If you raise your own chickens, you have likely asked yourself whether it’s worth your time to raise a heritage breed. While heritage breeds are known for their ability to forage, live long lives, and mate naturally, they also have numerous disadvantages for farmers looking to make a profit.
On our farm, we raise both heritage and non-heritage chicken breeds. Because we sell both eggs and meat, it’s important for us to be able to create a product that has a place in the current market.
Unfortunately, the current market just hasn’t caught up to the idea of heritage chickens – which I’ll talk about below – and as a result, we raise a mixed flock of Golden Comets (a hybrid egg-laying breed) and New Hampshire Reds (a dual-purpose breed). Starting this spring, we will also be raising Cornish Cross meat birds for sale.
Trying to figure out whether heritage breeds are right for you? Here’s what you need to know.
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What is a Heritage Breed?
While chickens have been part of the American diet since the arrival of the first explorers, their path to our dinner tables has not been linear. There are many different breeds that are popularized in the United States, with dozens of varieties raised for meat, eggs, or exhibition.
In the past, all chickens were raised on small farms, valued for their dual-purposes of both meat and egg production. These chickens were hardy and adaptable, able to fend for themselves. Sadly, as family farms began to die out, so too did chicken breeds that had no place in a confined agricultural egg or meat production facility.
Today, most commercially raised chickens are those that are prized for high egg production and faster growth, typically those that are hybridized in some way.
The Livestock Conservancy lists more than 36 breeds of chickens that are in danger of extinction – or “heritage” chickens. These birds must meet all of the following criteria:
- Must meet APA Standard Breed guidelines (the genetic line can be traced back multiple generations)
- Naturally mating
- Long and productive outdoor lifespan (5 or more years for breeding hens and 3 or more years for rooster)
- Slow growth rate (must reach market weight in no less than 16 weeks)
Heritage breeds present a ton of benefits. These chickens are purebred and although they are not more profitable than commercial or hybrid breeds, they tend to be healthier and heartier to raise.
Unfortunately, because of this, heritage breeds are becoming increasingly rarer.
Pros of Heritage Breed Chickens
Heritage chickens have some of the loveliest appearances – a trait that has been bred out of many modern commercial breeds. Consumers don’t care what the chicken that laid the egg looks like – they just care about the omelet.
Heritage chickens have all kinds of unique features, including beautiful lacing, ruffled heads, or fancy feathers. The eggs, too, tend to be more diverse, with heritage breeds laying eggs of all colors instead of the standard white from most commercial egg-laying breeds.
2. Weather Hardiness
Heritage chickens are also adaptable to most climates. While any non-heritage chicken in the United States poultry industry can do okay in a moderate, climate-controlled barn, it’s not going to be able to keep up with the demands of harsh winters or grueling summers.
As an example, the New Hampshire chicken breed is acclimated to cold New Hampshire winters – as the name implies. The Ancona chicken, however, not only can lay eggs during the winter but also thrives in heat, too. Heritage chickens remain much more productive when raised outdoors, even when conditions are extreme.
3. Improved Foraging
Heritage chickens know how to get a job done – and that job is eating. In the past, people didn’t scour the Internet looking for treats and toys to entertain and feed their flock. Instead, they set their chickens loose in the backyard, occasionally throwing a few table scraps their way.
Heritage chickens, therefore, are much better at foraging. They can more or less fend for themselves (although you should still, of course, feed them).
4. You Can DIY a Flock
With heritage chickens, you can raise your own chicks to increase your flock size. You don’t need to rely on hatcheries to send chicks to you. Broodiness is a trait that is ingrained in many heritage breeds, but unfortunately, one that has been bred out of most commercial breeds.
Many – though not all – heritage breeds are also dual-purpose chickens. They have the ability to produce both eggs and meat and do so prolifically. That being said, you won’t get maximum production with either – for that, you would need a hybrid chicken breed that has been designed specifically for that purpose.
