Heritage chicken breeds are vital to the future of all breeds of chickens. What are heritage chicken breeds? You may be asking this question if you start looking at different breeds of chickens to start a backyard flock. The distinction is important. According to The Livestock Conservancy, a heritage chicken is hatched from a heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century. It is slow growing and naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life. All of our hybrid chicken breeds are the result of mating between heritage chicken breeds.
How do Heritage Chicken Breeds Make a Hybrid Chicken?
So, what are the advantages of a hybrid chicken? A hybrid chicken breed has the possibility of possessing the best qualities of all the heritage breeds in its genetic makeup. Do you want a consistently high production egg layer for an egg business? The crosses between some of the traditional heritage egg laying breeds have resulted in hybrid breeds that come into lay early. In addition, they lay nearly every day and reliably produce large, delicious eggs.
Great, right? Not always. The problems come in later. When these hybrid breeds are bred back to another in the flock or from another flock the characteristics do not breed true. The entire genetic makeup of the hybrid can yield undesirable traits, too. The genetic material is further watered down by further breeding. A knowledgeable breeder would take this into consideration. Introducing new breeding stock to strengthen the hybrid breed brings new vigor to the cross.
In addition to not breeding true, the hybrid breeds are weaker in the areas of longevity, and resistance to disease. Traits that are inherent in a heritage breed are not reliably passed on when making hybrid chickens. The super egg laying hens often start off well. They grow fast, begin egg laying early and all seems great. My experience with hybrids has shown that they rarely live much past a few early years of production, compared to their heritage breed flock members.
Raising Heritage Chicken Breeds
Heritage chicken breeds naturally reproduce true to the breed standards. Buying egg layer breeding stock from a certified breeder further ensures that you will have the desired breed characteristics. With heritage chicken breeds, each breed has specific qualities. Feather size and colors, eggshell color, and comb and wattle size and shape are breed specific traits.
The History of Heritage Breeds in Rural Life
Many heritage breeds were kept on small farms, because of their dual-purpose of meat and egg production. Dual-purpose heritage breed chickens are hardy and adaptable to foraging situations. As family farms decreased in our country, many chicken breeds began to die out.
Dual-purpose heritage chicken breeds had little purpose in a confined agriculture egg production facility. These hens required too much food to make keeping them in a confined space profitable. Lighter commercial chicken breeds were favored by the intensive confined agricultural model. Hybrid chicken breeds were the answer. They had higher egg production and faster growth, on less feed. The downside of this form of poultry production is a lack of vigor, weather tolerance and lower ability or instinct to forage for food.
Another concern arises when looking into industrial hatchery breeding practices. The use of flock mating instead of specific selection based on breed qualities further weakens the gene pool. It is important to keep the gene pool fresh with additional, high-quality roosters. Not all poultry breeders adhere to this practice.
The Livestock Conservancy
Many of the heritage chicken breeds are in danger of disappearing. The Livestock Conservancy follows the requirements for breed standards. Small hatcheries are finding success and improvement following the breeding methods used by The Livestock Conservancy.
Some breed conservationists believe that we should concentrate our flocks to one or two separate groups of heritage chickens. We would commit to the improvement of the breed as we take care of the needs of our homesteads. Homesteaders who raise heritage chicken breeds are able to self-sustain a hardy dual-purpose flock. The addition of a new rooster occasionally helps to strengthen the flock’s breed characteristics.
What to Consider When Breeding Heritage Chickens
First, choose your heritage chicken breed or breeds. Make your choice based on your egg or meat requirements, along with the appearance of the breed. Carefully map out how the breeding pairs will be set up. Take care to choose from different bloodlines. Add unrelated roosters to your flock occasionally to keep the bloodlines diverse. The Livestock Conservancy notes that this can be a challenge when a breed reaches the critical status. The recommendation at that point is to concentrate on increasing breed population. Once the population increases, then focus on the breed standards.
The Livestock Conservancy has breeds of heritage chickens on a watchlist. It lists the following heritage breeds as critical: Campine, Crevecoeur, Holland, La Fleche, Malay, Modern Game, Nankin, Redcap, Spanish, Sultan, Yokohama. In addition, the Lakenvelder, Old English Game, Icelandic, and Favorelle are on the Threatened listing.
The Sussex breed is currently on the Recovering list. Lately, it has gained popularity among backyard chicken keepers, particularly the eye-catching Speckled Sussex. The Sussex is an ancient breed. In the early 1900s, the Sussex chickens were close to extinct. A few breeders committed to bringing the breed standards back and currently, the breed is recovering. Sussex hens are excellent for supplying eggs. They are considered an excellent breed for meat.
It may surprise you to read that the Barred Plymouth Rock is also on the recovering list. Plymouth Rocks were developed in America in the early 1800s. At one point they almost dropped from existence. This is an excellent farm chicken that lays an average of 200 large brown eggs per year. Rocks are cold hardy, and large. Their size makes them a good meat bird.
The Black Australorp traces its roots back to the Black Orpingtons shipped to Australian chicken breeders in the 1800’s. While the Orpington was being developed to largely provide meat, at that time, the Australian poultry breeders concentrated on the high egg production. The Australorp lays a large, brown egg. Surprisingly, as the breed developed, the Black Australorp did not retain the same look as the Orpington.
Watch list entries include the Jersey Giant breed, among the largest purebred chickens. Another wonderful dual-purpose breed, although it does take up to nine months to reach full size. Andalusians are also on the watch list. The Andalusians are great foraging chickens of presumed Spanish descent. The breed lays a large white egg.
The traditional Rhode Island Red has an interesting story. This superb egg laying breed also had an endangered period. The breed has shown a decline in the older, darker, original type. Commercial breeders bred them to be smaller and more efficient at egg production. This is a long way from the original standard. The breed developers originally wanted a meat bird that laid a lot of eggs.
Other heritage chicken breeds for you to consider include the Java, Sebright, Delaware, Dominiques, and Dorkings. The Brahma and Cochin breeds are two favorite large breeds. They both seem to be making a comeback in popularity.
Any chicken worth its weight will eat bugs, forage for tasty greens, and lay eggs. Both heritage chicken breeds and hybrid breeds will produce meat, too. The question is which breeds will do the tasks better, stay healthier while being reliable and sustainable. You can always stick with proven winners such as Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons. Those are some of the most commonly raised chickens for backyards. Choosing flock birds or breeding stock from a small, certified heritage breeder helps ensure the future of the breed.
Ask yourself what your main goals are in raising chickens. If the traits are found in heritage chicken breeds, consider those birds as you start your backyard flock.
Do you have heritage chicken breeds in your flock? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.