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A New Year's Revolution
Saturday, January 1, 2011
Imagine that you live in a nation gutted by war.  You've lost almost an entire generation of young men in a cataclysm unprecedented in the annals of violent conflict.  Every available resource  --iron and steel, oil and  coal, food and cloth-- have been diverted to the war effort.  Ultimately, you emerge victorious but broken, the prospect of regaining prosperity decades away, if at all.
This was the dire circumstance faced by Britain following World War I.  As a nation it had survived, but just barely.  Among its most precious resources was its food supply, and a key component of that supply was the commercial poultry industry.  The problem confronted by Britain's chicken breeders was this:  Because roosters can't lay eggs and few are required to produce more chicks, they have very little value in the commercial food chain.  Yet, farmers and poultrymen could not identify roosters until they grew old enough to crow combs and other signs hinting at their masculine gender.  At a time when Britain had not an extra kernel of corn to waste, farmers faced the bleak prospect of feeding millions of pounds of grain to roosters that ultimately had no practical purpose.
So it was that during and after the war a university professor named Reginald Punnett, who essentially founded the study of genetics at Cambridge, took it upon himself to breed a chicken that produced visually sexable chicks based on their coloration at hatching so that even a person of modest intellect and training could readily identify the gender of chicks within hours after they hatched.  (A determination, it must be said, that resulted in the immediate killing of the hatchling roosters.)  Since the ability to easily and immediately sex newly hatched chicks essentially doubled the efficiency of the poultry flock, Punnett's concept offered an enormous economic advantage to the farmers of England.    
Professor Punnett found that by crossing certain breeds with barred Rocks chicks were produced in which the day-old female chicks had clearly defined stripes on their backs and the males had a clearly visible white spot in the down on the back of their heads.  Over generations, the genome that produced these clear visual gender signals could be stabilized, and the auto-sexing breeds were created.  The first auto-sexing breed that began as a cross between a campine rooster and a barred Rock hen would come to be known as a cambar. 
The second breed produced by Punnett, and the one that reveals his quirky wit, was to be known as a cream legbar.  Cream legbars were a combination of at least three breeds:  The leghorn (for its legendary egg laying ability), the barred Rock, and the exotic araucana that had only recently made its way to Britain from the remote regions of Chile (for its blue egg laying ability and its jaunty feather crest).  Punnett's work yielded a shocking mix of the practical and the whimsical; an auto-sexing breed with flamboyant feathers that cranked out an enormous volume of sky blue eggs.  Eureka...and bravo!  While Punnett would later go on to create more than a dozen auto-sexing breeds, it is this creation, the cream legbar, that to this day enjoys a place in the commercial flocks of Britain.
America has taken a different approach to creating visually sexable chicks.  If you go to your local feed store and buy chicks in the spring, chances are you are buying sex-linked --as opposed to auto-sexing-- chicks.  Sex-linked chicks are the first generation hybrids of two separate chicken breeds.   They are produced by the millions in large commercial hatcheries that are sometimes not completely forthcoming about the specific breeds that are crossed to create the sex-linked chicks.  Because of the lack of information that surrounds the parentage of the sex-linked chicks, in effect the DNA for these chicks is closed source code that is off limits to the backyard breeder.  If you allow the sex-linked chicks to reach adulthood and breed with one another they will not produce visually sexable chicks in the second generation.  In other words, if you want to buy visually sexable chicks in America, you'll be traveling to that feed store year after year to buy sex-linked birds produced by large commercial hatcheries.  Your flock of sex-linked birds will not be a self-sustaining flock that can produce visually sexable chicks.
In this sense, buying sex-linked chicks from large commercial hatcheries is a lot like buying hybrid vegetable seeds from large commercial seed producers like Monsanto.  You can buy highly productive hybrid seed from Monsanto and grow a mountain of vegetables, but if you were to take the seeds from the vegetables you produced and planted them the following season, the next generation of crops would be a mish-mash of unproductive genetics.  So, each year you're obliged to return to Monsanto and buy your hybrid seed. 
Of course, if you don't want to buy from Monsanto each year, you have an alternative in America.  You can buy heirloom vegetable seed that breeds true generation after generation, and you can save a few seeds from the harvest each year to begin your crops anew in the following year.  The stable genomes of the heirloom vegetables allow you to engage in self-sustained farming without the need to often buy commercial seed or, actually, ever buy commercial seed again.
But, unlike the huge number of heirloom vegetable varieties that are available to America gardeners, there are essentially no auto-sexing breeds of chickens that are similarly available to poultry producers in America.  For reasons that remain a mystery, even though there was and remains a strong preference for auto-sexing chickens in England, a similar approach was never pursued in America.  This is particularly peculiar given the American love of independence and self-sufficiency.  Who among us prefers to rely on large corporations for our breeding stock when we can breed our own each year?
Greenfire Farms has recognized this blank space on the genomic map of the American chicken, and we intend to fill it with auto-sexing breeds.  In the spring of 2011 we will import and introduce for the first time in America the cream legbar.  Later, we will release the rhodebar (a productive utility breed with an eye-popping rarity in the poultry kingdom:  red barred feathers). 
Update:  Greenfire Farms has successfully imported small breeding groups of cream legbars, rhodebars, and two other very rare auto-sexing breeds.   We will be releasing the cream legbars to poultry hobbyists in February of 2011.  Our cream legbars are from British stock and lay the large sky-blue eggs.  We have two bloodlines to promote genetic diversity.  Rhodebars will probably be released in 2012.   
Hopefully, other auto-sexing breeds will follow.  Until now, you could not own a self-sustaining flock of chickens that exhibited what is arguably the most valuable trait in commercial poultry: the ability to visually sex chicks.  But now, with these auto-sexing breeds on our shores, you can for the first time own these breeds, and if you care to perpetuate the birds, so can your children and grandchildren.  The good work that began in a small laboratory at Cambridge University in a different century can continue in your backyard this year.
Thank you, Professor Punnett.