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Dry Fly Genetic Hackle Chickens ft. Jesse Lerud

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Show Notes

Join Nicole and Jesse Lerud of Grumpy Platypus Hackle as they discuss what dry fly genetic hackle chickens are and what makes them so unique from other types of chickens!

What You’ll Learn

  • What are dry fly genetic hackle chickens?
  • Why dry fly genetic hackle chickens are so unique
  • Selective breeding for feather patterns

Our Guest

Jesse Lerud raises a unique variety of chickens bred specifically for their feather structure which makes them idea for tying dry flies. Producing premium birds on his families Centennial farm, Jesse strives to provide quality capes and saddles at blue collar pricing.

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    Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from, where we talk about all things, backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.

    Nicole: Hello and welcome to Backyard Bounty. I'm your host, Nicole. And today we're joined by Jesse who raises some unique chickens for dry fly hackles. And welcome to the show, Jesse. I appreciate you taking the time to join us.

    Jesse: Hey, thanks for having me here.

    Nicole: Of course. So, let's just dive right in. Dry fly genetic hackle chickens. Can you help me understand more of what that is?

    Jesse: Yeah. It's actually not a breed of chicken. They're basically a big group of mutts that are held in a feather thesis that would not naturally happen in the wild. We breed for longer and more uniform feathers. There's a few parts of the feather that we focus on. The Quill of the feather is made as thin as possible. The little barbs that come off that make what we call a feather are bred to be parallel and uniform with as many of them as possible. And then at a microscopic level, there's a little barbules that if you've ever picked up a feather and split it apart and then pieced it back together with your fingers, make it a feather again. Those are actually bred out so that these feathers don't suck up water.

    Jesse: Making that a goal of the overall bird is one of the main parts of these. There are things that are just as important such as, we breed longer leg lengths and longer necks so that we can also grow out long saddles and keep the birds, actually as fertile as possible. Long straight legs are a great sign of positive fertility.

    Nicole: That just blew my mind a little bit. What's the correlation between leg length and fertility?

    Jesse: Having a straight legs for us, meaning that the knees don't come together, feet aren't turned in, these birds are heavily bred towards a high testosterone and having good straight legs means that their upper sides of their body such as their testicles are in the correct area. Especially like I mentioned with the high testosterone where your typical rooster is going to have a testicle the size of a Lima bean or is actually grown up to about the size of a ping pong ball.

    Nicole: Oh my goodness. I assume you need more testosterone to grow the feathers. Is that the correlation there?

    Jesse: Yes. We breed specifically to get ... so breeding on a rooster, the testosterone is boosted to promote feather growth, because they feel they need to be beautiful to attract a mate. And so we force that into the breeding. So their combs get enormous and that is actually also a secondary sexual organ for them. But that is very important for them to want, on a genetic level, to grow out these feathers as fast as possible.

    Nicole: How interesting. I think what you do of course, is total opposite of everybody else, which is why I think it's so interesting because of course, 99% of everybody else wants to have a flock full of Hinz, whereas you predominantly wants the roosters. That's what's valuable to you.

    Jesse: Yes.

    Nicole: So we talked a little bit earlier, about some selective breeding traits, are you able to do any special breeding to get more roosters out of your flock?

    Jesse: No. We basically get a street run. Right now we're kicking out at around 240 eggs every 10 to 12 days. We've put those in an incubator. It's not like we just, "Oh no, it's a hen. Let get rid of it." We actually do breed out hens as well. They're used in a slightly different type of fly tying. They're have softer hackles. They're usually aimed towards more wet flies. They are usable, but we just don't get the amount of money that you get out of a rooster. So we pick the ones that we aren't going to breed and then, we range them to keep our food costs down because if we were to feed them, we just absolutely lose money.

    Nicole: True. So you said that your birds are not ... I know I was looking at some of the pictures on your Facebook. Is there any dominant breeds that are used to create these mutts? Like the one ... and I'm just guessing here, but the one looked like maybe it had some of a Dominique or anything? Or are they just purely just random mutts?

    Jesse: That's actually a fantastic question. It's going to be easier to explain through I'm a little bit of the history. Our birds go all the way back to the very, very first, guy who attempted to make these into a genetic hackle. His name was Harry Darby back in the 30s. And, he started, his roosters were a Thompson barred rocks. And he got hens like blue hen delusions. And black breasted reds. There's a few others and we do get colors out of those. Harry Darby was more interested in, "Let's make a pretty bird." And didn't quite understand how to breed for the characteristics of the birds. Mostly he made blues and chocolate browns and barred animals in those variants.

