Bird Man
Donald Shaver

The Secret of Starcross 288

“By camel in Pakistan, by air, rail and truck, an iron-willed Canadian peddles millions of chickens in 44 countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain with the same drive and determination he once put into planning attacks on the battlefield.”

The Egg and Donald Shaver, a 1964 Macleans magazine feature written by Alan Phillips, starts out like a spy thriller as it chronicles the life of a man devoted to breeding the perfect chicken.

That man was Donald Shaver, remembered as the godfather of modern poultry. Shaver built a poultry-breeding empire from a humble start, using two chicks gifted by an aunt. Throughout his life, he displayed a legendary work ethic, a singular obsession for the chicken business and more than his fair share of grit and determination. He also had an almost religious fervour to improve the chicken’s natural ability to produce protein and feed people the world over, a passion inspired by a teacher early in his life.

But even as Shaver was reshaping the poultry industry, he grew uneasy about the loss of genetic diversity in our country’s flocks. While he spun a fondness for raising chicks into a global business, he also harboured pure lines of chickens that weren’t being used in the company’s breeding programs. After retirement, he embarked on a new mission, driving the establishment of a national foundation to preserve farm animal genetics. 

Shaver’s life work demonstrates the struggle to balance a drive for efficiency and higher production with preserving resources — in this case, genetic diversity. It’s a dilemma that resonates more now than ever. 

An entrepreneur is forged

Donald Shaver’s first big entrepreneurial test came while serving in a tank unit during World War II in Europe and North Africa. Before leaving, he trusted his flock with a friend, D. Hart Horton of the Farmingdale Agricultural School in Long Island, N.Y. These were not your average backyard chickens — Shaver had been breeding chickens for years, and at the age of 15, his hens had won the Canadian National Egg Laying Contest. 

While overseas, Shaver received a letter from Horton informing him that the building housing his birds was destroyed in a fire. This meant that when Shaver returned from active duty, he would have to start all over again. Many people would have quit right there, but Shaver wasn’t deterred. “That in itself was a good thing, because I was forced to restart with new genetic material,” he said in a video interview conducted by the University of Guelph’s Poultry Club four years before his death.

Shaver travelled throughout North America searching for what he considered to be the best stock and convinced several breeders to sell their pure strains to him, “something that wasn’t widely done at the time,” he said. 

His determination to rebuild his breeding stock comes as no surprise to his close friend Peter Hunton, a now-retired poultry geneticist who worked for Shaver early in his career. Hunton says Shaver was enthusiastic about rebuilding his breeding flock, but doing so took a lot of hard work, and he faced steep competition. To help finance a hatchery and his growing breeding business, which he called Shaver Breeding Farms Inc., Shaver started a feed mill in his hometown of Galt, Ontario. 

The next few years were lean, but Shaver ran his poultry business the way he’d led the tank unit, and it took off, overshadowing the feed mill. He hired other war veterans and issued orders. As the business grew, he planned and executed his business trips as carefully as he’d undertaken excursions as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corp, right down to packing cans of Spam and tuna for his international trips.

“I can’t chance losing even a few hours with stomach trouble,” he told Maclean’s. “You can’t carry through a campaign without a timetable and plan. This is like a military operation.”

That simultaneous attention to detail and the big picture worked. Shaver’s poultry business model helped drive the consolidation in the industry in the 20th century. In the 1950s, says Hunton, Shaver Breeding Farms Ltd. was one of “hundreds of breeders in Canada, and probably one of at least 100 in Ontario.” Rather than multiplying his stock and trying to sell the offspring to buyers, Hunton says Shaver took “another huge step” by deciding he would just sell the breeding stock instead. 

“He found that people who had been breeders were not as enthusiastic as he was and they were quite happy to quit and multiply his breeding stock [instead],” says Hunton. More and more breeders opted for a Shaver franchise. Shaver Breeding Farms Ltd. expanded its facilities in Canada, and into the U.S., Great Britain and Germany. Shaver also established joint ventures in India, Pakistan, Barbados and New Zealand. 

Shaver also recognized the value of crossing pure lines for hybrid vigour early on. Inbreeding pure lines was the norm in those days. Shaver realized that corn breeders, who cross-bred their varieties, benefitted from hybrid vigour — where the hybrid offspring are likely to grow bigger, more quickly and be more fertile than their purebred parents — and applied it to chickens.

These breeding tactics paid off.

Today he's best known for the Starcross 288...

…a prolific strain of laying hen that would change the egg-laying industry. Hunton says that “by a process of hard work, and a modicum of luck,” the Starcross 288 was created by crossing the best performers in two of the purebred lines. These hybrid hens were egg-laying machines and their genetics are still found in laying hens today. 

What's old is new again

Even as he threw himself into the headlong rush to develop chickens that produced more and grew faster, Shaver  was “always a conserver,” Hunton says. He kept some unselected strains of layers on his home farm in Cambridge, “in case they were ever needed.”

It wasn’t just business ownership that was consolidating in the poultry industry. While genetic selection became more sophisticated, gene pools became more concentrated as well. Over the years, Hunton says Shaver expressed concern about that genetic concentration in poultry and other farm animals. After Shaver retired in 1985, he redeployed his energy to conserving what was left.

Both he and Hunton were instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Farm Animal Genetic Resources Foundation, now known as the Canadian Animal Genetic Resources initiative. Supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Saskatchewan, the organization collects samples such as semen and embryos from Canadian farms to preserve livestock and poultry genetics.

When poor health forced him to sell his home farm in the early 2000s, Shaver gifted his flocks to the University of Alberta and the University of Guelph.

At the University of Alberta, the Shaver birds joined poultry strains donated by Roy Crawford and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and today all are considered heritage breeds. The University of Alberta now uses its heritage birds for teaching, ag education for school kids and for research. 

 The university has found some creative ways to offset the costs its Heritage Chicken program https://heritagechickens.ualberta.caThe university began with an “adopt-a-chicken” program where people pay an annual fee to “adopt” a heritage chicken and receive 20 dozen eggs in return. 

The university also sells heritage chicks through a partnership with Peavey Mart. As backyard flocks re-emerge, what’s old is new again as far as chickens are concerned.

“This is very much a throwback to the old seasonal hatchery and is terribly popular,” says Frank Robinson, a poultry researcher and special advisor to the dean of agriculture at the University of Alberta. The university has paired this renewed public interest in small flocks with online courses on rearing poultry. 

As commercial and backyard poultry production evolve, heritage birds may play a role in everything from better disease resistance to roosting ability in free-run systems. Thanks to the foresight of Shaver, Hunton, Crawford and their contemporaries, today’s researchers will be able to study and tap into those genetic resources. 

Contributors: Lisa Guenther, Kristy Nudds