The genetics of heritage breed chickens are generally stronger when it comes to disease- resistance and vitality. Hybrid breeds tend to be weaker in longevity and disease resistance. In addition, traits that are prevalent in a heritage breed are not reliably passed on when hybrid chickens are produced. As the chickens are bred for specific desirable traits – like laying ability – other “less important” traits are consequently bred out, like immunity.
Cons of Heritage Breed Chickens
1. Genetic Differences
One of the biggest advantages of raising a heritage breed chicken also poses a significant challenge – the genetic differences. While heritage chickens have rich, dark meat, that meat is often accompanied by fat and smaller breast sizes – something the current market for meat is not yet prepared to accept.
2. Different Uses in the Kitchen
I’ve cooked chicken breasts from a Cornish Cross (a hybrid chicken breed) and those from a New Hampshire Red. While both are delicious, there is no doubt about it that the flavors are different. Heritage chickens tend to have more intense, concentrated flavors, while typical breeds are more standardized.
You generally need to cook a heritage breed chicken breast (or thigh, or wing, or whatever) more slowly and at a lower heat. These chickens generally are better at foraging and therefore have had access to more exercise – meaning the meat can be tougher if you’re not careful.
While there is plenty of room in the kitchen for heritage meat, you do need to have a bit of know-how in preparing it. Here’s a helpful guide on how to prepare a chicken for the freezer.
3. Reduced Egg Production
While there are certain heritage breeds that will give you up to 300 eggs each year, most produce far less than that (around 200-250 on average). Commercial hybrid layers, like Golden Comets, give you up to 350 eggs per year.
Keep in mind there is a trade-off here. Many of these layers will reliably produce for 20 months, but will then drop off sharply in their production. Heritage breeds can often lay for twice as long.
4. Higher Cost of Production
The reason why most commercial farms have made the switch to hybrid breeds is that they are much less expensive to raise. Heritage breeds, despite offering a wide array of benefits, are quite a bit more expensive to raise. They need to be fed for longer in order to reach market weight, and often, it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to make a profit.
Most Popular Heritage Breed Chicken
If you are considering raising a heritage breed chicken, here are some of your best options – as well as some of the highlights of the breed.
- New Hampshire: dual-purpose breed, best for cold weather
- Cornish: super-heavy meat producing bird with rich flavor
- Silver-Laced Wyandotte: beautifully colored dual-purpose bird for meat and up to 220 eggs each year
- Jersey Giant: a dual-purpose breed that can grow to more than 13 lbs
- Ancona: energetic, hardy bird that is best for winter laying
- Araucana: lays colored eggs
- Black Minorca: favorite for its large white eggs and outdoor foraging ability
- Dominique: also known as the “pioneer’s chicken” and an excellent dual-purpose breed
- Black Australorp: one of the best heavy breeds for both eggs and meat
- Barred Plymouth Rock: one of the most well-known dual-purpose chickens
- Buff Orpington: excellent winter egg production and delicious meat
- Speckled Sussex: raised for meat and tinted eggs
- White Leghorn: lays up to 320 eggs each year
Is a Heritage Breed Chicken Right For Me?
Obviously, heritage chicken breeds offer plenty of benefits to backyard and commercial farmers alike. But is one of these breeds right for you?
Consider your goals before you settle on a breed. If your only goal is to feed your family as sustainably and healthily as possible, then a heritage breed might be the smart choice. Double points if you want to contribute to the continuation of a long tradition of varied chicken genetics.
However, if you intend to turn a profit, make sure you have carefully mapped out the costs of raising a heritage breed. It is possible to make money raising these kinds of chickens – but you will need to account for additional expenses.
What do you think – are you a heritage chicken breed fan? Let me know your favorite breed in the comments below!
Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to check out these articles!
- 12 Reasons Why Sheep Are the Coolest Livestock You Can Raise
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lambing (But Didn’t Want to Ask!)
- 12 Common Hoof Problems in Sheep
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