Grassland Poultry: a breed apart

3rd August 2021 | Alison Turner

In a world where intensive farming systems call for fast-growing animals that produce greater yields in less time, our choices when it comes to meat and poultry are becoming ever more limited. Eativity meets the husband and wife team behind Grassland Poultry – the chicken farmers who are bringing some diversity back to the table.

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. They now dominate the chicken meat industry around the world. Broiler chickens were created to grow faster and larger in record time. They’re ready to go in around 35 days, from chick to chop. Such efficient production means that chicken meat is now affordable for most people. 

Meat chickens
Almost every meat chicken you can buy in Australia comes from just two breeds.

Risky business

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. It 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. 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. Genetic diversity is declining across all agricultural species, but poultry genetic resources are believed to be the most endangered.

Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chicken
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. One 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 breeds like 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. 

Grassland Poultry: Kim and Bryan Kiss
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. This 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. And all under the watchful eyes of Maremma sheepdogs.  

“Once our chicks are fully feathered and can regulate their own temperature, we let them outside,” Kim says. “Then we never lock them up again. They have access to pasture and anything that’s in the paddock, like worms and bugs. It’s all free choice. Because they’re outside all the time, 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. This includes whole grains, which Kim says is important for the chickens’ gut health.

“Before they were domesticated, chickens were jungle birds,” she says. “They’d eat anything that came their way – seeds, bugs or worms. Their gut needs a variety of foods for them to be healthy. With whole grains, they use them with soil and little rocks in their gizzards to grind their food. This creates a healthy gut. It all spins back to our birds being healthier and more nutritionally dense. We don’t need to use medications or chemicals.”

Grassland Poultry free-range chickens
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. The couple has been using regenerative farming practices for the past 25 years. While they also farm cattle and sheep, their main focus is on ensuring their property can continue to sustain healthy, ethical food production into 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
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,” Kim says. “It validates that we’re growing a consistent product, all year round. We believe the birds we grow have a superior taste. Not just because of animal welfare. It’s also how they’re grown out in the paddock, where they can regulate their own diet and do what nature intended.”

It’s true a Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chicken might be more expensive than the $10 chook you can get at Woolies. But it’s worth thinking about the real price that’s being paid for that cheap meat. So next time you’re looking for a nice bit of chicken for dinner, take the time to find out where it came from. By choosing to support producers like Grassland Poultry, you’ll also be helping to support a more diverse and resilient food system. 

In NSW, Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chicken is available at Feather and BoneVictor ChurchillHudson MeatsLeura ButcheryPaul’s Quality Meat and Farm to Fridge. In Brisbane, find them at Hand Sourced. For more on Grassland Poultry, click here.

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