While certain chicken and sheep breeds near extinction, this Kansas farmer is stepping up to help

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Heritage Welsummer chickens walk around at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

LINDSBORG — When Matt Hemmer was a kid, he would help his dad with the cattle on their family farm in North Dakota. But when Hemmer turned 11, his dad sold the land and moved to Kansas to start a business. 

Now more than four decades later, Hemmer is back on the land, raising chickens, sheep and some cattle, including Wagyu, at Smoky Buttes Ranch.

But this farm in Lindsborg is different from the one Hemmer grew up on. He's raising heritage breeds.

A heritage breed mates naturally, has a slow growth rate, thrives outdoors and can live a long, healthy life. The animals are antibiotic-free and free-range all the way from hatchling to adulthood. 

An Erminette heritage chicken nesting at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

The American Poultry Association started naming breeds in 1873. The definitions are included in the association's Standard of Perfection. Of these, there are more than three dozen chicken breeds that are in danger of extinction.

Hemmer, like the APA and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, wants to preserve heritage breeds of chicken. He also is helping a Scottish breed of sheep flourish.

In order to increase the animal's numbers, Hemmer must pick the ones with the strongest features and breed them. All his chickens and sheep are endangered species. 

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Keeping the chicks happy

Heritage hatchlings at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

Hemmer built several new coops for his chickens. Each barn has electricity, clean water and lots of places to roost. The birds also have special doors so they can go in and out of the yard.

He separates the animals by breed, so he always knows which egg goes to which breed. He also pays attention to the rooster, knowing which propagates the hens the best by the number of fertile eggs they produce.

Hemmer understands he cannot save all the breeds, but he is working hard to save several, including the Salmon Faverolles, Welsummers, Smoky Blues, as well as Erminettes and Red Erminettes.

"There is a movement to bring back heritage birds and put them back on the farm where they can go back to work," Hemmer said. "Most heritage breeds were good at both laying eggs and meat." 

Keeping the eggs safe

Heritage chicken eggs in the incubator at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

Hemmer is meticulous in his record-keeping. He labels each egg that he incubates and updates his data continually. By doing stringent inventory control, he is able to help insure each breed's longevity and strength.

"My priority is creating more babies (chicks)," Hemmer said. 

The eggs hatch from January through June and Hemmer sells his chicks nationwide. By doing this, he is helping to keep each of his breeds from going extinct. 

Last year, Hemmer hatched 2,300 chickens on his farm, keeping about half of them. Of the more than 1,000 he sold, half of those stayed in Kansas. Hemmer sells his chicks from late March through June. 

By using modern equipment, which uses temperature and humidity control and turns the eggs at designated intervals, he is able to ensure healthy chicks.

"Because mamma hen rolls her eggs around, it keeps the embryo from sticking to the sides," Hemmer said. "By selling (chicks), we are sharing these birds."

The state inspects the facility each year. 

Selling what you do not need

Heritage chicken eggs in the incubator at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

Hemmer picks out the chicks he deems to have the best characteristics. These are the ones he places in his flocks and will someday breed from. 

Hemmer also sells many of his butchered chickens and eggs at Prairieland Market in Salina. Because heritage breeds grow slower than commercial ones, they require a longer period of time before being butchered. All Smokey Buttes Ranch animals are butchered at Krehbiel's Specialty Meats in McPherson. 

Heritage chicken must be raised outdoors on pasture to qualify as heritage. They must be able to forage and mate naturally. By being raised this way, the animals develop a robust immune system.

These breeds develop at a slower rate than commercial chickens, have a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs. They live long, productive lives outside - but can go back to their coop when they like. 

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Counting sheep

Soay sheep at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

Hemmer also raises Soay sheep. Like with his poultry, he wants to increase both the visibility and the integrity of the breed. 

Soay sheep come from Scotland. They, like the chickens Hemmer raises, are small in numbers worldwide. 

"They are fun to watch," Hemmer said. "We practice rotational grazing."

According to Oklahoma State University, The Soay, who are named for the island off of Scotland, are a small breed that inhabited the British Isles before the Norsemen and the Romans arrived. 

Because of its distinct nature, The Soay and Boreray Sheep Society formed to help the breed propagate and survive. These sheep are excellent conservation grazers.

Saving endangered animals

Soay rams at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.

"We need devoted breeders like Matt Hemmer so that we can preserve genetic diversity within our poultry flocks and maintain historical breeds of chickens that anyone can breed and reproduce," said Mike Badger, the executive director of the APPPA. 

"In the commercial chicken industry today, almost all the genetics are proprietary crosses, which are controlled by a handful of companies. These genetics seem to almost always focus on efficient weight gain or egg production at the expense of other things, such as welfare, health, or quality of nutrition."

Badger said productivity at the expense of animal well being is evident in the commercial broiler industry - where the rapid growth of the chickens creates a range of problems, such as woody breast.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with a proprietary cross, but that consolidation is a weak link in our food system," Badger said. "By preserving a diversity of historical breeds, even in small numbers, we always have an alternative to the commercial options."

Soay sheep at Smoky Buttes Ranch in Lindsborg.