Heritage Poultry

How a Heritage Turkey Farm or Chicken Flock Preserves the Future

Heritage Poultry

Some of us raise poultry for fun. Others want eggs or meat. But some take activism further and save heritage poultry breeds from extinction.

Modern times and consumerism have altered how we view poultry. For thousands of years, we took what nature gave us, breeding poultry for better meat or more eggs, but we worked within nature’s limitations. Sustainable breeds produced more of the same. We didn’t just want the meat; we wanted to improve the breed so it could keep producing meat for further generations. And it didn’t make sense to produce a bird that couldn’t breed naturally or hatch its own eggs because we depended on nature to do what she did best.

That changed in the 1960s.

Selective breeding had burgeoned about a century ago, beginning with pedigrees for heritage chicken breeds. Poultry magazines came into print, showcasing beautiful cockerels and pullets. This new found interest in bigger, better breeds triggered a desire for more meat. A hybrid cross of a naturally double-breasted Cornish male and a white Plymouth Rock pullet was introduced in the 1930’s. About the same time, broad-breasted turkey varieties replaced all other turkey breeds. By 1960, the most popular breeds of meat chickens and turkeys were so disproportionate that they could not reproduce on their own.

It didn’t take long for heritage farmers to agree that something was wrong with this system. The Livestock Conservancy was started in 1977, first as the American Minor Breeds Conservancy then as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They work to keep genetic resources secure and available, protecting the valuable traits of healthy livestock in addition to preserving our history and heritage. And through their tireless work they’ve made a difference.

Heritage Chicken Breeds

Perhaps, in the 1960s, people realized that a chicken which couldn’t reproduce was a bad thing. Many Americans still had direct links to their homestead heritages with grandparents who farmed. But within 20 years, then 40, Americans became more divorced from the land and where their food comes from.

If you poll urbanites who do not raise backyard chickens or participate in the production of their own meat, you’ll realize how little they know about the poultry industry. It’s common to find people who believe supermarket eggs don’t come from animals, that brown eggs are healthier, and that white eggs are bleached and processed. Or that eggs from a farm are always fertile. Many believe that large supermarket broilers are genetically modified or pumped full of hormones to attain their size. They put faith in labels such as free range or cage free, know nothing about beak trimming and the necessity of antibiotics in specific situations. And if you tell them that the average supermarket chicken is alive only six weeks, they are aghast.

But the realities of what is humane and normal rarely falls within consumers’ broad understanding. Few people know that, between 1925 and 2005, the time required for a meat chicken to top three pounds decreased from four months to thirty days. Or that humane treatment isn’t so much about how much space a chicken has but about whether it will be able to walk during the last few weeks of its short life. Farm-fresh labels never tell consumers how many broilers died before butcher, of ascites or cardiovascular problems, compared to how many made it to the supermarket.

Meat from Cornish cross chickens is tender and plentiful, lighter in flavor. Cheaper. To a consumer who is uneducated about animal husbandry, those traits are important. If they never have a chance to compare the lives of heritage chicken breeds to hybrid chicken crosses, they’re going to select the one that tastes better and costs less.

Heritage chicken breeds must meet the following qualifications to be considered heritage: Their parent or grandparent stock must have been recognized by the American Poultry Association prior to the mid-20th century, about the same time that large-breasted hybrids took hold. They must reproduce naturally. The breed must have the genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life outside of a cage or barn, with hens productive five to seven years and roosters for three to five years. Also, they must have a slow growth rate, reaching market weight after sixteen weeks of age. Slow growth and genetic strength eliminate most of the health issues associated with modern broilers.

Meat chickens do exist within the heritage definition. Brahma chickens reach nine to twelve pounds at maturity and Jersey Giants reach between ten to thirteen, though they take much longer than six weeks to get there. Dual-purpose birds are a healthy answer to farmers’ growing needs for both meat and eggs. Delawares and Rhode Island Red chickens are both dual-purpose heritage chicken breeds with health and vigor.

Farmers raising heritage breeds do need to take factors into consideration. The feed-to-meat ratio of a dual purpose breed isn’t nearly as favorable as that of a broiler. Sleek and stunning Blue Andalusian chickens produce large white eggs comparable to battery cage Leghorns, but they’re loud and antisocial birds with wild instincts. Icelandic chickens can be hard to find if you don’t have access to a breeder. Because heritage chicken breeds can fly and roost as their ancestors did, this leads to leaner and tougher meat. They need much more room.

