The Old is New Again

Neglected breeds get modern appreciation

The Old is New Again

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Poultry have adapted to the needs of their breeders over the centuries. Breeds that were once important and influential lost ground over time. In the late 20th century, advances in genetics pointed to the importance of preserving that genetic stock. The Livestock Conservancy and poultry breeders alike are working to nurture breeds of chickens that, in some cases, slipped down to a meager few flocks.  

“Restoring a breed is a long-term commitment,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior program director for The Livestock Conservancy. “It takes time and resources. If it was easy, everybody would do it.” 

Genetics are crucial 

While the breeds of the past were coveted for their production qualities of meat and eggs, 21st-century flock keepers also value genetic preservation and recognize the importance of biodiversity. Breeders are always choosing which traits to emphasize over others. 

Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas sees underlying genetic issues threatening modern flocks. He offers the Covid pandemic as a parallel to the highly pathogenic Avian Influenza epidemic currently crossing the country. Morbid obesity, diabetes, and compromised immune systems predisposed people to serious illness from Covid. 

Adding the limitation of total confinement for poultry, “That’s exactly what’s wrong with the industrial genetics,” he said. “All the biosecurity these plants say they’ve got isn’t doing a damn bit of good. It’s the genetics.” 

“Balance, balance, balance,” he said of the principles that guide him in genetic selection for breeding. “The three important characteristics are skeletal, immunity, and reproduction. It’s no one single gene. It’s genetic selection of a type.” 

Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priorities 

The Livestock Conservancy champions all species of livestock, including four poultry species: Chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Their Conservation Priority Lists classify breeds into five levels of concern: Critical, Threatened, Watch, Recovering, and Study. All breeds need constant attention, to keep them genetically diverse and vigorous. When numbers are low, though, TLC encourages breeders to focus on supporting breed improvement. 

Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy, has spearheaded projects to restore Buckeye and Crevecoeur chickens and heritage turkeys. Focusing on those breeds with special projects has succeeded in breed improvements and increased flocks and the total number of birds.  

The dual-purpose Buckeye is a friendly bird and active addition to any flock. 
[Photo credit] Cavan/Adobestock 

In the case of the Buckeye, the project led to the development of a master-breeder program “that has set the gold standard for expansion and selection of rare chicken breeds,” according to the website. Support and guidance for breeders are important to sustaining flocks. The breeders who keep flocks of breeds that have become rare are as rare as the birds they keep. 

The heritage turkey project, over the decade from 1997-2007, saw the population of breeding turkeys increase from 1,335 to over 10,000. “The work is not done, but the 17 naturally mating varieties no longer teeter on the brink of extinction,” according to the website.  

Crevecoeurs, as reported in the 2020 Backyard Poultry article Crèvecoeur Chicken: Conserving a Historic Breed in 2020, have benefited from the spotlight of a conservation project. From fewer than 100 breeding birds when Ms. Beranger started the project in 2013, TLC now counts over 800. Both Buckeyes and Crevecoeurs have moved from Critical to Threatened on the Conservation Priority List.  

“It takes time and resources. If it was easy, everybody would do it.” 

Crevecoeurs are non-sitters, so Connie Abeln in Missouri keeps Nankins (Threatened) as broody hens for them and her Delawares (Watch). The Nankin Club disbanded due to lack of interest in the past year, but breeders continue to interact on the Facebook page.  

Good Shepherd Conservancy  

Mr. Reese, a national leader in heritage turkey production, also raises six breeds of chickens: Barred Plymouth Rock (Recovering), New Hampshire (Threatened), Rhode Island White (Threatened), Cornish (Threatened), Leghorn (Recovering), and Minorca (Threatened). His flocks are certified as meeting American Poultry Association Standards. That certification allows him to use it on his label, giving his products a marketing advantage. 

“That’s real important to me,” he said. “I encourage that.” 

Mr. Reese’s mission is to restore Standard breeds by increasing the number of birds being raised, profitably, on farms across the country. Supporting farmers who want to raise Standard breeds serves as a market alternative to factory farm chicken. 

“We need to re-think farming, re-think production,” he said. “Part of what I want the conservancy to do is teach the economics.” 

On his farm, he collects and sells 50-100 dozen eggs a week. That offsets the feed bill, so he takes his profit from the broilers. 

“The farmers raising turkeys for me all make an extra $20,000 annually for six to seven months’ work,” he said. “It’s good income.” 

Standard Breeds 

Mr. Reese established The Good Shepherd Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, to “safeguard biodiversity through the use of Standardbred poultry and historical purebred lines of livestock for agricultural use.” He advises that the first thing to do is join the American Poultry Association, and work only with Standard breeds. The six breeds he keeps are representative of the historic breeds that constituted the meat market from 1880-1950.  

The APA was founded in 1873. The poultry business supported many special interest poultry magazines during those years. Mr. Reese studies them to see what breeders were raising and what was selling. Federal and state agriculture publications tracked poultry products. The Barred Rock stood out as the most popular. 

“They are such a reliable, consistent bird, they were highly prized,” he said. “Farmers liked them because they were so hardy and adapted to life on the farm. Their barred feather pattern is ideal camouflage.”  

E.B. Thompson, who served as APA president from 1912 to1914, dominated poultry shows with his Barred Rocks. His birds swept the top prizes at the Madison Square Garden show in 1897 and continued through 1923. In 1916, he showed 97 of the 111 Barred Rocks in the show.  

Many other breeds, once popular and advertised by their proud breeders, are declining.

In 1908, an eager buyer offered Charles H. Wells of Connecticut $1,000 for his sensational winning Barred Rock pullet, Fluffy Ruffles. Mr. Wells turned it down. 

GS Conservancy Center 

Construction has begun on the 6,000-square foot barn that will house the Good Shepherd Conservancy Center Welcome Center. In April, the conservancy received a $75,000 David Nutt Grant from the McPherson County Community Foundation to continue work on the Welcome Center. Future buildings include the Grand Exhibition Barn, Reception Hall, and Guesthouse. 

“The GSCC will be a groundbreaking cultural landmark that draws a diverse new range of visitors to the area by anointing it as the center of our nationwide preservation effort,” Jed Greenberg said in an email. 

Pure Bred Black Breasted Red Cubalaya Rooster cockerel with gorgeuos drop tail.

Declining breeds 

Many other breeds, once popular and advertised by their proud breeders, are declining. They cover a wide range of colors, feathering, combs, and production qualities. Holland, Cubalaya, Java, Campine, Houdan, La Fleche, Malay, Redcap, Sebright, Sultan, White-Faced Black Spanish, Aseel, Buttercup, Catalana, Shamo, and Yokohama chickens are all classified as Critical on The Livestock Conservancy Conservation Priority List.  

All these breeds, and others, need the attention and dedication of thoughtful breeders. If you aren’t in a position to make that long-term commitment, consider how you can support breeders who are doing that work through financial support, poultry shows, and social media. It will take all the goodwill poultry fanciers can generate to save them all.  

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens, available through the Countryside store, and the Backyard Field Guide to Chickens, available on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store. 

Originally published in the August/September 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *