At the heart of our homestead, our unwavering passion lies in preserving the timeless legacy of heritage breeds, with a special focus on heritage chicken breeds. We invite you to discover the essence of these remarkable fowl, learn what makes them heritage breeds, and give you the knowledge and tools to champion their conservation. Join us as we seek to safeguard heritage chicken breeds, ensuring they continue to grace our homesteads with their enduring charm and resilience.
Did you know there are many endangered breeds of poultry? Chickens, turkeys, geese, and more are on the American Livestock Breeders Conservancy list of at-risk breeds.
The risk levels run from Critical to Studied. Over the years, the old breeds have been interbred in an attempt to control and reproduce characteristics like egg production, egg color, and meat production for commercial breeders.
During one of my talks on choosing your breeds, establishment, and care of your flock, a man interrupted me to say, “I’m sick and tired of hearing people like you talk about ‘old breeds’ and how we should be raising our birds like the old-timers. We don’t have the same birds they had, we know more than they did, and our feed isn’t the same.”
In my best southern I answered him, “Bless your heart,” by the inflection I placed on all three words my meaning was clear.
“If we establish our flock with heritage breeds, they are very close to, if not the same our grandparents and great-grandparents had, and maybe even further back than that. You’re right, our feed is not the same. It’s made of GMOs. That’s why I free range, grow some of our feed, and when we purchase feed, we purchase organic, non-Gmo feed. By doing this, I can feed my heritage breed chickens the way my grandmother and great-grandmother did.”
He had no further comment.
What Are Heritage Chicken Breeds?
The term heritage breed can be simply defined as breeds that were raised by our ancestors. They are the animals we’d find on our great-grandparent’s farms.
Heritage chicken breeds are traditional breeds that have been carefully developed and passed down through generations. They possess distinct characteristics, such as hardiness, productivity, and historical significance. These breeds are recognized for their ability to thrive in backyard settings while maintaining the traits that make them valuable to homesteaders.
Most all heritage breeds are on the at-risk list. You will find a thorough definition of heritage chicken breeds and the standards they must meet on the ALBC site.
Benefits of Raising Heritage Chicken Breeds:
There are many benefits for the small farm or backyard chicken keeper when it comes to heritage birds.
Heritage Chicken Breeds are Hardy
These birds have proven their ability to not only survive but thrive for many generations. Wars have come and gone, weather patterns have played the thermometer from top to bottom and these breeds keep producing meat and eggs decade after decade.
The biggest challenge these birds have ever faced is man’s greed. What do I mean? Well, all you have to do is take a tour of a chicken production house. You will smell it before you see it.
You will witness the steroid and antibiotic-filled modern birds stacked from wing to wing so they can’t move. They are bred and fed so that when they do mature, they have grown so fast they can hardly walk.
I understand that it makes sense for a company to produce birds so fat they can’t breed or run away. It saves time and money when handlers have to grab and package them in crates to ship to the factory to be processed.
But the backyard chicken keeper needs a breed that is going to be able to withstand the elements, be able to move quickly to avoid a predator and be able to breed so the next generation is ready to continue on.
Heritage Breeds are Beautiful
Heritage chicken breeds are naturally different colors. They come in a variety of hues and shades that give them a unique beauty all their own.
Even within the same breed, there are innumerable variations. Some are so distinctive you can identify them at a distance. On our farm, these are the ones who have special names.
A big company chicken house bird is usually all white.
Heritage Breeds Are Economical
If these breeds are economical, why don’t the big factories raise them?
They are only an economical choice for the small farm or homestead chicken keeper mostly because they’re great foragers.
So they find a lot of their own food by scratching around in nature. This lowers the cost of feeding them. It is easy to grow extra fruits and vegetables to supplement what they eat as well.
Modern factories are not able to be flexible enough to let the birds get exercise and nutrition by free ranging their birds.
This leaves the chickens with a poor quality of life and makes them unhealthy birds. They require antibiotics and steroids to be able to make it to the grocery store shelves, which unfortunately becomes part of the American diet.
Heritage Breeds Don’t Need Help Procreating
Most backyard chicken keepers don’t need to purchase and maintain an incubator to hatch eggs. Most heritage chicken breeds will get broody if you allow them to keep a few eggs. They make protective and nurturing mothers.
Just let nature take its course and your flock can easily double in a year’s time.
You don’t need all the temperature-controlling devices or the lighting of an egg laying production to have all the healthy eggs you can use. You’ll have enough to keep family and friends well stocked with the right heritage breed in your coop.
Choosing Heritage Chicken Breeds
Deciding to help an endangered breed is just the first step. To choose the right heritage breed or breeds, you have to consider a few things.
- Your climate – You want to pick a breed that will do well where you live.
- Purpose of your birds – Do you want dual-purpose birds (birds for meat and egg production), or do you want birds just for meat or just eggs?
- Size of bird you want – Standard or Bantam. Most people have a preference as to which temperament, size of egg, and look they prefer.
- The size of the housing and yard you have will be a deciding factor. Personally, I don’t like bantam breeds. That’s just me, my grandmother liked them.
- Will you free range or not – If you want or plan to free range your birds, you’ll need to be sure your birds are some of the best foragers.
- Do you want breeds that get broody – Today’s chickens are bred to not get broody so their egg production will stay up. A heritage breed hen will have the desire to set and hatch eggs. Some breeds are more broody than others.
Once you have made these decisions, you can determine which breed you want. The ALBC has a handy chart that will help you compare the different breed characteristics. Most hatcheries have something similar for you to use.
We have chosen to raise at-risk heritage breeds not only for their sake but for ours also.