A Russian Orloff hen

Heritage Turkey Breeds

For more than 35 years, 280 million turkeys have been produced in North America each year. Most of them are a variation of Broad Breasted White, a bird with over 70% of its mass in its breast. The breast is so big the bird has to be artificially inseminated. Both toms and hens are butchered young because a mature bird can top fifty pounds, slipping tendons and breaking legs. When this bird was introduced into the commercial turkey market, most other breeds faded in numbers.

By 1997, almost all other turkey breeds were in danger of extinction. The Livestock Conservancy found fewer than 1,500 total breeding birds left in the United States. That number included all heritage breeds, including Blue Slate turkeys and Bourbon Reds. The Narragansett breed had fewer than a dozen remaining. It seemed heritage turkeys were beyond hope.

Several activism groups took hold and fought hard, including Slow Food USA, the Livestock Conservancy, and a few heritage poultry societies and enthusiasts. Through media exposure and focusing on keeping strains genetically pure, the idea of heritage turkeys took hold again. Restaurants and consumers wanted to purchase the birds to preserve the breed rather than focusing on how much meat they could get for the price. It became vogue to support heritage breeds.

Now, though over 200 million industrial turkeys are Broad-Breasted White, about 25,000 heritage birds are raised each year for commercial consumption. The numbers had increased 200% between 1997 and 2003. By 2006, the number of breeding birds had risen from 1,500 to 8,800.

Criteria for a heritage turkey breed are similar to that of heritage chicken breeds, with one exception: The specific breed does not have to date back to the mid-20th century. This allows for new heritage turkey varieties to still classify. The White Holland, which was accepted by the American Poultry Association in 1874, stands beside Chocolate Dapple and Silver Auburn under the same classification.

Still on the “critical” list are Chocolate, Beltsville Small White, Jersey Buff, Lavender, and Midget White. Narragansett and White Holland are still threatened. Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, Black, Slate, and Standard Bronze sit on the watch list.

Raising heritage turkeys has many rewards. Farmers report the birds are more intelligent than industrial Broad Breasted varieties and chefs claim they are more flavorful. Heritage turkeys need much more room because they can fly. They can perch into adulthood and enter a breeding season. Poults are more expensive than standard feed-store stock and the rarest breeds must be ordered from long distances. Farmers raising heritage turkeys should have more land and a large, secure run to protect birds from predators.

Female Welsh harlequin ducks

Heritage Ducks and Geese

Though infertile industrial versions don’t compete with ducks and geese, heritage breeds are in danger because waterfowl are becoming less popular for both meat and eggs. They still hold a strong place in Southeast Asia but in the Western world, chicken reins as a leaner meat that is easier to keep confined. Duck eggs are popular in Europe but rarely seen within American supermarkets even though people who are allergic to chicken eggs are often able to consume duck eggs.

Farms and homesteads often keep geese as “watch dogs,” but consumption of goose meat and eggs has declined as well. Turkeys and ham have replaced the Christmas goose and it’s rare to find the bird in conventional supermarkets. Even down comforters lose popularity against cheaper synthetic fibers.

Among the critically endangered waterfowl are the most beautiful. Ancona and Magpie ducks are pied black and white. Welsh Harlequins are among the calmest and produce more eggs per year than most heritage chicken breeds. In the year 2000, a waterfowl census reported only 128 breeding Silver Appleyard ducks existed in North America. The two-millennia-old breed of Roman geese is in crucial status. Ruffle-feathered Sebastapol geese are threatened.

Saving the Species

It takes more land, feed, and money to raise heritage breeds. But to a growing number of farmers, the compromises are worth it. Some breeds have moved from “critical” status to “threatened” or “watch.” Activism is growing. Backyard poultry owners, now more aware of the danger of extinction, choose to raise heritage poultry.

Even if you have no roosters and don’t intend to incubate eggs, purchasing heritage poultry saves them from extinction in the same way that purchasing rare seeds and eating the vegetables saves plant varieties. If consumers show more demand for rare breeds, breeders will introduce more hens to roosters. They’ll incubate more eggs. If Russian Orloffs reach vogue status among hobby farmers, the breed may leave critical status behind.

Find healthy and genetically strong poultry through a Breeder’s Directory. Keep males and females, if you can, and isolate them during breeding season to keep lines pure. If you cannot keep the males, purchase females from breeders to strut among your flock. Focus on the birds with the best traits, avoiding hatcheries or breeders which propagate weaker lines rather than concentrating on developing genetic strength. Discuss heritage poultry breeds on social media. Share this article with other poultry enthusiasts to build interest within your community.

Just as the Livestock Conservancy helped bring rare turkeys from near-extinction, you can assist the efforts within your own flock or community. Add heritage breeds to your flock or adopt critically endangered ducks. Work within your means to save species.

Do you own heritage chicken breeds or other types of heritage poultry?

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