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Why raise heritage breeds?

Why raise heritage breeds?

 

 

From left to right: a Partridge Silkie bantam,

an American Dominique hen with "barred" color pattern, and

a Black-tail Buff Japanese bantam hen.

 

            Whether you are a novice poultry keeper just beginning your journey in the world of chickens or an experienced breeder, you've probably heard the term, “Heritage Breed”. What is a “Heritage Breed”? A “Heritage Breed” is a term for an old-time or non-hybrid breed of chicken. Other terms that are sometimes used are “Heirloom” or “Old-fashioned”. When heritage-breed chicks are hatched, they will genetically be like their parents. In a hybrid chicken the offspring is variable and will not always resemble the parents.

The other main group of chickens we have today could be called “Industrial”, or modern production breeds. These breeds are used in intensive production systems to produce our grocery-store meat and eggs.

            Heritage and “Industrial” breeds have the same basic needs: Both require good ventilation, dry housing, fresh feed and water. But that is where the similarities end.

            Modern Industrial breeds include breeds such as the Production White Leghorn and the infamous Cornish “X” or “Cross” used for meat. Though they produce lots of eggs and meat in a short amount of time, it comes at a cost. Breeders have selected for the production of eggs and meat to the exclusion of most other traits, and this not only shortens their life-span but puts these birds at a disadvantage outside in your backyard in a natural, more wild environment.

            Industrial laying hens are very skittish. This does not necessarily make them less susceptible to predation. Rather, it makes them less pleasant for humans to work with, and birds that are always scared and stressed are more likely to get sick. They are also often white, making them an easier target for predators. And though it is true they lay huge amounts of large eggs, they spend more time eating from the feed trough than they do foraging for their own food. Finally, their productive lifespans generally peak at about a year and are pretty well over by 2 years.

            Industrial meat breeds are much the same. They are generally white, making them an easier target for predators. They are excellent converters of feed to meat but are unmotivated to forage, much like the industrial egg layers, and end up eating from the feed trough. Industrialized meat chickens are also prone to health issues and physical deformities due to their high rate of growth. If not slaughtered at 6 weeks, these giants will continue to grow so fast they usually succumb to cancer or internal problems before they would ever become fertile and lay eggs.

            There are hundreds of heritage breeds, and within these breeds thousands of colors, or “varieties”. Each breed varies, and their traits vary too. Many are dual-purpose, good producers of both meat and eggs. If you do a little research you will be sure to find a breed that fits your needs and wants, whether it be in their temperament, looks, hardiness, production or some combination.

            In general, most heritage breeds are calmer than industrial ones, and they are definitely more adaptable. They love to scratch and search for their own food and given the opportunity will not hesitate to do so. Most are better-camouflaged, coming in many color patterns that are more subtle and blend in better with their surroundings than plain white. Sometimes a breed is raised just for it's colorful plumage or a unique trait, like long tails, large combs or feather “crests” on their head.

            Heritage laying breeds can lay almost as well as an industrial breed, and have longer productive lifespans. Their production will gradually start to decline after 2-3 years, but they will continue laying for up to six years or more. Most heritage breeds also retain the “broodiness” trait, something that industrial breeds no longer have. This means that a hen will decide to “go broody” and sit on eggs to hatch them. To some people there is no better way to raise chicks than too let the mother hen do it. Some say the resulting chicks are stronger and healthier as well. Heritage breeds will mate naturally and are generally fertile, unlike some industrial breeds which require artificial insemination.

            Heritage breed cockerels can be grown for meat, and though they won't weigh as much as an industrial breed, they can be butchered anywhere from 2-4 months on, instead of 6 weeks, and still be tender. After this they can be stewed or slow-cooked. An advantage to heritage meat birds is that, like with layers, they will forage a large amount of their own food. And you cannot beat the flavor!

            Heritage breeds adapt to both the cold and the heat pretty well, with the exception of a handful of breeds with ornamental traits such as over-sized combs or “hard” (meager) feathering. Most heritage breeds are more resistant to disease as well. Industrial breed birds often have weaker immune systems, even in a natural setting.

            In conclusion, modern industrial breeds will produce extremely high numbers of eggs and meat, but this is offset by their skittishness and inability to adapt and perform well in a natural, backyard setting. They are not an ideal choice for someone looking for a sustainable, long-lived and possibly beautiful flock of birds.

            Heritage breeds, on the other hand, can produce large amounts of eggs and meat for less input in time, feed and equipment, and they are easier to raise. They want to forage and scratch in a backyard setting. They will easily adapt to pretty much any environment they are put in. They reproduce easily and on their own and most breeds are not as skittish as an industrial breed. So why choose anything else? With a growing number of breeders raising and breeding these rare chickens, they are very easy to find and get started with.

Left: White phoenix bantam hens in the foreground and beautiful Silver/Gold Birchen phoenix roosters.

Right: A black phoenix hen - like a lot of heritage breeds she blends in well with her surroundings.

