How to Choose a Heritage Chicken Breed for your Homestead
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We want to thank Olivia Kramer at Red Rock Farmstead for sharing her knowledge of heritage chicken breeds with our readers! Don’t forget to check out some of the links to Olivia’s website and social media accounts so that you can connect with her!
Many homesteaders choose heritage breed chickens for their land whether it be for eggs, meat, or both. There are many reasons to choose a heritage chicken breed over a hybrid or production breed chicken. Heritage breeds have long pedigrees which produce predictable traits like egg laying or meat qualities, personality, disease and parasite resistance, and foraging abilities.
Many characteristics of a heritage chicken are beneficial for small farms and homesteads, which makes integrating them into a homestead system more efficient. For example, some breeds have been chosen for their keen senses and “flightyness” which means they are quick to elude predators while free-ranging. Others are adapted to chilly climates with their dense feathers and ability to lay eggs throughout the winter. So, how do you choose the best breed for your homestead with so many options out there?
Step One: Educate yourself on what constitutes a heritage breed chicken
What is a heritage breed?
First thing’s first. You may have heard this term thrown around quite a bit in the chicken world. So what defines a heritage breed anyways? The Livestock Conservancy describes a heritage chicken breed as follows:
APA Standard Breed
Heritage Chicken must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; and with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed. Heritage Chicken must be produced and sired by an APA Standard breed. Heritage eggs must be laid by an APA Standard breed.
Heritage Chicken must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating. Chickens marketed as Heritage must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
Long, productive outdoor lifespan
Heritage Chicken must have the genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life and thrive in the rigors of pasture-based, outdoor production systems. Breeding hens should be productive for 5-7 years and roosters for 3-5 years.
Slow growth rate
Heritage Chicken must have a moderate to slow rate of growth, reaching appropriate market weight for the breed in no less than 16 weeks. This gives the chicken time to develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.
A true heritage chicken satisfies all the above requirements. Some hatcheries will advertise their blend of hybrid meat chickens as being “heritage” because they are slower growing than a standard cornish cross chicken, but they do not satisfy all of the characteristics. Most of the time, if you try to breed a second generation from these meat hybrids, they will not breed true and you will get all sorts of varied results.
There are also many newly developed breeds of egg laying chickens with trademarked names out there that may be described as “heritage”. They are usually a mixed breed chicken like an Easter Egger or Olive Egger. There is nothing wrong with raising the above mentioned birds if they work for your homestead, but if you are looking for a truly heritage breed you will need to steer clear of these varieties.
Step Two: Evaluate your goals.
It’s really easy to get sucked into hatchery websites and put together an order of 20 different chicken breeds! I know, because that’s exactly what I did when we first bought our homestead. As it turns out, Cochins are really cute with their fluffy feet, but they don’t appreciate the 110 degree Texas summers. They also lay small eggs, which are not ideal for filling egg cartons for paying customers.
Mixing diverse breeds of chickens is perfectly ok if you understand their unique needs and know each chicken will give you a different egg and meat output. If you are looking to fill your freezer with plump chicken carcasses, or if you specifically want large dark brown eggs, you will need to tailor your flock for those qualities.
Many heritage breeds are considered “dual-purpose”, meaning they can be raised for both egg laying and meat purposes. These breeds are ideal for homesteads because you get more bang for your buck! You can raise the roosters for meat and keep the hens as your egg layers. Since true heritage birds can also reproduce naturally, you will always have a sustainable source of chicks to replenish your flock year to year.
Things to consider when choosing a heritage chicken breed
What purpose will the heritage flock serve on your homestead? Some of the most common reasons to keep heritage chickens are:
- Breed preservation
- Pest control
Your goals will determine what breeds to consider, where to purchase your chickens, the amount of care and effort you put into your birds, and their daily diets. All of these factors will also affect how much time and money go into the birds as well.
For example, we decided we wanted to raise a flock of heritage chickens for meat, but didn’t want to break the bank feeding them for up to 6-7 months. Knowing this, we chose a heavy breed that has a tendency to grow quicker than some other heritage breeds (15-16 weeks to harvest as opposed to 20-25 weeks). We also purchased our day-old chicks from a hatchery that focuses on meat birds instead of a standard hatchery that might focus more on breeding egg layers or companion birds.
