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Preserving the Chantecler chicken


November 30, 1999
By Suzanne Deutsch

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Canadian consumers love to have choice when they shop for food. That’s why a group of 10 heritage breed chicken breeders are betting they can use this growing demand for more food choice to save Canada’s own Chantecler chicken breed from extinction.

They believe that, if given the opportunity, enough consumers will be willing to pay a premium for a product that has a Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin, to make the breed commercially viable. In 2009, Quebec’s three poultry marketing boards have granted the group an exceptional right to produce the equivalent of about three million dollars’ worth of broilers and table eggs to prove their point.

Mario Bélanger, president of the federation of producers of heritage breeds, firmly believes that consumers will pay more for products from heritage breed chickens but they aren’t planning to mass market them throughout the province. “Our target is upscale restaurants and hotels,” he says. “A few select meat shops, like the one at Jean-Talon market, will also carry them.”

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In a classic example of the old chicken or the egg dilemma, before creating demand for the products, producers want to make sure they can deliver the product, while also ensuring that they will make enough of a profit in order to make the necessary investments required to meet the market demand.

CULTURAL SYMBOL
The Chantecler chicken is a breed unique to Canada. It was developed in the early 1900s by Brother Wilfrid Châtelain, a Trappist monk living near Oka, Que., to be hardy enough to withstand our harsh winters. The birds are a cross between Dark Cornish, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, White Wyandotte and White Plymouth Rock, and carry a number of their traits. The birds are white, with a long body, a deep breast, yellowish skins, small heads, a bright red face with a small comb and a short beak. Their walnut-shaped combs and wattles are small enough that they aren’t prone to frostbite.

While they were created to be both good layers and meat birds, the slower growing breed had long since fallen out of favour with commercial producers and had been replaced by high-performance broiler hybrids. By the time the breed officially received heritage designation in 1999, André Auclair, general manager of the federation of producers of heritage breeds, says, less than 1,500 birds survived in barnyards across the country.

“The Chantecler will never be able to compete with an industrial broiler, and nor should it try to,” says Dr. Fred Silversides, a poultry research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The vast majority of industrial chickens available are supplied by one of two companies. Current market differentiation has nothing to do with genetics; it has to do with how the broilers have been fed or processed. In short, a broiler is a broiler. The value of the Chantecler is that it’s a different product.

It has already piqued foodies’ interest and Bélanger is getting an increasing number of calls from distributors waiting for him to start delivering them by the caseload. Restaurants and hotels say they will welcome a chicken that is a distinctly, regional product.

Bélanger is eager to take some of his birds to some of the province’s top chefs, over the winter. However, he wants to make sure the birds are ready before he does. He noted that he would be cooking one the night of Canadian Poultry’s visit, to see how this batch has turned out. “I don’t want to move too quickly,” he adds. “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

GENETIC DIVERSITY
The Quebec poultry federations decided to encourage commercial production of heritage breeds for several reasons. While all producer groups are always interested in developing new niche product markets, they were also very concerned about maintaining the Canadian chicken flock’s genetic diversity as an insurance policy against future climate change and disease outbreaks. Maintaining the chicken’s gene pool is a constant battle. Delegates to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference in Switzerland in 2007 were told that more than 1,000 domesticated chicken breeds have vanished in the past century.

Because Silversides had produced a report on how to save endangered breeds 20 years ago, the federation turned to him in 2007 to come up with a new proposal to save the Chantecler breed. He jumped at the chance. He produced a new proposal that included a large enough breeding plan to preserve the Chantecler’s gene pool and allow for the development of a market for them so the breed could support itself. In short, his report concluded that the best way to save the breed was to market it for the dinner plate.

Quebec’s three poultry supply-management federations, which control the hatching egg, table egg and broiler production, signed an agreement with the federation of producers of heritage breeds, which allowed limited commercial production and market access for the Chantecler in 2009. Gaining the right to produce the breed commercially was a huge step. Without the quantities that were allotted, there is no way producers could maintain sufficient supply to develop a market. “Once that’s in place, you can develop your business plan and your slaughtering plans and all of the rest of it, really,” says Silversides.