 

 

 

 

Comments (18)

Nice article. I have a Speckled Sussex which I believe is considered a rare or heritage breed. I have been considering focusing on the heritage breeds only in the future and it is nice to see that others are already doing that. Good luck to you.
Interesting, my white leghorns are the opposite. They only eat from the feeder when the day begins, ends, or they aren't finding anything but they WANT to be out to forage. They're also more willing to let me pick them up. The funny thing is that a hawk tried at my younger EE and cochin. The EE is not a heritage but I assume cochins are, mine is barred. The leghorns are much older and have never dealt with hawks.
Great article. My plan is to slowly (because of price) move into having an only Heritage breed flock. Breeding them and raising cockerels for meat and pullets for eggs. Also another good point is alot of Heritage breed chickens have a tendency for going broody which in the case of the person who doesn't have or doesn't want to use an incubator they can still produce enough chicks to keep the flock going. Again, great article!!
Thanks for the article!
Good job, thanks!
Not sure about your experience with leghorns, though my brown leghorn WAS super skiddish, but she LIVED in the words. Not sure if I even ever fed her or housed her - she lived in the woods, literally! I never got any eggs either, haha. Great article, though! I can pretty much agree with you on everything, I think my leghorn happened to be a 'special' girl.
Leghorns are "heritage breeds." There is no breed called "Production White Leghorn." The White Leghorn breed is just used for production because they lay many eggs. You could say production strains of White Leghorns are used in industrial operations.
"Industrial laying hens are very skittish." Leghorns tend to be flighty as a breed. But the Sex Link hybrids used for production are not skittish.
"And though it is true they lay huge amounts of large eggs, they spend more time eating from the feed trough than they do foraging for their own food."
Leghorns have the best feed-to-egg ratio, and Leghorns are great foragers.
There are many problems with this article.
Thanks for all the kind comments, glad you all enjoyed the article!
 
to Bullitt: Yes, a Leghorn is a heritage breed. But the Leghorn that is used in laying houses has been so highly developed and refined by modern-day breeders the difference is night and day between them and "un-improved" Leghorn strains. You could not sell a production Leghorn as a show bird and expect anyone to take you seriously. You could not expect a show or un-improved Leghorn to produce the quantity of one vehemently selected for production and nothing else. There is a difference, and if you ever actually raise Production Leghorns and un-improved Leghorns the difference is obvious.
 
"Sex link hybrids used for production are not skittish". The commercial egg industry is based 95% on egg-strains of Leghorn, to which I am referring. Sex-links are rarely used in the industrialized production system I am addressing in my article. When I say rarely, it still means hundreds of thousands of birds, but I was referring to Leghorns and the more-commonly used white egg (leghorn derived) hybrids in my article, I can see where I should have made that more clear. Since you brought it up, Sex-links are a lot calmer, but when compared to Dominiques or another heritage breed of equal proportions (size, etc) I have found the heritage breeds to be a lot calmer. My Dominiques also lay nearly as well as many brown-egg hybrids I have experienced, and to me the Dominique's beauty, better foraging and resistance to predators compared to sex-links far outweighs the yearly several-dozen egg difference.
 
Industrial production birds have a better feed-to-egg/meat ratio, but it comes at a higher cost. To put it simply, they need to consume more in a smaller amount of time in order to produce that larger number of eggs or meat. While I have no doubt un-improved Leghorn strains are just as adept as any other heritage breed at foraging, the production strains are no doubt disadvantaged. They suck at it. I have seen both broilers and layers (industrial type) ignore earthworms and leave scratch to move on to the feed trough where they proceed to stand and fill. Whereas my heritage breeds in the same flock spend little time on the processed food and spend most of their day scratching and roaming a much larger area. My heritage breeds cover roughly 4 acres, while the industrial production breeds I've had have only ever covered a quarter of that, and remain around the coop spending their time there, foraging over the same ground. White industrial production birds are also at a disadvantage to predators. You never see white squirrels in the wild, and there is a reason for that. It is a fact that white birds get killed faster in a mixed flock where predation is present. Industrial birds are also less intuitive about survival and in my experience seem less afraid of predators (hawks, dogs, etc.)
 
I am speaking from personal experience rather than conjecture. I have actually raised many of these different...
Which "industrial production breeds" do you have?
Very interesting read.  I did not even realise my Japanese Bantams were classed as a heritage breed!  They are very calm and live many years, laying eggs almost up to the end.  Some are white birds, thought, but they do just as well as the other colours and I have not lost any to predators when free ranging them.  They are very good flyers and can fly a long distance if they get scared by a dog, for example. 
Bullitt: I've raised and kept different production strain Leghorns, sex-links (red, black), and I've tried Cornish from different sources. But over the past several years I have gotten rid of them all in favor of heritage breeds.
 
jak2002003: Glad you liked it! I love the breeds that fly.
Other advantages to heritage breeds that might not have been mentioned are:  For us in the northern latitudes especially, Heritage breeds are much better at resisting cold weather as compared to commercial leghorns.  They can sometimes be broody which is great when you want to raise baby chicks and easily integrate them into your main flock,   Also, especially roosters, but even hens do better against predators when in an open foraging setting.  My barred rock has even fought off a opossum that sneaked into my coop late at night.  Finally, since many heritage breeds are generally dual purpose birds, extra rooster can raised for meat.  Leghorn rooster, have very little meat and aren't very suitable for broilers or fryers.       
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