    Jesse: Another guy came along in the 50s, my understanding, and I might be wrong on this, but he used something that would be much closer to a heritage barred rock, and that kind of thing where his last name is Hoffman and our grizzly line, which is chickens genetics and hackle good genetics generally do not have the same names for colors. Where you have your board rock, we call that grizzly. Mr. Hoffman, really started going for genetic traits in the feathers more than colors. In fact, he only really had black grizzly and white, although I use the term loosely because, dominant white where someone thinks of a white chicken is completely useless to us because on a genetic level that says, "My feather is not important."

    Jesse: That's why meat birds will be generally white and like that, because the energy for the animals growth is going elsewhere. One of the things that we really run into, in that is to make a real white, which is a fantastic color for like dying and getting it out there is keeping that white because it'll want to go yellow. The feather is being tricked into being white, is basically the short answer there. As time went on, we had a few colors between Harry Darby and Mr. Hoffman and then in about 1971, a guy named Andy Minor, who got a hold of some of Harry Darby's birds. He probably put the most realistic work into improving the breed. He really started focusing on how to make a uniform feather, getting the barbules bred out of the bird. Starting the process of breeding in long legs, which is incredibly difficult.

    Jesse: From there, several large groups, basically any successful hackle company at this point has birds that have been influenced by Andy Minor. And you can really tell the difference between somebody who doesn't have Minor birds and somebody who does, but by quality, every generation has to be focused even after an influential guy gets their hands on them. These birds can really lose their viability, their quality, their usability, very quickly in just a matter of a generation or two if you're really not paying attention.

    Nicole: So other than the stuff that we already talked about the feathers and the leg length and the common stuff, is there any other differences between these chickens and those common chicken that people have for production or whatever?

    Jesse: Yes. There is enough of a difference that, if you put the two birds together, you'd start to see that it's clearly a goal in mind for these birds versus say for instance, a portraits rock or something like that, Rhode Island reds. The colors are there, the genetics are there to make those colors. But the way that these birds hold their bodies and the way that their feathers grow, they stand out. The really good birds that make quality high-end saddles, likely have origins to like onagadori which is a very difficult type of chicken that grows long 12, 14 foot long tails. And they're not actually an onagadori until they're three years old, but one of their characteristics is the ability to grow their saddles and not molt them. Where your typical roosters and your typical even hens, they're going to molt fairly regularly. We are actually breeding in the ability for them not to molt, as often. Ideally never, but, usually we can get three plus years out of an animal without not molting.

    Nicole: Oh wow. So are they usually, three years old when you harvest the capes and saddles, I just assumed that once they were six, eight, 10 months old that, that's when you would use the bird.

    Jesse: It's a writer on 10 and a half to 11 and a half months is the average. If a bird is really showing something outside of that realm where it's like, "Oh wow, this might be worth keeping to the end of when they might molt or being used as a breeder." They're held back and that's a numbers game. You catch as many as you can and you take your top three, 5% and breed them so that, you keep your lines going, you have backups of colors because it would be very easy if a rooster keeled over, you could lose what that rooster is holding, such as a black diluter like a blue or done diluter or, some other thing that was desirable. The idea is to get another one.

    Nicole: I know that, looking at these pictures on your Facebook page, there's a picture of you holding one of these birds that I would assume then would be a grizzly. And I can't really tell, I believe it's his saddle feathers. They're probably, Oh my gosh, 12 to 16 inches long, and they're beautiful. The colors on it are gorgeous.

    Jesse: So he'd actually be called the grizzly variant. I know it's way guy you're talking about. He is one of our little rockstars here. He is a very grumpy bird. But, he knows he's wonderful but he is a full expression of an anti-molt gene. Even in that picture there, he had to get a haircut so that he can go visit the ladies. He can actually throw a two foot plus at no problem.

    Nicole: So, these birds, why did you decide to get into breeding them? They're so unique and they're such a niche. What drove you to go down this avenue with birds?

