The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, our beautiful home region, was, before European encroachment, prairie country. The double rain shadow from both the Allegheny Front and the Blue Ridge creates a semi-arid climate that favored fire, which favored grasslands of types not often seen again until you hit the Midwest. There was a bison herd here, I understand.
With that in mind, rotational/holistic pasture-based beef production is one of the most reasonable choices for a regionally adapted agricultural specialty. Joel Salatin, also a Valley resident, has made this model famous, and a key to his system is to follow the beef herds with old hay wagons converted to Eggmobiles, as the chickens are experts at pest control and fertility resource integration: i.e., they love eating maggots out of the ripe cow pies they eagerly disperse into the grass.
But when I visited his farm in 1995, and when I see his chickens on nearly every food/environmental-themed documentary that comes out these days, I see chickens not as well-adapted for their circumstances as I think they could be. He typically uses, I think, Rhode Island Red and Black Australorp, though he may use others, too. These are not shabby choices by any stretch, but Joel himself has called for the development of a new breed or breeds to suit the needs of a changing agriculture. It is my hope that Tangly Woods can have a role to play in filling the need, whether through direct collaboration with Polyface Farm or otherwise (I’ve not yet attempted to contact them to discuss the potential).
What I and a few collaborators have come up with so far is a collection of light-colored, large-bodied birds loosely based on two hens I saw in my neighbor’s Black Java flock. These were pure black Java hens, but had hatched with Buff Columbian color pattern. In breeder’s lingo, they were either “sports” (spontaneously arisen by mutation) or “throwbacks” (a recurrence of an older pattern). In either case, I saw the potential to take the Black Java’s excellent grazing/grassland foraging ability, good vitality and large body and egg size and formulate it with a cold-resistant comb, light coloration for heat resistance, and hopefully improved egg production (though some Black Javas are pretty productive for a heritage breed). A friend wanted some pet chickens, so I brokered a deal and then had access to them later for crossing with a cock I had acquired from my neighbor’s son’s brood that was ¼ Americauna, ¼ Black Java, ½ Buff Orpinton (probably). One of the offspring from that cross is still my best breeder in this project. Her name is Helen. She’s big and rangy, light brown/tan with black highlights on neck and tail, and lays lots of big, olive-colored eggs.
The picture I have in my mind for this breed is a flock of large, angular, long-legged chickens of a light, drab assortment of tans, browns, and yellows (even varied on the same bird, ideally), with occasional ticks and highlights of black on some of the feathers of the neck, back, and tail ranging widely over a recently grazed paddock, enthusiastically tearing up the cow flops, chasing grasshoppers, stretching tall to harvest grass seed from the heads, and eating plenty of fresh grass themselves. And once each day, almost every day, sneaking into the eggmobile to tuck yet another large, olive-toned egg into a nest box. I picture them being watched over by an imposing (ten pound minimum and it looks even bigger), alert, courageous, and athletic rooster with a great big black flag of a tail that shimmers and flashes its iridescence, held high in the prairie wind. Something of a confluence of the Buckeye, the Black Java, the Black Langshan, and the Buff Brahma, but which lays like a Leghorn, and eats like a bird.
Sounds great, huh? O.k., we’re not there yet. I probably won’t get it there on my own, either, even though I think I now have enough starter stock (some really good birds) on hand to provide the traits and the diversity we would need to establish the breed. The trouble is that we don’t have any cattle (yet!), we don’t have much grassland, and chicken keeping on our scale is not profitable enough to support the project on its own, even if we could lease the neighbor’s pasture. Please contact me if you might want to get involved by raising a flock of my hatchlings for your own purposes, but from which I might select breeders, or by adopting a flock of breeders outright and joining me in the task of origination.