We researched the proper diet for a heritage breed meat bird, and discovered that they should be fed a ration of at least 28% protein for optimal growth (most chickens get started on 18-20%). Higher protein feed is generally more expensive and also harder to source – especially if you want non-gmo, non-soy, or organic.
For more information on how Olivia chose her flock of heritage meat chickens, you can visit her blog post on the topic at her site, Red Rock Farmstead.
Step Three: Research potential breeds.
Once you know what purpose the heritage chickens will be serving on your homestead, you can start looking into breeds that fit the bill. The Livestock Conservancy is an excellent resource for learning more about heritage breeds and how to care for them. Starting with this list, you can get an idea of what breeds are out there. They even have a directory where you can search for breeders and clubs in your area.
With the advent of modern agriculture and a shift towards hybrid meat and egg chickens, many farmers stopped raising heritage breeds for their more productive counterparts. This led to some of the heritage breeds across the globe becoming endangered or even extinct. Many homesteaders opt to raise a flock of threatened heritage birds to aid in breed preservation while also feeding their families.
Bear in mind:
If you are dead set on raising a specific breed, you might have to work a little harder to find a hatchery or reputable breeder that can get you started with your flock. Not to mention price will become a factor. One of the only options you might have for more uncommon breeds is ordering hatching eggs from a breeder several states over from you.
If you are looking to help preserve a breed or show the chickens, it’s a good idea to brush up on the breed’s standard in the American Poultry Association’s (APA) handbook. Many large hatcheries don’t breed for the APA’s standard as closely as a breeder would, and this can make a huge difference in the quality of your birds. The APA will designate a specific weight, color, comb type, body shape, etc. that breeders and showers strive to meet.
Some of the most common heritage chickens that are well suited to a homestead system are:
- Plymouth Barred Rocks
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island Red
- Jersey Giant
These old American breeds were all developed for small farm living. There are many dedicated breeders in North America focusing on building these breeds back up to their former glory as functional, dual-purpose homestead birds.
Step Four: Join a heritage breed club or find a mentor.
There are many helpful resources available for budding chicken breeders, and the popularity in keeping heritage chickens is growing. The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) just merged their organization with Heritage Poultry Breeders (HPB) making a wealth of knowledge accessible to its members. Poultry forums and clubs are welcoming places for novice and expert chicken keepers alike to share information, photos of their birds, troubleshooting information, and more.
I would personally recommend finding groups specific to heritage chickens or the breed you are interested in. Sometimes the large poultry Facebook groups, for example, get bogged down with irrelevant material. Poultry shows and fairs are also great events to network with breeders and ask questions. Even though it can seem intimidating to approach a seasoned poultryman to ask basic questions, more likely than not he or she will be thrilled to chat about their chickens and share knowledge!
General tips for choosing a breeder and bringing chickens home:
- Ask if the breeder is NPIP certified, and if not, ask if they test for any avian illness privately.
NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) certification is awarded by state, but the general requirements for receiving this designation are the same across the US. Even though the certification by state may only cover 1-2 mandatory disease screenings, it shows that a breeder is willing to test their flock yearly or even up to every 90 days, which is a lot of work and responsibility to keep up with.
Additionally, if the breeder does not participate in NPIP, ask them why not and ask them what they practice for biosecurity. It would be devastating to bring home a new flock of chickens only to have them fall ill or infect your existing poultry. It is always a good idea to quarantine new birds for at least 30 days far away from your existing flock.
- Check if the breeder has any guarantees on day-old chicks or hatching eggs.
Just in case something happens, it’s nice to know that a chick or two can be replaced, or an expensive order of hatching eggs can be refunded. Most of the time, breeders will file a claim with the post office if shipped chicks or eggs get lost or destroyed in transport, but it’s worth checking before you commit. It is very disappointing to assume a breeder or hatchery will refund you only to find out they do not offer that guarantee!
- Verify their reputability.
There are many tempting looking “businesses” out there claiming to sell rare breed chickens for discounted prices. Often, these known scammers will have many complaints written about them across the internet. If you are going through a breed club or poultry show, it is very unlikely you will encounter one of these types. Watch out for ads on Facebook, Craigslist, and eBay that seem too good to be true. Do a little digging on their business name or username and see what the reviews say if you can’t confirm they are a legit breeder through other avenues.