    Jesse: That's a pretty good question. When I was a young boy, I always immersed in Colorado Trout Unlimited and I met a lot of people along the way. I helped out at the Toronto limited auctions, holding up items and being a cute young boy, I was really good at selling raffle tickets to people who I later found out were some of the premier fly tires in not just Colorado, but the world and to fund that, when you run into somebody who likes to drop names, it's like, "Yeah, I've known them since I was six."

    Jesse: So that didn't quite poke the hole in, "Oh, I want to do genetic hackle." I got into to fish, for a long time. Like aquarium fish. I liked working with extinct in the wild species such as pup fish and tequila splint fins and things like that. And I really have always liked something that stood out that was just different. I got into healthcare for a little bit and I promise I'm staying on subject here.

    Nicole: No, you're fine.

    Jesse: For quite a few years I worked in healthcare and I developed at eight, the ability of solving other people's problems while I wasn't focusing on my own. About nine years ago I finally started to realize that, "Hey, I think I'm in the middle of a drug and alcohol problem that is killing me." It took me awhile to get a completely clean and sober. I actually have been sober since, April 12th, 2012.

    Nicole: Congratulations.

    Jesse: Thank you. I have been walking the path of a sobriety program and on a fifth anniversary, I married a girl and moved away from Denver, out to a little town called Julesburg, Colorado in the Northeast corner of Colorado. Along with my lovely wife came two fabulous in-laws that are expecting us to take over the family farm. In the process of that, I started to realize, "Wow, it's really difficult to do anything successfully in farming." Such as cows, goats, regular chickens, things like that, planting corn. So I got to thinking, "Hey, maybe we can do something about that." And then I got thinking is like, "Oh, we have the land so maybe do some chickens out here or some other birds." I originally thought peacocks or something like that. And then, I got to thinking, "Isn't there like a bird that does the hackle stuff?" And so I started looking that up. And, in the process of that, I got swindled on two flocks of birds twice.

    Jesse: Ending up with, I bought one flock of birds, I was told, "This is genetic hackle." And I was like, "Okay, sure, looks like in the pictures". I get it there, not really knowing what I'm thinking of or talking about and I get these birds and I'm like, "Yeah, I'm going to become a millionaire with this." And then, I ran across somebody who actually knew what genetic hackle was and they were like, "No, that's not even close." And so I was like, "Oh, maybe these are the genetic hackle." So I found who they bought their stock from and I went and bought those breeders because I was like, "Maybe these are closer, maybe he knows what he's doing." And I got those birds and, they came in the U S mail and I opened those boxes and I about broke down and cried, because they weren't right.

    Jesse: Then, I have a fabulous mentor. He was telling me, "These just aren't the right thing. You don't have the right animal." And, he sent me three of the right animal. I had sent him some money for them and three true genetic hackle birds, two roosters and a hen came to our farm. And, I compared them to the birds that I had. And you could just see the difference. They're so different in the way that they feel, lots of chickens are soft and these ones feel like you're running your hands through straw. And, he then told me about the guy he had gotten his birds from and how he was actually looking to focus on his family and get out of the genetic hackle business.

    Jesse: So I called this man named Joel Elsdorf, out of Pennsylvania. And, we discussed a price to purchase his breeders from him. We went to Pennsylvania, my wife and I tagged him, drove to Pennsylvania, and showed up as tired as we could possibly be. And then had to learn all lot of stuff as we came home with 19 roosters and 31 hens to start our hackle business. Mr Elsdorf has been a mentor to us as well my other guy, Ben Ross. He's been just stellar in teaching me how to watch for genetics, what I'm going to get out of them and he's like an encyclopedia on what comes out of a chicken egg.

    Nicole: Wow. I'm sorry to hear you know that you had some challenges getting there. It's always funny to me how life plays out and sometimes you go through some challenges, but that puts you in a position to come out better in the long run. And it sounds like that is how it worked out for you and you jumped into the hackle business with both feet.

    Jesse: Yes, absolutely. And the entire family is in on this too. My wife, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law are all just absolute pillars of the foundation of what I feel is going to make this work. Especially being such a difficult market to break into.

    Nicole: Yeah, it's certainly. I don't know that you necessarily went the easy route, but the best things come for the most work.

    Jesse: Yes.

    Nicole: These birds, once you raise them to where they're ready to be used, do you sell the capes and saddles to anybody or do you only sell them to specific fly tires? Or are they available to everybody?

