Coming home to roost

THINK of the very picture of country hospitality and you will come fairly close to the Sommerlad home.

Michael, Kathryn and the family had only recently moved in to the Kildare farmhouse, but the family name is almost as old as Tenterfield.

The Sommerlad family; Michael, Kathyrn and children Claire (absent), Geoffrey, Timothy, Henry, Peter, Elizabeth, Millie, Hannah and young Jemima recently moved in the the Kildare farmhouse outside Tenterfield, with plans to continue to improve their unique chicken farming enterprise.

The Sommerlad family; Michael, Kathyrn and children Claire (absent), Geoffrey, Timothy, Henry, Peter, Elizabeth, Millie, Hannah and young Jemima recently moved in the the Kildare farmhouse outside Tenterfield, with plans to continue to improve their unique chicken farming enterprise.

“The Sommerlad family was one of the first families in the Tenterfield district; a pioneering family and a big chunk of them lived on the north side of town out near the Mt Lindsay Highway,” Michael said, over a cup of tea that the end of a work day that started at 1am.

Michaels’ career turned to the possibility of chicken farming at a young age.

“It occurred to me when I was 13 or 14 that my dad could only get one or two lambs in every 12 month rotation and if I was a reasonable manager, I could get 100 to 200 chickens out of a single female in a year. And then I thought about applying selection pressure,” he said.

“So the amount of genetic advancements I could get, compared to my dad was significant. I thought ‘beauty; I’ll pull on the old man’.”

From friendly rivalry between father and son to the finest details of genetic advancement and selective breeding, Michael offers the feeling that he has forgotten more about poultry than most could ever learn, but took inspiration from a split in the breeding scene around the 1960s.

“Since the 1960s when everything became industrialised, there has been this chasm, this dichotomy between the commercial industry and the pure-breds,” he explained.

“In the good old days, the pure-breds were the foundation and the backbone of our commercial industry and I can still remember having a standard and a utility class at the show, because the standard ones were the pretty ones, with the right feather colour and the like. The utility ones were the ones that could produce.

“As technology improved and genetic breeding techniques became more and more refined, particularly with computers and statistical analyses, this chasm between the two just grew.”

Michael said he has since pointed his career, and signature breeding practices, towards carefully selected breeding and exploiting the genetics available in the Australian poultry industry.

“There is a level of mutual exclusivity to that because when you select for anything, you necessarily lose something,” he said.

“For the last 15 years, I have been consulting, but for much of that time I have been planning and for the last 10 or 11 years, I have been doing the physical breeding of a bird that exploits the genetics that we have in this country with a specific goal to produce a bird for free-range pastured meat production because modern genetics simply can’t do it.”

He said the poultry industry has painted itself into a corner of genetic improvement and selective breeding that has often meant the pure-bred have largely lost commercial viability, while the functional class are dependent on human intervention.

“We add all these acids and what have you to the gut to keep the birds healthy, but there is another way around it. We have painted ourselves into this corner,” Michael said.

“People have a perception, but sometimes don’t understand the implication of modern genetics. It is like trying to drive a Ferrari through a ploughed paddock. It’s never going to happen. It doesn’t work.”

He said his goal was to embrace the natural qualities of the bird, seemingly of endless breeds, to thrive in a natural farming setting.

“And we have to remember that all chooks, and there are hundreds and hundreds of breeds, every colour, shape, size and description, yet they all share a common progenitor, which is the Red Jungle Fowl,” he said.

“The amount of genetic diversity that is contained in there is amazing.”

Michael’s, and his family’s vision to innovate the industry, after years of fine perfecting, has start to show fruit. 

With industry professionals calling for Sommerlad chickens and the Most Outstanding Innovation Award set quietly in the cabinet at Kildare, Michael affirmed the old country proverb that farming was a lifestyle, rather than a career.

“I have been involved with chickens for 40 years,” he said, laughing.

“It is a disease. I’ve been told that all I have to do is take the front part of my brain out and it will go away. I haven’t gone to that yet, so I’m still afflicted.”

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