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.
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