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Heritage Breed Chickens

By Kelly Klober

Finding the Best Fit for Your Farm

There are numerous breeds of chickens available to the modern day homestead. Of course what you ultimately choose will depend on many different factors! It seems a simple thing, to choose a chicken breed to raise but there is so much difference in breeds, quality, purpose, and location that it is not as cut and dried as it would seem. Within the various breeds are areas like egg production, egg color, temperament, meat production, broodiness, and survival skills in various situations, as well as personal preference for a certain coloring or pattern. So, then, the first thing is to identify why you are buying the poultry in the first place. Will you use them primarily as bug control, egg production, meat, or show? Do you want chickens that are more aggressive, say, if a coyote comes into the yard? Or, would you prefer a breed that is more gentle around children and needs more protection?

Does the look of the chicken make a difference to you? Do you have a lot of hawks? Traditional white chickens will get picked off much quicker by a hawk than will a dark patterned bird. Docile hens, like Buff Orpington, will cower down when a predator stalks them rather than try to seek shelter. A more aggressive breed, like a Dutch, might fare better with a dog but also chase your children pecking at their legs!

femail buff orpington

What is a “Heritage Breed”?

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy recently sought to set down a most exacting definition for “heritage” breed chickens. By their definition a “heritage chicken” is one “hatched from a heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated and with a long productive outdoor life.”

A “heritage egg” can then only be produced from one of the pure breeds meeting the above definition.

There is much merit in this definition although it does not include breeds like the Maran that meet the timeline and are recognized by poultry groups abroad, but not currently by the American Poultry Association (APA). Nor a breed like the Ameraucauna that did not receive its APA sanction until the 1970s. It may also raise questions about new colors or patterns to be added to existing breeds.

Ameraucauna hens

The American Poultry Association itself has very exacting criteria for recognizing new colors and varieties of large fowl breeds. And a part of poultry breed preservation work is restoring old colors, patterns, and breeds that have fallen by the way. I do feel confident that should any issues arise along these lines they will be resolved for the good of the breeds in question.

Two points in the extended definition that I view as very important are that the breeds must be “reproduced and genetically maintained” through natural mating and to reach a market weight at no less than 16 weeks of age. The natural matings must include both parent and grandparental generations, thus enforcing the value and predictability of purebred matings.

broiler hen
A Broiler chicken

There are many classic crossbreds that were developed from matings of purebred heritage birds and that were used widely on American farms. They were the product of fairly simple first generation crosses and easily repeatable in the countryside. The Indian River cross, made with the Delaware and New Hampshire breeds, pioneered the modern broiler trade.

The slow growth rate guideline recognizes not any particular shortcoming of the “heritage” breeds, but rather a long established truth that today’s “fast broilers” do not look, cook or taste like the meat birds of an earlier day.
The 16 weeks of growth assure adequate frame growth, the time to allow a natural pattern of muscle development, the size and age to range and forage more efficiently, and these few extra weeks produce poultry meat of better flavor and texture. Whether New Hampshire, Delaware, Rock or Wyandotte, purebred birds can fairly and efficiently compete with non-purebreds under these parameters.

Heritage Breeds Are Dual-Purpose Breeds

Birds that are good egg layers are often not good meat producers! However, heritage breeds are not genetically engineered to be specialized and so lay eggs as well are produce tender, delicious meat.

Leghorns are kept for egg production. They lay white eggs. They are able to forage for themselves and so are good for free range situations, although they do not go broody as well as some of the other breeds. Basically this means that they are not good about hatching their eggs if you want to raise chicks on your homestead. They also don’t produce a lot of meat.

illustration of plymouth rock barred chicken

Plymouth Rock is a heritage breed. As with most heritage breeds you will find that it is multipurpose. It is a good egg layer, a good brood hen, and produces a fair amount of meat. It is a docile breed.

Bantams lay tiny eggs that are the delight of my smaller children. Two of these minuscule eggs fried and on a plate with a toast triangle is a magical breakfast. The eggs are often colorful pastels. These birds are small and make good pets or show birds for children.

Holland is another breed on the critical list. This is currently one of the rarest of the heritage breeds and one of the few that lays white eggs.

illustration of rhode island red chicken

Rhode Island Red is another heritage breed that is dual purpose and lays abundant numbers of eggs and is probably one of the best dual purpose breeds for a small homestead.

Wyandottes are not particularly rare, however they are a heritage breed. I add these because the last chickens we raised (we now have Barred Rocks) were Golden Laced Wyandottes and they were beautiful!

Young Delaware Pullet

Delawares are excellent egg layers, a good dual-purpose breed. They are listed as critical on the American Livestock Conservancy list.

There is, of course, nothing in the world like the taste of your own farm fresh, organic eggs and meat. Chickens are an easy way to begin food production on the homestead and work a little closer to self-sufficiency. Be sure, when you are ordering your chicks, to have the vaccinated and then use nonmedicated feed. In this way you will not have to worry about residual medications in the eggs or meat. It is very relaxing to sit and watch chickens and for me, they are what puts the home in homestead!

Source: Talking Chicken