    Jesse: They're absolutely available to anybody who would love to use them. We are trying to be competitively priced. Some of the other guys that are doing this are selling it very cadillac prices, we want to be in a more blue collar price bracket so that, first of all, you feel that you're getting a good deal and perhaps you can get more bang for your buck, on top of having a good quality product that you'll come back to us, time and again for more.

    Jesse: Yes, I will be selling them to fly tires, fly shops. We're working at making a little online store, but for the time being, it's probably going to be more of a Facebook marketing flash sale deal.

    Nicole: Sure. Forgive me, I don't know much about hackle chickens. When you breed them, because they are mutts or as you put it, from this group, do you always get the grizzly ones, which is what I'm just going to keep going with because that is what I remember you saying. Or do you get a variation from your breeding projects?

    Jesse: Yes, we do get variations. Out of a grizzly, I can make a grizzly done, I could make a grizzly blue done. So grizzly has a nice, beautiful fee and it's barring, there's a little fees that go down in coloring. That's a sign of double barring. And I can also make it single barred, which is a much more messy buggy color. You can easily get nine to 12 colors out of a rooster over three hens, no problem. And then, there are colors that are much more fragile. Like I mentioned that the cream or white, that's pretty much what you get out of them. There are some pairings that we do to roll for what are much, much rarer colors.

    Jesse: Such as a cree is what we call it. C-R-E-E. And that is a pairing of ... It doesn't happen very often and it's not sexually transferable, but it's a white to a ginger to a black three stripes color on a feather. We do breed for that, we breed for colors like, in chicken language, it'd be called creel, we call it ginger barred. Bird chin we call badger in the hackle world. We make badger, Honey badger furnace, which is red badger basically. And then, we also try to messy those up with speckling where somebody that would be going for a standard of perfection on a bird would say, "No, that's terrible." We'll, we love it because it's different.

    Jesse: Just to get those colors together, yes, there are groups that we can move birds around in to get the desired effects that we want. But, in theory I could give any bird, any boy to any girl, on the farm and we could get something potentially usable out of a pairing like that.

    Nicole: [Missing Audio 00:29:02]

    Jesse: Yes and no. Like I said, our creams are white. Grizzly would be dyed as well but, some companies really do even dye their blue dones and things like that. I want to bring actual buggy colors. When you're making a fine, you really want to imitate nature and a lot of the colors that you're going to go out and find, you're going to go find May flies and bugs, they're going to be brown and gray mostly. And I think I can capture most of those with just a couple of colors. I am working on making more buggy looking colors just to bring an eye of beauty to the table for fly tires.

    Jesse: Fly tying a hobby of passion. And some people I'd go so far as to say they might take it overboard. They're looking for that perfect color, they're looking for that perfect match. Giving them a variety is definitely a goal we aim to be able to fill. But, in the future I am looking at dying some colors. I am avoiding it at this point because I genuinely feel that if I raise something up and it's goal is to be beautiful, the work that I put into it, I see that beauty in the animal itself. And if somebody wants to change that color, they're more than welcome to do it themselves at this point. But for right now, I just want to show that we make really good stuff and the beauty is in itself, that is coming out already.

    Nicole: Yeah. And you can see it in, like you said, the birds that you have online, they really are just stunning.

    Jesse: Thank you.

    Nicole: Yeah. Do you have any other future business goals or birds that you're wanting or colors that you're wanting to pursue?

    Jesse: Yeah, we are actually in the process of adding a color to genetic hackle. For right now, I'm going to keep that a little bit of trade secret, but in the future, we do hope to have something that stands out and is completely different and is hopefully successful in sales. We are working at breeding also towards a wet fly line, meaning all those barbules that we bred out, we're going to breed them back in and make a nice, beautiful soft feather that comes out of the same lines as the dry fly groups do that will, basically diversify our products so that we can go above water and below it. And then we've also been looking into the possibility of ornamental pheasant and hybrids thereof. But, I'd go so far as to say that, that's probably a ways out. I want to be more than good at one thing before I start adding stuff. I can definitely say yes to a million projects, but I'd rather not be a master of none of them.

    Nicole: Right. I think it definitely makes sense to find the one thing that you're good at and run with that instead of trying to have your hand in a bunch of different pots there.

    Jesse: Yes.

    Nicole: So with the barbs and wet versus dry, is it something like the barbs? And I'm just guessing, making this up. I'm not sure if you would know, but do the barbs have something to do with surface tension of the water or why is it that the barbed versus barbless determines how the feather can be wet or dry?

