Here on Milking Yarm Farm, we proudly raise a breed of chicken called ‘Sommerlad’. Grown for its suitability to the Australian climate, slow-growing time and genetic diversity, Sommerlad chicken’s are one of the most unique breeds of poultry the world over.
The Sommerlad breed was developed in 2001 by fellow Australians Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad in response to a need for genetic diversity among meat chickens, particularly strains suited to the Australian landscape. Driven by desire to see a change in the industry, Michael and his family embarked on a long and costly poultry breeding project to develop alternative meat chicken strains. The valuable genetics were incorporated into the breeding programme, along with carefully selected Australian heritage table poultry strains such as the Plymouth Rock, Light Sussex, and Aussie Game.
Michael’s experience on broiler (meat chicken) breeder farms, followed by his time on one of Australia’s first certified organic chicken farms taught him of the real need for alternative genetics among the chickens Australian’s are eating.
Michael first began breed poultry when he was 13 years old, and throughout his career has been mentored by some of Australia’s leading traditional poultry breeders. He developed the Sommerlad chicken’s genetics drawing on many of the traditional techniques he learned from his mentors about biodiversity and fit-for-climate breeding.
In late 2013, Michael made his chickens commercially available. Quickly, they gained notoriety, with the chickens being hailed for their active foraging ability, well-portioned bodies, strong legs and bones, and their ability to withstand heart. And not to mention the taste – because Sommerlad chickens grow more slowly and live longer, the meat has a richer flavour and a better texture, loved by consumers and chefs around Australia.
The Poultry Landscape
Since the 1920’s the chicken meat production system has changed beyond all recognition, having given way to intensive farming methods, managed by a small number of large corporations.
During the 1990’s in the pursuit of ever-cheaper meat, the range of genetically diverse chicken strains significantly reduced, to the point where only two commercial strains remained; the ‘Cobb’ from Scotland and ‘Ross’ from America. Chosen for their fast growing and high-performance, the Cobb and Ross birds now dominate the chicken meat industry.
Selective breeding by humans has led to the creation of mega-breeds characterised by their high productivity as a commodity product, in turn, leading to the displacement of local breeds.
With the demand for increases in agricultural food production for a growing global population, the decrease in genetic diversity across the agricultural industry has been observed in all species, with poultry genetic resources considered to be one of the most endangered.
Michael Sommerlad sought to combat this through re-introducing varied genetic strains to create a new breed the ‘Sommerlad’. In stark contrast to the imported strains of high performance broilers, Sommerlad chickens have been selectively bred to thrive in Australia pasture raised farming conditions.
Throughout the process, he deliberately maintained a diversified 'palette' of poultry genetics, allowing for response to varying production environments and market demands. A good example being the Sommerlad 'naked neck' chickens, which have a greater level of heat tolerance due to the lack of feathers around their neck.
Learn more about Michael Sommerlad, his family and the Sommerlad Chicken