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Finding the Right Heritage Chicken for your Farm

By Leah Smith


Heritage breeds, like the Barred Plymouth Rock above, each have their own unique strengths.

Someone outside the world of chickens might think their only differences are in the color of their feathers and egg shells.  But over the last few decades, with the explosion of pastured poultry, homesteading and backyard chicken raising, more people are discovering the truth as general interest in chickens has grown.  Not only are there differences amongst the chickens themselves but also how best to manage them. Your location, the resources you have at hand, and the other activities that are part of your setup, no matter its size, all impact just how to best manage your flock, and just what kind of flock it should be.


Ancestral Avians?

Our chicken flock always consists of a combination of heritage hens.  First things first — what does it mean to be a heritage chicken?  Heirloom or heritage breeds have been defined by the American Poultry Association (APA) as having been developed before 1950, possessing a slow growth rate, and having the ability to mate naturally and live a long out-of-doors life.

Beyond this definition, what does it mean to be a heritage chicken? It helps to compare them to the industrial/commercial chicken breeds; they are “specialized,” though perhaps limited would be a better description. Commercial breeds produce a meaty carcass (this is the Cornish Cross) or a high volume of eggs (the White Leghorn hybrid); one or the other, and they do it very well. But that is it. Heritage breeds possess other traits (bred out of the commercial clucker lines) that you may find desirable. These include hardiness, adaptability, foraging skills, broodiness and mellow dispositions. Additionally, many of them have the ability to produce a quantity of eggs and a carcass suitable for the table. Every heritage breed does not possess each trait to an equal extent; part of the delight of having breeds is you get to pick the ones that will work best for you. You get to choose!

The Usual Suspects

There are right around 50 breeds of heritage chickens — that is standards not bantams, and breeds not varieties. Most breeds have more than one color, sometimes several. Some you have probably heard of before, like the New Hampshire or Black Australorp. Others might sound less familiar; ever heard of a Speckled Sussex or a Maran? We purchase our hens yearly, and track their ages in our commingled flock by rotating the breed received (thus commingled). Our all-time favorites are the Rhode Island Red, Light Brahma, Barred Plymouth Rock and Buff Orpington.  You can readily source information about any breed you wish, but just to illustrate their diversity, I have listed some of the more disparate breeds and their characteristics in Table 1.  Note that four of them are specified to variety.

TABLE 1: SOME HERITAGE CHICKENS

HERITAGE CHICKENCHARACTERISTICS
AnconaWhite eggs, Winter layer, Hardy, Active
Black MinorcaLarge white eggs, Forager, For warmer climates
Buff OrpingtonDual-purpose, Winter layer, Delicious meat, Broodiness, Mellow
Jersey GiantDual-purpose, LARGE carcass, SLOW growth, Winter layer
Rhode Island RedDual-purpose, Adaptable, Great all-around
Speckled SussexDual-purpose, Broodiness, Mellow, Beautiful!

Homestead Hens

Heritage chickens have something of the “Jack of all trades” about them. They can lay eggs and provide meat; hatch chicks and defend/hide themselves from predators up to a point (whether by evasion, aggression or camouflage); beat the heat of summer and keep their wattles warm in winter; remove insects from your orchard or your freshly turned garden plots; produce fertilizer and turn your compost pile; turn overproduction from your garden into the aforementioned eggs and meat; pick up the fallen grain after harvest in your fields and “clean up” after the cows on pasture; and delight your family with their attractive appearances, genial personalities, and colorful egg shells.  Basically, they can thrive in a multi-faceted way.

There is no need to question if heritage breeds deserve a place on your homestead; homesteads are what they were bred for.  But farmers that raise chickens in larger quantities will question if they can raise heritage breeds and make money doing so because of the additional costs of raising them.  These additional costs tend to derive from the fact that they have to be kept longer before their carcasses are up to weight for meat production and in order to have laid their full potential in eggs; this means more feed, more watering, and, depending on your setup, items like bedding, supplemental light, and time spent in management.

When questioning whether to raise heritage breeds on a larger scale, research available markets.  You will produce a superior product, but your customer base may need to be educated about more assertive flavors or special kitchen preparation techniques.  Are there customers and are you willing to educate them?  But much more important, is there a gap they can fill in your farm ecosystem? 

Heritage chickens may need to be kept longer than commercial breeds, but compare the differences of having chickens out on pasture as opposed to having them maintained in a controlled environment.  Commercial breeds often require antibiotics and other treatments to maintain their health, even for their short lives; that’s a cost.  Heritage breeds can be out and foraging, finding a part of their own rations; that’s a savings. As interest in permaculture and regenerative agriculture grows and is taking place on larger scales, it will be discovered that they have a role to play in these situations. They truly pay off when allowed to take part in a whole farm ecosystem, where they can mitigate if not remove their additional costs.

On our homestead, we keep each “generation” of laying hens for four years. Their principle feed is not laying mash; in fact, they rarely receive it.  With field crops on the property, they receive our grain plus the trimmings from our garden plus appropriate scraps from the house plus any insect they care to gather from the property (they eliminated our rhubarb curculio problem) plus surplus milk from the cows when available. I offer them straight milk, milk mixed with feed, or yogurt, depending.  I have read that chickens enjoy goat milk just the same, and have even seen one man estimate that his feed bills were cut in half by giving a milk/feed mixture to his flock.  In the past, spent laying hens were regularly fed milk to put on weight and sent to slaughter as prime table meat.  Believe me, milk-fed chickens do taste exceptional and could be a treat for your family or for select customers.

I sprout grain for them, which they consider a true delight. We grow large-variety sunflowers in the garden for the benefit of the honey bees and other pollinators, and the harvest of protein-rich seeds also keeps the chickens happy.  We also have hay fields, and feeding clover hay is a good way to busy chickens on a winter day.

If you have your mind on further DIY projects to diversify feed and save money, remember chickens require less of a nutritionally dense grain like spelt than wheat or oats.  Camelina, on the other hand, is a member of the Brassica family that is rich in protein and possesses high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as being a very drought tolerant plant; another interesting crop option.  And nutrients are also more bioavailable if you ferment feed (again, they require less).   

When Life Gives You Lemons…

You ask what is wrong with lemons! Do heritage chicken drawbacks have to be drawbacks?  They produce eggs more slowly, but with the ability to live longer lives they can produce eggs for a longer time while producing manure, disturbing fly life cycles in the cow pasture, turning compost, you name it.  And they produce tastier eggs and meat, which you may be able to charge more for; our eggs aren’t cheap and our customers say they are worth it. 

To be honest, we don’t find our “limited” egg supply a problem.  As primarily vegetable producers, our eggs have acted as an addition to our sales stream; we wouldn’t want them to become such that we have to seek new markets for more eggs, as that just isn’t what we want to do.  When you have to start spending more time in finding new markets, or selling in larger quantities at wholesale prices, you may find there is more than one way to loose money on eggs!

Heritage chicken breeds offer you options. You don’t have to follow a formula, as there is no formula. Consider your goals, pick breeds based on their unique characteristics, and see if you can produce some synergy in your operation amongst your flock and your other pursuits. And while you’re at it, check in with the Livestock Conservancy to see where each breed is categorized as facing extinction, as most of them are. You never know when those genetics will come in handy.

Leah Smith works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009). She has been involved in home and market gardening since she was very young. After graduating from Michigan State University, Leah returned home to continue farming and writing.