    Jesse: That's a great question. What happens to these feathers is, one would be pulled off and wrapped around a hook so that it's spreads its splays out. Not having those little barbules on the barbs means that it won't suck up water. If you have a sponge versus if you have a piece of paper, the sponge is going to suck up more water, and having more barbs on the feather so to spread around, is similar to either trying to step on a nail or stepping on a bed of nails. The hook is then held on top of the water because it makes that little bed of nails that doesn't break the meniscus of the water as it flows down a river or sits on a lake and that's what makes dry fly genetic hackle it's definition.

    Nicole: And I guess I do notice that you explain that again. I remember you mentioning that in the introduction. I guess I just got lost in all of the other interesting information and forgot that you had mentioned that. In a normal chicken, obviously those feather barbs would be there. So breeding them out is, I don't want to use the term an unnatural, but I don't suppose there's any types of birds that would normally just in nature have feathers without those barbs, right? Like that's a fundamental function of the feather themselves. So basically it's challenging to breed out those barbs as I guess what I'm trying to say.

    Jesse: Yes. I am unaware of any type of poultry or feathered critter that has no barbules naturally. I go so far as to say, these are ... like I said, they're held in a status outside of what would happen naturally, especially for a chicken. And it doesn't hurt them but yes, it won't occur in nature. There's no real loss of benefit. These days birds can still fly, just like their other chickeny friends and they can hop around, they can find food, just all the same. But yes, it is something that was selectively bred for. And it is one of the main points of it, main points of several in making a quality dry fly feather.

    Nicole: I like that you mentioned that they could fly because I would have assumed that without the feather's ability to interlock itself, I assumed that they would be flightless because I figured they would try to flap in the air, would just rush through their feathers since they don't stick to each other.

    Jesse: We do have several every day that decide that they want to go visit everybody else and flap their way and we haven't worked in the jukebox with the Benny Hill theme song yet, but that's a pretty good explanation of what it's like when they're wandering around and they are more than capable of doing all the same things that other birds can do.

    Nicole: I have a slight background in falconry and rafters and I know that a big thing with a bird that you're flying is if they have a feather breaker or somewhere where those feathers separate then they need to replace them so that they can be in peak flying capacity. So I guess my brain just assumed that because with falconry, it's important to make sure their feathers are all, I don't remember the technical term, but are stitched together. That makes sense in my head. The little barbs are all stitched together. That's interesting to me. I assumed that they would be flightless

    Jesse: And birds of prey are much more gliding based. Chickens they can fly, that's still somewhat of a loose term. No chicken can fly very long where a falcon, their mainstays is staying in the air for long periods of time often. And so that is a different shape to the wing and yes, absolutely having a damaged feather would severely impact the amount of energy that it would take for them to stay in the air. Where as a chicken, they're going to flap their wings and get a little ways away and then they're honestly going to completely forget that they were running away.

    Nicole: Yeah, I guess I didn't really put much thought when I asked that about the actual difference in the flying of the birds. But now that absolutely makes sense. So for those that would like to find out more about your operation and those that might be interested in buying some of the capes and saddles from you, how can people find you online?

    Jesse: The easiest way is to find me on Facebook. You can either search out, Jesse Lerud. J-E-S-S-E L-E-R-U-D or you can find me at S-L-I-M-P-L-E-T-Y. And you'll know you found the right place when you see my little cartoon platypus [inaudible 00:40:51] Grumpy Platypus Hackle.

    Nicole: All right, great. And then your website, you said that's coming soon as well.

    Jesse: That is coming soon as well. Probably closer to the end of the year. I spend much more time building things, for these little birds then I do messing with my computer lately.

    Nicole: I totally understand. Well, we'll put links to all your social media and then once you have your website up, we'll put a link to that as well so that people can find you and learn more about your birds.

    Jesse: Thanks.

    Nicole: Of course. Well, Jesse, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and tell us about your chickens and I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us.

    Jesse: This has been a lot of fun, Nicole.

    Nicole: I enjoyed it. Thank you. I appreciate it.

    Jesse: Thanks.

    Nicole: And thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.

    Speaker 4: Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty. Don't forget to subscribe to this podcast and please leave us a review. Backyard Bounty is available on iTunes and Stitcher. Or watch us on YouTube.

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