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Va. family breeds free-range chickens

KEEZLETOWN, Va. (AP) — It all started for Jason Myers-Benner when he was 8 years old, when his parents got backyard chickens.

“My parents always knew, if they couldn’t find me, just go out to the chicken coop and that’s where I was,” Myers-Benner, now 45, of Keezletown, said.

Now, Myers-Benner, and his family live on 6 acres of land in Keezletown with some unsurprising visitors — dozens of free-range chickens that Myers-Benner breeds.

The four different breeds have Valley-centric names: Shenandoahs, Massanuttens, Blacks Run Browns and Cub Run Creles. Myers-Benner said he hopes to breed the chickens to be resistant, and move his family’s farm, Tangly Woods, to true sustainability and ecological participation.

The birds

At the side of the property closest to the forest roam the Massanuttens, a bird that becomes camouflaged with a wooded, rocky environment. One group of the chickens has a brown coloration, while the other group is white, with some brown staining, with a penciled-like coloring.

“If predators come through, they won’t get noticed,” he said.

Myers-Benner said he hopes Massanuttens have a long, low body shape, so the bird can slip out of a predatory animal’s grasp easily. Because the Massanutten breed is one that is a “survivor,” he said.

Massanuttens need sharp instincts and alertness to survive in the woodlands, Myers-Benner said, and should be able to adapt to extreme weather and varied ecological zones.

“It is a productive bird for the wooded margins of human habitation,” Myers-Benner said.

Cub Run Creles are designed to thrive in rural environments, Myers-Benner said. The birds are a generalistic breed, with a typical heavy-breed body shape and type.

“(T)he Cub Run Crele is intended to also stand on its own as a resilient, beautiful, productive, easy-keeping, true-breeding, multipurpose fowl for a variety of production systems, from barnyard to pasture to portable backyard pen,” Myers-Benner wrote in a blog post, describing the breed.

On the contrast, the Blacks Run Brown breed is designed for urban backyards, Myers-Benner said. Blacks Run Browns are smaller in frame size compared to their counterparts, but still lay full-sized, multicolored eggs.

Due to Tangly Woods location in a rural setting, Myers-Benner said he is phasing out the Blacks Run Brown breed.

The Shenandoah chickens are intended as large, dunn-colored egg-producing birds with weather resistance, foraging ability and predator avoidance instincts, Myers-Benner said.

The idea for the light-colored, large-bodied bird originated from a flock of Black Java hens. There, Myers-Benner said he had a vision to take the Black Java’s grassland foraging ability, vitality and body and egg size and formulate it with a cold-resistant comb, light coloration for heat resistance, and improved egg production.

“It’s a wide-open pasture kind of bird,” Myers-Benner said.

Shenandoahs are meant to thrive in an open grassland environment in combination with cattle and contribute to the farm.

“To my knowledge, there has never been a chicken bred for that system,” Myers-Benner said.

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