Grassland Poultry: a breed apart

3rd August 2021 | Alison Turner

The vast majority of meat chickens you’ll find in Australia today come from just two imported breeds: Ross and Cobb. These selectively bred “broiler” birds were developed in the US and the UK specifically for industrial meat production, and now dominate the chicken meat industry around the world. Broiler chickens were created to grow faster and larger in record time – from chick to chop, they’re ready to go in around 35 days. Such efficient production means that chicken meat is now affordable for most people. 

While cheap chook is all well and good, relying on just two specialised breeds to sustain a global industry has led to a significant loss of genetic diversity. Many heritage and rare breeds of poultry are now endangered, or no longer exist. And once a breed is gone, it’s gone forever. This reduced genetic diversity of commercial poultry breeds increases their vulnerability to such things as disease, and also threatens the industry’s ability to adapt should an outbreak occur. We really are putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak.  

Greater genetic diversity in animal agriculture is important for sustainable food production, as it allows animals to adapt to changes in the environment. Different breeds possess different traits, such as disease resistance and climate adaptability, that can provide “insurance” for our future food supply. While genetic diversity is declining across all agricultural species, poultry genetic resources are believed to be the most endangered.

The Sommerlad chicken has been specifically bred to thrive in the Australian climate.

A bird bred for Australia

Australian poultry breeders Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad recognised this need for genetic diversity in our meat chicken industry, and hatched a plan to address it. In 2001, they embarked on a lengthy poultry breeding program to develop an alternate meat chicken strain that was specifically suited to the Australian climate, with natural resistance to diseases endemic to Australian poultry flocks. They purchased genetic strains of meat chickens no longer used in industrial chicken farming and combined these with other Australian heritage poultry strains, traditional breeds such as the Plymouth Rock, Light Sussex and Aussie Game. This ultimately led to the creation of the Sommerlad chicken – a bird that not only survives but thrives in Australian free-range pasture conditions. The birds are active foragers, designed to live outdoors in winter or summer, and their slow-growing genetics allow them to develop stronger bones and more deeply-flavoured meat.

In 2013, the Sommerlads made their breed commercially available. Now, five independent farming families across Australia have become the guardians of the Sommerlad breed. 

Kim and Bryan Kiss are just one of five registered breeders of Sommerlad heritage chickens.

Free to roam

Bryan and Kim Kiss of Grasslands Poultry raise Sommerlad chickens at their farm near Wellington in NSW. Unlike broiler chicken farmers – who purchase day-old chicks from large processors, raise the birds and then send them off again a few weeks later for processing – Bryan and Kim breed and process their birds on-farm, which means they have total control over the chickens’ health and welfare from start to finish. The birds live happily outdoors, foraging on anything they fancy, always under the watchful eyes of Maremma sheepdogs.  

“Once our chicks are fully feathered and they can regulate their own temperature, we let them outside, and then they’re never locked up again,” Kim says. “They have access to pasture, and anything that’s in the paddock, from worms and bugs; even mice during the mouse plague. It’s all free choice. Because they’re outside all the time and we don’t regulate them, they just use their natural instincts to do what they want to do.”

Grassland Sommerlads also have access to roosting shelters and a supplement feed that includes whole grains, which Kim says is important for the chickens’ gut health.

“Before they were domesticated, chickens were jungle birds,” she says. “You can imagine them on the jungle floor – they’d eat anything that came their way, from seeds to bugs or worms. Their gut needs a variety of foods for them to be healthy. With the whole grains, they use them with soil and little rocks in their gizzards [a muscular part of a chicken’s digestive system that breaks up food into smaller, more digestible particles] to grind their food, which creates a healthy gut. It all spins back to our birds being healthier, and more nutritionally dense; we don’t need to use any medications or chemicals.”

Poultry in motion: the chickens are free to follow their instincts and forage to their hearts’ content.

Caring from the ground up

As well as being guardians of these healthy, happy, free-roaming birds, Bryan and Kim are also guardians of their land, and have been using regenerative farming practices for the past 25 years. While the pair also farm cattle and sheep, their main focus is on ensuring their property can continue to sustain healthy, ethical food production now and in the future. 

Soil is everything,” Kim says. “Normally we would have 500 cows and a couple of 1000 sheep, but during the drought, we sold everything except for the chickens, to focus on the soil. It’s all about letting our paddocks rest so we can rebuild the soil. Our practice is that we match the amount of grass we have to how many mouths are going to eat it. So we fluctuate with how many head and what diversity of livestock we have on the farm.”

Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chicken continues to win state and national delicious. produce awards.

Prize-winning poultry

While Bryan and Kim have only been raising Sommerlad chickens since 2015, their choice of breed combined with their strong focus on sustainable farming and animal welfare has led to some of the country’s most outstanding produce. Grassland Poultry Sommerlad heritage chicken has won delicious. produce awards every year since 2018. 

“Winning the delicious. awards has been really important for us, because it validates that we’re growing a consistent product, all year round,” Kim says. “We believe the birds we grow have a superior taste, not just because of animal welfare, but also how they’re grown out in the paddock, where they can regulate their own diet and do what nature intended.”

While a Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chicken might be a bit more expensive than the $10 chook you can pick up at Woolies, it’s worth thinking about the real price that’s being paid for that cheap chicken. Industrial-scale animal agriculture is no longer sustainable, and any benefits of having access to cut-price, mass-produced food are far outweighed by the risks that factory farming methods pose to our environment, our health and our food security. 

So next time you’re buying a nice bit of chicken for dinner, it’s well worth taking the time to find out where that meat came from. By choosing to support producers like Grassland Poultry, you’ll also be helping to support a more diverse and resilient food system. 

Those in NSW can find Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chickens at Feather and BoneVictor ChurchillHudson MeatsLeura ButcheryPaul’s Quality Meat and Farm to Fridge. You can also find them at Hand Sourced in Brisbane. To find out more about Grassland Poultry, head to grasslandpoultry.com.au