seek to maintain and enhance their unique characteristics.
Sommerlad Poultry are the keepers of a diversified 'palette' of Australian meat chicken genetics, which allows them to respond to various production environments and market demands. A good example of this is the Sommerlad 'naked neck' chickens.
Much has been invested to preserve this valuable genetic diversity and traditional knowledge, and with the vital support and feedback received from farmers and consumers, Sommerlad Poultry are committed to ongoing research and development.
Download the Project Summary and Vision here.
Read more about the effect of genetics on animal welfare here
Read more about the Sommerlad family