HPC Asks the Experts: Danny Williamson

Danny Williamson is the owner of Windmill Ranch and runs the business side of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch. He is a licensed American Poultry Association Judge, Grand Master Breeder of Black turkey, Grand Master Breeder of Dark Brahma chicken and Grand Master Breeder of White Call duck.

The Heritage Poultry Conservancy asked Danny a few questions about his experiences raising heritage poultry, the future of the industry and life as an APA licensed judge.

HPC: Danny, when did you first become interested in raising poultry?

Danny Williamson: I grew up on a farm and we always had chickens for eggs and for meat purposes. Slaughter day was a big event, my grandmother would come out and we would all sit around and pluck chickens. . . it was sort of a social gathering. I grew up with 4-H and always showed a steer and my chickens along with numerous other projects at the county fair.

HPC: Who were some of your early mentors? How did they help and encourage you and your interest?

Danny Williamson: What I didn't realize growing up was that my mother would be a big mentor to me. She taught me how to cut up a chicken and the importance of being able to raise your own food. Frank Reese and Norman Kardosh were my big mentors on the turkey front, they taught me a wealth of information. Norman could be pretty hard on me at times but I realize he was doing it for the love of the turkeys. Frank and Norman got me my first black turkeys. I remember picking them out and Norman said I should try a different variety but I told him I wanted the blacks so he got them for me.

HPC: We understand that you are really into Standard Dark Brahmas. Why are you so passionate about this breed? Are their other breeds of Heritage chickens you are currently focused on?

Danny Williamson: I really love the Dark Brahmas because of their disposition. They are curious about what is going on when you come in the pen and they will run up to you to see what's going on. The color pattern on the Dark Brahma's is probably my favorite color pattern the black and white in contrast with each other just makes the feathers pop. It is a difficult color pattern to get right and I think that is another reason I enjoy them because I enjoy a challenge. I am also currently working with the Dark Cornish and the White Laced Red Cornish.

HPC: When did you become an APA licensed judge? Why did you decide to become a judge?

Danny Williamson: I became an APA licensed judge in 2002. I think the reason I became a judge was that is was a way for me to get to handle birds in the show and I didn't have to walk around and ask the exhibitors. While I judge I get to see all kinds of things that you don't get to see form the outside of the cage. I see good things and I see bad things and that actually helps me in my breeding programs for my birds.

HPC: What exactly is an APA licensed judge? How is one trained and certified?

Danny Williamson: An APA licensed judge goes through an apprentice program where they have to clerk under other APA licensed judges, the whole concept of this is to be able to ask the judge questions and have the judge question you about the birds, it is a learning process. Then after the apprenticeship program is passed you take a test that tests your knowledge about all the birds, including ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. An APA judge is someone who goes through the training to understand all the different breed characteristics and traits to be able to compare one bird against another.

HPC: You have a reputation for your work with Heritage breed of turkeys. When and how did this interest develop?

Danny Williamson: My interest with the Heritage Turkeys started when I met Frank Reese. He was raising turkeys and going to poultry shows and that brought back some of my childhood memories when I was in 4-H. Over the years I have just come to enjoy the curiosity of the turkeys

HPC: In your work with Heritage turkeys have you used particular genetic lines developed by other breeders in the past? If so who's, and why their birds in particular.

Danny Williamson: I really haven't used another black genetic line of turkeys because there really are not any other genetic lines of blacks. The only other genetics I have put into my black flock would be the Kardosh bronze line. I did this in the early years since I did not have very many black turkeys to start out with I wanted to give them a genetic breath of fresh air so they gene pool would not get to stagnet.

HPC: Having been interested in poultry most of your life what changes have you observed with regard to heritage breeds? Are we loosing heritage flocks? If so, what factors are contributing to their loss?

Danny Williamson: When I first started working with Frank 13 years ago, there was no such definition of Heritage Birds. As I got deeper into the poultry world I noticed that there were just not that many "backyard" flocks any more, no one cared about them. There has been a slow awareness over the past five years with people starting to understand the importance of these genetic lines. The problem is they go to commercial hatcheries who hatch for quantity instead of quality and the end up raising inferior genetic lines which really does not help out the cause. The best thing for people to do is become aware that the APA is there for a reason, they are a great resource to find breeders and talk to other people who have the same interest.

HPC: Today, do you believe there is a difference between birds of 'show quality' and birds of utility? If so, why?

Danny Williamson: Yes there is a difference and that is actually a sad thing, there should not be a difference. People are starting to raise these birds by artificial insemination, which actually strips the bird of vigor. People are putting too much emphasis on getting a bird that will win a show instead of getting a bird that can reproduce. It doesn't do any good to have a bird that can win a show but can't reproduce.

HPC: Can a strain of Heritage Poultry be equally vigorous and productive and at the same time be a contender in top poultry shows?

Danny Williamson: Yes, take for example my Dark Brahmas. When I first started raising them everyone said that I would have to A.I. them, but I never would and today I have birds that reproduce without the help of me. As a judge we need to remember that these birds actually served as a means of survival for our parents, grandparents and great grandparents and that they should still serve that purpose.

HPC: Currently at APA shows do you believe the APA and judges place enough emphasis on utility and production? Please explain.

Danny Williamson: There are some great judges out there that do place the emphasis on what the bird was bred for, but there are also judges that judge on looks alone . . . the bigger the better, the problem with that is they pick these huge Cornish males that can't even mount the hen because they have such short legs and big breast.

HPC: Why should the American public be interested in purchasing Heritage Poultry breeds at their local grocery store?

Danny Williamson: I know it might sound strange but if people will eat these birds it will actually help the genetics. As a breeder I go through and pick out the best of the best of the young birds to hold back for breeders to improve the quality of bird, then I have all these extra birds that I need to get rid of. They may not be good enough genetics to use in my breeding program but they will taste the same, so the more chickens I can sell in the store the more chickens I can raise to introduce back into my breeding program, this also helps me spread out the gene pool more, thus giving the breed more vigor.

HPC: Are Heritage breeds and strains of poultry of higher quality with regard to flavor, texture, etc. as compared to industrially grown birds? Do chefs find these birds more desirable? If so why?

Danny Williamson: A Heritage bird will have a much darker meat, even the white meat will be darker, and they will have a much richer flavor. The meat will have texture to it, you actually have to chew the meat and as you chew the more flavor you get from the meat. Some chefs love Heritage birds because they actually taste like chicken or turkey, but some chefs love the industry bird simply because it has little flavor and they can flavor the bird to taste like whatever flavor they want. There is also a difference in size, because Heritage birds grow slower some birds grow at a different rate than others so you end up with different sizes of birds for the same growing period, industry birds all grow at the same rate, therefore you get uniformity.