BREEDING the perfect chook has been a lifelong project for one woman.
And, with eight breeds in the mix, her work is almost done.
It's a bold claim, but Henny Penny might well be one of Australia's greatest chooks.
- FARM FACTS
- THE CHOOK CHICK
- Edith Maclean produces Designer Backyarder chickens at Denison, in Gippsland, on two hectares
- About 60 breeders produce 250 chickens a year
- The chickens are sold for $100 each online or by phone
- When she's not the Chook Chick, Edith is the communications officer at the Wellington Shire
On a farm in Denison, near Sale in Gippsland, Henny Penny - at the ripe old age of nine - still continues to produce an egg a day and still looks and acts like a spring chicken.
It's all thanks to her designer genes, and the fact that owner and breeder Edith Maclean believes she has perfected the art of chicken rearing, diets and socialising.
"Henny Penny was right there from the beginning," Edith says. "Her genes are in all my chooks. She's a seven-times great grandmother and she gives me an egg every day, except when she's moulting.
"She has flown with me by plane from Gladstone in Queensland, where I first started the project, then lived in Kalgoorlie, followed by Warrnambool and now Denison."
Nearly a decade ago, Edith - the self-named Chook Chick - started a Masters degree in sustainable development (while working for Rio Tinto in Gladstone), with the aim of producing the most eggs with as little feed as possible - "low input with high output".
The result is her own breed of chicken, the Designer Backyarder, bred and sold specifically as a pet and egg producer for small properties but, she says, could be equally as beneficial to commercial egg operations.
If you're interested, you are going to have to join the queue. Designer Backyarders are in such demand, you can wait for up to three years for a chicken. Edith has 60 breeders which produce 250 chickens a year.
"At six years of age, the Designer Backyarders are still laying in the prolific category on the international chart for laying, whereas an Isa Brown, or other commercial layers, would be burnt out by 18 months," Edith says.
"My girls lay as well as Isa Browns, but lay for a lot longer. And as a family pet that people bond with and name, it's much more suitable."
Edith speaks from childhood experience.
These days, backyard chooks are common, but back in the 1980s, Edith says she was the odd one out when her parents - in suburban Melbourne - had poultry and an edible garden.
"We had chooks at a time no one had chooks. I don't know if my mum was ahead of her time or whether she was back in the 1930s."
As an adult, Edith studied a PR-communications degree at Deakin University in Warrnambool, first working in forestry in Tasmania, then in mining in Kalgoorlie, where she met her husband, Guy, a jackaroo on a large station.
In 2004, while working for Rio Tinto's aluminium smelter in Queensland, she began a Masters in sustainable development and showed an instant bent for agriculture, which she funnelled into her childhood love of chooks.
"I think the farmers on the land have generations of experience, and a lot of that knowledge isn't recorded," she says.
"I was reading academic theory, and the farmers in the paddock know 100 times more than academics. I enjoyed capturing that knowledge."
A one-year project on poultry inputs and outputs turned into her obsession and now, while Edith is yet to finish her Masters after having three children, she has continued with the designer chooks.
WHILE she doesn't want to reveal the secrets to making a Designer Backyarder, Edith explains her "girls" have the genes of eight breeds. She started with "greedy" Sussex and Brahmas.
"My aim was to get a pretty chook," Edith says. "Sussex and Brahmas were developed over time for prolific feather-growth, but people with backyards are also about laying eggs."
So she mixed and matched with other breeds, aiming for specific behaviours and traits, including the insect-scavenging Hamburg, to create her own ultimate chook.
"Last year's pullets consumed 28 per cent less protein than the original Sussex flock and laid 300 to 320 eggs a year, whereas the original girls laid 190 a year," she says.
Beyond breeding, Edith has also finetuned the skill of husbandry. Designer Backyarders would have to be the most pampered poultry in Australia. While in Edith's care, they receive Swisse brand wild krill oil, to ensure yolks are packed with omega-3, and from the age of four days are given linseed.
During moulting, they are given a high-protein diet. Dried comfrey, a herb, is crumbled into their winter feed for added calcium and protein.
To avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides, Edith grows lavender and Roman wormwood, to allow the chickens to peck and "self-medicate" for worming.
"Wherever possible I don't use herbicides and pesticides. If they got red mite and their health was threatened, I wouldn't hesitate to use pesticide though," she says.
A bouquet of tansy, a herbaceous flowering plant with natural insect-repellent qualities, is placed in nesting boxes to ward off lice. Foreign birds and vermin - and the diseases they carry - are kept at bay through the use of Dine-a-Chook feeders, polypipe self-feeders which eliminate the need to sprinkle seed on the ground.
While sunflower seeds are fed in winter, Edith cuts back on the seeds in summer.
"They shouldn't have too much oil in their diet in the heat. They have a higher core temperature than humans and don't sweat, so oil heats up their body and they die more readily."
ALL chickens are sold no earlier than six weeks of age and, where possible, "sisters are never sold separately" - although if there's a group of five, Edith will consider separating into two. "In nature, in lions for instance, girls are raised together and stay together and the boys move away," she says. "In this way with chickens, there's never any pecking, nastiness or bloodshed."
ALL Backyarders are hatched by their mother, never in an incubator or brooder. "Mother Nature has eggs under the mother in total blackness, but people put them under lights for 24 hours a day. You couldn't design a system more far removed from nature. Under a mother, an egg will hatch in about 12 hours. In an incubator, it's four to five days." By leaving the chickens under the care of their mother, they are also taught how to feed and drink - a job often left to humans if there's intervention.
Given this degree of pampering, Edith admits there is little financial reward in the business and does it for the love and the challenge.
"They come at a premium - they sell for $100 each - but it's not about making money. I have a market where people specifically want hens that have been really well cared for and well-raised. You couldn't do what I do on a large-scale farm."
Edith says she doesn't judge large producers and says she's not an animal-rights activist. "That's not what it's about. It's about recognising improvements in productivity can be made with relatively little effort. It's really satisfying to see I can make significant improvements in productivity - that is the rewarding part."
Even though Henny Penny and her cohort are pushing perfection in Edith's eyes, she still has not finished tinkering with the breed. "There's always room for improvement. At the moment I'm playing around with blue eggs because there's a market for them.
"This is not like breeding for shorter horns on cattle, or a racehorse winner where you have to wait years and years to see the traits in the offspring. At the moment I'm working on about 20 per cent of pullets laying blue eggs. But in three years, all the pullets will be laying blue eggs. I can achieve that in three generations. It's quick results."