GETTING STARTED
A year into production, results are less than optimal, says Bélanger, one of the 10 producers involved in the project. He started with about 100 Chantecler, in 1998. He’s now up to 300. He split the group in two and put half with 15 roosters and half without. He is using a 48 x 20 foot temporary shelter specially adapted for chickens, with small openings on the sides for the birds to go in and out, as they wish.

The shelter isn’t heated and the birds can remain outside until the temperature reaches –20 C. Bélanger will move them indoors, inside the barn during the winter – which will remain unheated – and dismantle the temporary shelter to make room for the new barn he plans on building next spring.

Bélanger’s barn also houses three pigs and a flock of sheep. Because most Chantecler were raised on mixed farms, they have better disease resistance and foraging ability, among other things, explains Silversides. This is why this breed, unlike current hybrid varieties, is better adapted to such an environment. They don’t require strict biosecurity protocols that restrict one species per unit.

NUMBERS ARE DOWN
There is quite a learning curve involved in going from a small 42-egg hatcher to one that contains 750 eggs, explains Bélanger. “I can hardly imagine what it’s going to be like once we start with the ones that can hold up to 3,200 eggs!”

Bélanger goes on to explain that they’ve been asked to comply with industry regulations from the get-go, but the race has more or less returned to its natural state as producers switched to more performing hybrids.

“Very little selection was been made in the past 50 years and producers are finding it challenging to meet the goal of having a uniform flock that averages 200 eggs a year, even though the standard established for the breed is 225 eggs per bird.”

He estimates it will take a good three years, or six generations, to get the breed back on track to meet the target of 8,000 dozen eggs per year, using 500 layer hens.

Bélanger is aiming to finish the birds at about the same weight of a conventional chicken. The target weight for males will be 2.1 to 2.2 kilograms at 18 weeks and between 1.7 to 1.9 kilograms for the females, at 20 weeks. All 10 Chantecler producers’ goal is to produce roughly 20,000 birds, per year, as allocated by the federations.

Dr. Silversides isn’t surprised Bélanger’s layers aren’t performing to Brother Wilfrid’s standards. He says this is an example of natural rather than artificial selection. “If you take away the selection, the breed will find an ideal body weight and an ideal number of eggs which are different from what we want.”

He thinks Bélanger won’t have any problem achieving his goals within that time frame. He cautions producers of over-selecting the birds to the point that they resemble broilers. “If they do, then what’s the point?” he says. n

Federations supportive of the project
Saving a breed from extinction doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s a long-term project,” explains Martin Dufresne, president of Les Éleveurs de volailles du Québec. He says the Chantecler producers are in the start-up phase, and are probably facing a few hurdles. What’s more, the breed isn’t known for its performance so it comes as no surprise that things aren’t progressing as quickly as they had hoped.

Ten producers, from various regions in Quebec, were given the right to produce the Chantecler. So far, each operator has been hatching his or her own eggs and producing meat birds as well as eggs, according to the breeding plan outlined by Dr. Fred Silversides, a poultry research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada who produced a report to help save endangered species in the 1970s. They feel it’s the best way to reduce the risk of disease or anything else going wrong.
Dufresne says the Quebec poultry federations recommended they eventually concentrate their activities and designate one central location to produce all the chicks they need to increase their overall efficiency, and truck the chickens to the nine remaining facilities.

“They will have an expensive product, which will require a good marketing strategy to cater to an upscale niche market,” says Dufresne. He feels the heritage breed federation’s plan to save the Chantecler is serious and well structured. If demand takes off, production of the Chantecler would be handled like any other breed, and would have to comply with regulations, and follow supply management guidelines.

“We took exceptional measures to save the Chantecler because we felt it would be cost prohibitive if producers had to pay for quota for an inefficient bird,” explains Dufresne. “Producers are well aware, however, that things would change if there proves to be an increasing market demand for the product, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself. The project would never have been able to materialize without help on our part.”


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