By Tamara Staples, New York
Thomas Roebuck has been raising Cochin chickens for since he was 8 years old. He grew up in a sleepy little town surrounded by natural beauty. After all, Wallkill, New York, is mostly remembered for its production of gunpowder during the American Revolution. And by the late 1960s, when the town was in nego-tiations to host the highly touted Wood-stock festival, government officials were concerned the small town could not accommodate a large crowd, and Woodstock moved on.
In short, Wallkill is the type of place one can find peace and quiet and raise chickens. Tom’s three siblings, his father, Tom, Sr., a machine shop foreman, and his mom, Betty Ann, a stenographer, began their flock, and love of chickens, when Tom Sr. and Betty Ann ordered a variety pack from Murray McMurray Hatchery consisting of five breeds: Cornish, Polish, Cochin chickens, Barred Plymouth Rock chickens, and an Old English. Soon after, they organized and led the local 4-H youth organization. All the siblings got involved but it was Tom, the oldest sibling at 8 years old, who showed real talent for the care of chickens.
Tom was immediately drawn to the one bird that would fascinate him for years: the Cochin. As many times as I’ve heard this story, it never ceases to amaze me; all serious breeders quickly find the bird that keeps them interested for a lifetime. The commitment to beget the best possible breed is a given. Tom’s choice of Cochin chickens was based on the bird’s calm disposition, but it also happened that there were several Cochin breeders in the vicinity creating a perfect opportunity to learn. Tom Sr. would later become an American Bantam Association Master Breeder and Master Exhibitor of Black Cochin Bantams.
Poultry Science is an integral to the 4-H education. Tom took part in state competitions that quizzed the breeders on all poultry aspects — from grading eggs to deciphering whether a chicken is a broiler or fryer. I asked Tom if this is a time when people choose between becoming an exhibitor of heritage breeds and those that go into poultry science, meat and egg production. Tom explained that these two pursuits tend to be woven together.
Tom tells me that he only eats his Cornish, which makes sense as they were developed for meat production. (I am often asked if breeders consider their show chickens to be food. What I’ve observed over the years is this: to some breeders, their chickens are pets, to others they are animals to be tended and to some they are both pets and food, although that line is a little fuzzy.)
Tom excelled in the 4-H competitions and in hindsight, wonders if he might have had a career in the poultry science industry. He worked from later teen years on a Standard Bred Horse Farm and also helped with his cousin’s dairy farm. During this time, from ages 14 to 19, he kept ducks, geese, rabbits, and goats.
Not only was he familiar with farming, it was a passion. After high school graduation, there was no practical opportunity for college, so at the age of 19, Tom joined the Marines. He enjoyed a successful 20 years in the Corps, where he was stationed and deployed throughout the United States and around the world — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, Turkey, Hawaii, Alaska. and California. Due to all the travel, he was not able to keep birds, but he remained active. Tom was the newsletter editor for Cochins International, and until four years ago, he was the president. It helped that his father was a committed fancier of Cochin chickens, and visits home would often include trips to shows.
In 2005, Tom retired from active Marine duty to a desk job as an acquisitions program manager and relocated to Unionville, Virginia, where he purchased property and set up chicken coops. Tom could not have been happier to get back to breeding his own birds. He began with some of his fathers’ Black Cochin chickens bantam stock, which he maintains to this day.
Housing Cochin Chickens
Tom has 26 buildings that range from larger buildings, which are 12-feet by 24-feet, to smaller ones that are 8-feet by 8-feet. In the larger ones, he installed thermostat control systems to protect his self-designed gravity fed watering system, which works very well in the warmer months, but not so much during freezing weather.
All of the chicken coops and housing have been built a foot or so off the ground, safe from rodents and most other chicken predators. The mice come for the feed; the raccoons come for the eggs and occasionally, a chicken. Over the years, Tom has seen all the raccoon tricks. Their determined, nimble hands fiddle with locks and latches. Their sharp teeth can chew through chicken wire and they climb. He’s found evidence everywhere, the upturned buckets and tiny muddy handprints. Usually they make their appearance during the spring following the birth of little ones. Other predators include opossums, fox and hawks. Tom is careful to keep an eye out when the chickens are free-ranging in the yard. He says the presence of black crows deter hawks, and lucky for Tom, crows are abundant in this part of the country.
Breeding Cochin Chickens
Tom admits that he is always expanding his housing. There are several individual pens that house males with the potential to fight, and also breeding pens. He divulges one of his breeding secrets here. For his exhibition Cochin chickens, he leaves no room for guesswork; he artificially inseminates specific hens to specific cocks, known as stud mating. The insemination is efficient and aids in accuracy. He keeps records based on families, separates the birds, marks the eggs and toe-punches accordingly. This can be a meticulous and demanding job when you consider that he hatches 700 to 900 chicks each spring.
Artificial insemination is a very simple procedure really. Tom showed me the method when I was visiting him in Virginia. He turns the male bird over, gently squeezes the “vent” area and a liquid appears. Tom draws it into an eyedropper, finds the proper female bird and injects the semen into her “vent”. During breeding season, he will artificial inseminate every third day.
Each breed in Tom’s flock has a deliberate reproductive regiment. Cornish are also artificially inseminated. The Leghorns, Wyandotte chickens and Minorcas breed naturally. He doesn’t show these birds yet, as it takes years to produce a winning exhibition specimen. With these, he tracks the males but not females, mostly because he puts two females into a pen with one male, hoping one of the hens will be interested. Because Tom is a poultry judge, he believes it is important to keep a number of breeds, saying it helps educate him on the various breed characteristics.
There’s another concern when breeding the chickens: timing. Cochin chickens are slower to mature, Wyandottes quicker. In order to coordinate the fall shows with premium exhibition maturity, Tom hatches the Cochins a few weeks earlier than the Wyandottes. The female is at her prime just after the first or second egg-laying, at around 8 to 10 months old. Overall health is optimum at this time, which allows a youthful vigor with the brightest feather and skin colors. The males have a much longer exhibition life than the females, but even so, Tom’s personal approach to showing Cochin chickens only allows each bird to be shown once, and only rarely more.
The Standard of Perfection is a stickler when accepting a new breed. In its infancy, the exhibitions were limited to black, white or buff, but as serious breeders grew confident, more colors and even varieties were admitted. An application for the Standard begins at the poultry show. There must be entries in the cock, hen, cockerel and pullet classes, at least 25 birds by five exhibitors. A signed affidavit stating they’ve bred this variety for a minimum of five years, and that they breed true, is a prerequisite. As an example of the difficulty, the Black Sumatra was admitted to the SOP in 1883, but not until 2003 did they recognize the Blue Samatra.
Tom is one of these enterprising breeders of Cochin chickens who, along with a few others, have been working on a new variety of Cochin chickens called, “Self-Blue,” which is a lighter blue. Tom explains that when a Self-Blue is bred to the same, it will create another Self-Blue 100 percent of the time. Talk about foolproof, as opposed to breeding a Blue to a Blue, when you will get 50 percent blue, 25 percent black and 25 percent splash.
Tamara Staples is a writer and photographer in New York City. Her most recent book of portraits of show chickens is titled, The Magnificent Chicken, 2013. Visit more of her chickens at www.prettychicken.com.
Originally published in the June/July 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.