Many decades ago, Mike Bosch, a cattle farmer from Gweru, came up with a novel way to deal with ticks. He developed a special breed of chicken whose job was to free range around the cattle watering holes and eat ticks in the manner of wild egrets. The chickens had to survive extreme temperatures and needed to be able to feed themselves. Bosch crossed three indigenous chicken types, the Venda from South Africa, The Ovambo from Namibia and the Matabele from Zimbabwe. Through successive years of selecting and breeding from the toughest survivors, the Boschveld chicken was born.
When Bosch moved to South Africa in the 1980’s he took his birds with him and continued to improve them through careful selection. Meanwhile the Boschveld breed was more or less forgotten in Zimbabwe. A few poultry breeders tried to reintroduce the birds but these attempts never had a major impact.
Reintroduction of the breed
It has taken an innovative, new stock feed company, Novatek to bring the Boschvelds back. After months of intensive research, production of academic papers and escorting representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture to South Africa to inspect the breeding operation, Novatek managed to get the Boschveld breed licensed in Zimbabwe in January 2016. Eggs are now being legally imported into the country by Charles Stewart Hatchery in Chegutu. The day old chicks are then distributed by Novatek who is specifically targeting small-holder farmers and NGOs.
I managed to get hold of five day-old chicks so that I could compare them with other breeds for myself. I already keep indigenous chickens as well as hybrid layers and I have reared broilers before so I am quite well placed to compare this new breed with the more conventional options.
The first thing that intrigued me about the Boschvelds was how quickly they grew. Compared to my roadrunner chicks they seemed to be almost double the size in the first two weeks. They also got their mature feathers much more quickly, making them able to survive without an external heat source. This is important from the point of view of their survival rate in a small-holder farmer situation where protection from predators and provision of an external heat source is difficult.
The next thing which struck me about my Boschvelds was their almost instant drive to scratch and feed themselves even without a mother to teach them. When I put the chicks outside for the first time they immediately knew how to forage and were particularly drawn to insects. At two weeks I was able to identify that one of the chicks was clearly a cockerel. He grew faster than the others, developed a pronounced comb and was quite – well – cocky. I introduced one of my adult hens to the chicks and he tried to start a fight with her! She quickly gave him a taste of his own medicine!
The beneficial characteristics of the Boschveld breed include that they are suitable for both meat and egg production. They will not perform as well as a hybrid layer or broiler but considering their robustness, ability to resist many bacterial diseases and feed themselves they can certainly be termed a value-for money, low input breed which is highly suitable for small-holder farming situations. Also, when cooked they have that distinctive Roadrunner flavour and texture which some have likened to pheasant!
Another of the Boschveld’s claim to fame is that they can withstand extreme heat and cold. Even as chicks under 4 weeks, these birds are able to tolerate temperature extremes from 20 up to 30 degrees. This 10 degree range can be compared to hybrids which can usually only tolerate between 30 and 32 degrees.
As a layer, your Boschveld will begin to lay eggs at about 20 weeks of age. They lay for around 2.5 years with eggs increasing in size as the bird matures. Like Roadrunners, the Boschveld hens do go broody and make excellent mothers so you can quickly develop your own flock. Novatek sells batches of unsexed chicks but estimates that any batch will comprise 50% hens and 50% cocks. So if you buy say 50 day-old chicks and rear them as day-olds until they are about 5 weeks old it is possible to sex them at this stage. You can sell the surplus cockerels or keep them and rear them for meat. Cocks will be ready for slaughter at around 12 weeks. By keeping breeding flocks of one cock to five hens you can quickly build up a nice household flock with enough genetic diversity to be strong and healthy.
Bird health is guaranteed if you buy your chicks from Novatek as they are all vaccinated. Novatek have developed a range of feed especially for roadrunners of different ages as well as a scratch feed. They are also happy to give training and after sales support to farmers. So if you are interested in poultry I recommend giving these birds a try but remember to keep them separated from your other poultry so that they do not interbreed.