It all started when I began to do Conservation Breeding on Light Sussex chickens, which had once (like 100 years ago) been a very popular meat bird but were on the brink of extinction as a livestock breed. They had become much smaller and slower growing than they had been in their prime. I knew how to reverse Inbreeding Depression, but while I was doing that (it took 3 years) I became curious about the modern meat birds - commercial broilers - that grew so much faster than any of the heritage birds. How were they created? What was this different breeding method? [And would it be possible to put just a snippet of this faster growth into my Sussex?]
Being a scientist, I turned to the scientific literature, only to find a black hole where the techniques of modern poultry breeding should have been! No journal articles. No text book! The last text book on poultry breeding was published in 1990 and has been out of print for 28 years. I was able to get a copy from a rare book dealer for an ungodly sum.
The chapter on Commercial Breeding was the shortest chapter in the book, and ended with an Apology for the lack of detail, because the rest of the information was the intellectual property of several corporations. I had encountered the Deep State of poultry genetics!
So let me tell you what Mistral Gris (and Freedom Rangers, and all the Grazers, etc.) are, and how they are made. The breeding technique comes from plant crop breeding in which parent lines are selected and honed not for their own traits but for the traits of the offspring when crossed with a different parent line. In classic breeding, you breed the best male to the best female and hope to produce offspring that combine the best traits of both parents. But in commercial breeding you are trying to maximize heterosis - that’s the genetic diversity of all the pairs of genes in the offspring. The parent lines might themselves be quite inbred - in fact, in plants the parent lines are often totally homozygous (which plants can tolerate but animals not). But when you cross them, the offspring get a different allele from each parent for a high proportion of their genes. It’s ‘hybrid vigour’ to the max!
The reason this works is that complex traits like growth rate and fertility are not determined by one or a few genes. They are influenced by dozens or hundreds of genes directly, and possibly thousands of genes indirectly. During embryonic development and throughout the whole life of an animal, the more genetic options it has to respond to variations or challenges in its environment, the healthier it will be... the faster it will grow... the more fertile it will be... etc.
In the development of the Mistral Gris, Noll started with his Barred Rocks for the father line, and he got birds from Don Shaver’s ‘melting pot’ barn for the mother line. [Shaver Poultry had primary producers of their chickens in 97 countries, which Shaver liked to visit, and collect local hatching eggs... you would go to jail for this behavior now.] Shaver worked with Noll for 4 years before there was the first really good ‘nick’, and then Noll continued to improve on it, eventually producing the Kosher King. Kosher Kings were a big success and Noll’s hatchery grew along with the popularity of these birds.
Another feature of this kind of breeding is that it’s not permanently sustainable. Having to maintain a high level of homozygosity in the parent lines is dangerous. The common solution to this problem has been to develop grandparent lines for each parent line, thus producing parents that are more robust. (This is the ‘4-way cross' you may have heard of.) Even so, the parent lines can slowly become weak or the quality of the cross may start to decline. Then you have to ‘tweek’ one or both parent (or grandparent) lines, by doing some careful outbreeding, and it might take 3 or 4 years to incorporate the tweeked line(s) into the main breeding flock. Noll had done this once, transitioning from Kosher Kings to Silver Crosses.
When Noll finally agreed to sell me the parent lines, it was the Silver Cross lines that I got. I was told to immediately start developing lines to ‘tweek’ with in the future, and I didn’t have Shaver’s melting pot birds to do it with, so it has been a challenge! 2020 is the year in which the freshly tweeked Mistral Gris will be produced. When you see that a lot of them are not the black and white barred birds of the past, this is a consequence of the tweeking. Do not be alarmed!
Also when Noll sold me the parent lines he required that I change the name for Canadian sales. He did not want to be contacted by more Canadians wanting to buy birds. He had no interest in credit cards or foreign exchange or emails etc. and was planning to retire. He suggested that I give them a French name, and Mistral Gris was my invention. ‘Mistral’ is a named wind in France, like our Chinook winds, only Mistrals are cold. And Gris, which translates to ‘gray’, is the French name for the barring pattern in chicken feathers.
So that’s the Mistral Gris story in its simplest form. I realize that breeding to maximize heterosis is not a simple concept, but I hope you got the general idea. There’s one last thing I want to tell you -
After Shaver sold Shaver Poultry it has gone through several owners, taking along with it the genetics of the Redbro and Freedom Ranger, and is now owned by the Hubbard corporation. There has been tremendous consolidation of chicken breeding companies in the last 50 years, as the stronger ones bought out the competition. Now virtually all of the commercial genetics of chickens in the world (with the except of China) are owned by Aviagen, which does business under many names - you would think there is a lot of competition! It has become a monopoly.
When you buy commercial chicks, the profit from your purchase all goes to Aviagen. And Aviagen is in position to totally control the production of chicken meat and eggs in Canada and internationally. Our marketing boards give us no protection (i.e. food security) because they are totally dependent on Aviagen owned sources for all of their stock. There are no primary producers of commercial chickens in Canada any more - despite Canada’s history as a world leader in chicken breeding. Aviagen has closed all the university programs for poultry breeding in North America.
When you are shopping for meat birds, remember this. You can buy Ross or Cobb broilers, Freedom Rangers, Berg’s Grazers, Rochester’s Western Rustics, Sassos, Red Rangers, etc. They are all owned by Aviagen directly, or by one of its subsidiaries. Aviagen can control the CFIA, and our Marketing Boards, and their equivalents in other countries. They control Label Rouge.
But they don’t control True North Heritage Hatchery! So if you want to ‘vote with your dollars’ for a little Canadian independence, give Mistral Gris a try.