Saving Heritage Chicken Breeds
Preserve the Homestead Heritage with These Heritage Chicken Breeds
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Did you know there are many endangered heritage chicken breeds? Chickens, turkeys, geese, and more are on the American Livestock Breeders Conservancy list of at-risk breeds. The risk levels run from Critical to Studied. Over the years, the old breeds have been interbred in an attempt to control and reproduce characteristics like chicken egg color, egg production, and meat production for commercial breeders.
While speaking on choosing breeds and establishing your flock, a man interrupted me, “I’m sick and tired of hearing people like you talk about ‘old breeds’ and raising our birds like the old-timers. We don’t have the same birds they had and our feed isn’t the same.”
In my best Southern I answered, “Bless your heart, If we establish our flock with heritage chicken breeds, they are genetically close to, if not the same owned by our grandparents, great-grandparents, and maybe further back. You’re right, our feed is not the same. It’s GMO and pesticide-laden. That’s why I free range, grow some of our feed, and when necessary, purchase organic, Non-Gmo feed. This way I can feed my heritage chicken breeds the way they did.” He had no further comment.
What is a Heritage Chicken Breed?
The term heritage breed can be simply defined as breeds that were raised by our ancestors. We’d find them on our great-grandparent’s farms. Most all heritage breeds are on the risk list. You’ll find a thorough definition of heritage breed chickens and standards they must meet as well as a complete list of at-risk poultry on The Livestock Conservancy site.
Choosing a Chicken Breed
To choose the breeds best suited for you, consider these points.
- Pick a breed that will do well where you live.
- Do you want dual-purpose birds or not?
- Standard or bantam. The size of housing and yard you have will be a factor.
- Free range or not – If you want or plan to free range your birds, be sure they are good foragers.
Today’s chickens are bred to not get broody so their egg production will stay up. A heritage breed hen will have the desire to set and hatch eggs. Some breeds are more broody than others.
Once you have made these decisions, determine which breed you want. The Livestock Conservancy has a handy chart that will help you compare the different breeds. Most hatcheries also have something similar.
We raise at-risk heritage chicken breeds for their sakes as well as ours. We have two breeds that my grandmother had and I enjoyed as a child. We narrowed it down to three breeds because our setup allows us to maintain the bloodlines of three breeds without difficulty.
We have two brooder coops and two rooster yards separate from the main flock. One rooster stays with the flock, right now it’s Red, our Rhode Island Red. Sambo, the Black Australorp, and the Speckled Sussex rooster (to be named Chief, probably) have their own yard. When it’s time to breed, we put our best Black Australorp hen in with Sambo and our best Sussex hen in with Chief and let nature take its course. To increase the RIR population, I add their eggs to the brooding hens’ nests. Once they begin hard setting, I shut their gates and the roosters are on their own again.
What We Raise
We raise dual-purpose birds because we’re sustenance farmers. This gives us eggs and meat.
We started keeping this breed years ago because it’s one that my grandmother had and enjoyed so much. When we first began keeping them, they were on the Threatened list. Now they’re on the Recovering list. This breed originates from Australia and was introduced to our country in the 1920s. They are a brown egg layer, are heat and cold tolerant, have great personalities, are excellent foragers and are an excellent meat bird. The roosters dress out between 8 to 9 pounds and hens between 6 to 7 pounds, on average.
One hatchery site stated these hens are not likely to sit on eggs. In all my years of keeping this breed, I’ve found these hens to be excellent setters and mothers.
Rhode Island Reds
Rhode Island Red chickens (commonly abbreviated RIR) is the other breed that both our grandparents had so we had nostalgic reasons for keeping them. They have proven to be a valuable asset to our flock. They were bred in the early 1900s in the state of Rhode Island and are on the Recovering list.
They’re heat and cold tolerant, good foragers, excellent layers of large brown eggs, friendly and are good meat birds. The roosters dress out between 8 – 9 pounds and hens between 6 – 7 pounds, on average.
The Speckled Sussex chicken is our favorite breed, but not by much. We find their disposition, productivity, beauty and broodiness unsurpassed. This bird was developed in Sussex County, England well over 100 years ago.
They lay large brown eggs, are heat and cold tolerant, good foragers, and excellent meat producers. The roosters dress out between 9 to 10 pounds and hens between 7 to 8 pounds, on average.
When we first began keeping them, they were on the Critical list. Now they’re on the Recovering list, but these birds can still be difficult to obtain. We lost our last Sussex to predators a couple of years ago and have been trying to re-establish them since. To do this, we pre-ordered our chicks in November to arrive in June.
It’s important to us to help preserve our heritage in the poultry, livestock, and seeds we use and reproduce here on the farm.
Do you raise heritage chicken breeds poultry? Which breeds? Why did you choose them?
Safe and Happy Journey
Rhonda and The Pack
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Extended Definition of a Heritage Chicken from The Livestock Conservancy
Chickens have been a part of the American diet since the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Since that time, different breeds have been developed to provide meat, eggs, and pleasure.
The American Poultry Association began defining breeds in 1873 and publishing the definitions in the Standard of Perfection. These Standard breeds were well adapted to outdoor production in various climatic regions. They were hearty, long-lived, and reproductively vital birds that provided an important source of protein to the growing population of the country until the mid-20th century. With the industrialization of chickens, many breeds were sidelined in preference to a few rapidly growing hybrids. The Livestock Conservancy now lists over three-dozen breeds of chickens in danger of extinction. Extinction of a breed would mean the irrevocable loss of the genetic resources and options it embodies.
Therefore, to draw attention to these endangered breeds, to support their long-term conservation, to support efforts to recover these breeds to historic levels of productivity, and to re-introduce these culinary and cultural treasures to the marketplace, The Livestock Conservancy is defining Heritage Chicken. Chickens must meet all of the following criteria to be marketed as Heritage.
Heritage Chicken must adhere to all the following:
- APA Standard Breed
Heritage Chicken must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed. Heritage Chicken must be produced and sired by an APA Standard breed. Heritage eggs must be laid by an APA Standard breed.
- Naturally mating
Heritage Chicken must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating. Chickens marketed as Heritage must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
- Long, productive outdoor lifespan
Heritage Chicken must have the genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life and thrive in the rigors of pasture-based, outdoor production systems. Breeding hens should be productive for 5-7 years and roosters for 3-5 years.
- Slow growth rate
Heritage Chicken must have a moderate to slow rate of growth, reaching appropriate market weight for the breed in no less than 16 weeks. This gives the chicken time to develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.
Chickens marketed as Heritage must include the variety and breed name on the label.
Terms like “heirloom,” “antique,” “old-fashioned,” and “old-timey” imply Heritage and are understood to be synonymous with the definition provided here.
Heritage Chicken Breeds from the Livestock Conservancy
|Crèvecoeur||Cubalaya||Andalusian||Brahma||Large Fowl American Game|
|Holland||Faverolle||Buckeye||Cochin||Manx Rumpy or Persian Rumpless|
|La Fleche||Houdan||Buttercup||Leghorn – Non-industrial||Saipan|
|Nankin||Old English Game||Cornish|
|Redcap||Rhode Island White||Delaware|
|Rhode Island Red –|