We have two breeds that my grandmother had and I enjoyed as a child. We used to have 5 different breeds, but have narrowed it down to our top three favorites. We narrowed it down to three because we are adequately equipped to maintain the bloodlines of this many breeds without any difficulty.
As you can see in the photo of our chicken compound, we have two brooder coops and two rooster yards.
One rooster stays with the flock, right now it is Red, our Rhode Island Red rooster. Sambo, the Black Australorp rooster, and the Speckled Sussex rooster (to be named Chief, probably) have their own yard.
When spring rolls around and we are ready to allow them to breed, we put our best Black Australorp hen in with Sambo and our best Sussex hen in with Chief and let nature take its course.
I add eggs from our RIR hens who are in the main flock with Red to each of the brooding hens’ nests and let them set.
Once they begin hard setting, I shut their gates and the roosters are on their own again. So you see, three is the magic number for us.
The Heritage Chicken Breeds We Raise
We raise dual-purpose chicken breeds because we are sustenance farmers. This gives us both eggs and meat. The breeds we have chosen are also our favorites personality wise.
BLACK AUSTRALORP Chicken Breed
We started keeping this breed years ago because it is one that my grandmother had and enjoyed so much. When we first began keeping them, they were on the ALBC Threatened list. Now they are on the Recovering list.
This breed originates from Australia where, as an interesting fact, they are considered cultural treasures. In the 1920s they were introduced to our country. They lay large brown eggs, are heat and cold weather tolerant, have red wattles, great personalities, and are excellent foragers.
This heavy breed proves to be an excellent meat bird. The roosters will dress out between 8 to 9 pounds and hens between 6 to 7 pounds, on average. They are broody hens. They are protective of their day-old chicks and continue to be until they are grown.
One hatchery site stated these hens are not likely to sit on eggs. In all my years of keeping this breed, I’ve found these hens to be excellent setters and mothers. Read about letting your broody hens hatch
RHODE ISLAND RED Chicken Breed
RIR is the other breed that my grandmother and my husband’s grandfather had. We began keeping them for nostalgic reasons a couple of years ago.
They have proven to be a great asset to our flock as they lay eggs consistently. They were bred in the early 1900s in the state of Rhode Island. They’re on the Recovering ALBC list.
They do well in cold climates, here in North America but are able to withstand some heat. They’re good forgers and excellent layers. They lay extra-large brown eggs, and have a friendly disposition.
They’re also excellent meat birds with nice growth rates. The roosters are large birds dressing out between 8 to 9 pounds and hens between 6 to 7 pounds, on average.
Our Rhode Island Red rooster, Red, is one of the best roosters we’ve ever had as far as watching out for the girls, friendliness, and general disposition.
SPECKLED SUSSEX Chicken Breed
This is my favorite breed, edging out the other two only slightly. We find their dispositions, productivity, beauty, and reproduction habits unsurpassed.
We’ve never had a better setter or mother than the Speckled Sussex. This bird was developed in Sussex County, England well over 100 years ago.
When we first began keeping them, they were on the Critical list. Now they’re on the Recovering list.
I’m not questioning The Livestock Conservancy, but these birds are increasingly more difficult to obtain than when we first began keeping them. Maybe it’s their popularity that makes them harder to order.
They are good egg layers of large brown eggs, are heat and cold tolerant, good foragers, and excellent meat producers. The roosters dress out between 9 to 10 pounds and hens between 7 to 8 pounds, on average.
Our Sussex rooster was named Chief because of his size and plumage.
We lost our last Sussex to predators a couple of years ago and have been trying to re-establish them since. To do this, we pre-ordered our chicks for brooding in November to arrive in June. They arrived safely and are healthy happy birds.
Other Breeds you might want to consider:
- Barred Plymouth Rock – A great dual-purpose breed that has a rich history on small farms.
- Buff Orpington – A great bird used to create a few of the most popular heritage birds we love today. Very popular in New England in the early 20th Century a good choice for a backyard flock.
- Jersey Giants – A rare breed of chicken. This breed is a very large bird with a single comb and has the largest market weight of all heritage breeds when fully grown.
They are a docile breed and it has a slow growth rate but with the right free-range setup, can still be a great meat breed. The hens lay large brown eggs that will make any small farmer smile. The White Jersey Giant comes from the sports of the original Black Giants.
- Black Minorca – They are rare birds kept mostly for egg production, laying large white eggs. They’re called a heritage breed but the hens do not do a good job of hatching eggs.
- Brahma Chicken Breeds – Large breed with some great egg and meat qualities making them an excellent choice with a long productive outdoor life. Cold winters don’t seem to stop this breed from thriving. Also considered a docile bird.
- White Leghorns – A staple in chicken coops in many areas of the world. These birds are beautiful with a great disposition and can be a great addition to almost any flock.
- Cuckoo Maran – They lay the most wonderful dark brown eggs and are a solid choice with their fancy feathers.
TFL’s Guide to Successful Chicken Keeping
Want to find out the first birds you should add to your flock and what the best options are for your goals and area?
We have just the book for you. Over 60 pages of the best handpicked heritage chicken breeds with full details and photos.
We cover everything you need to know including ratings on egg production, meat production, foraging abilities, raising day-old chicks and young birds, the breeds’ ability to procreate, and much more.
We want to help you be confident when making your personal choice of the best breeds to succeed on your homestead!
Get your copy of TFL’s Guide to Successful Chicken Keeping!
FAQ: The Best Backyard Heritage Chicken Breeds
Q1: What exactly is a heritage chicken breed?
A1: Heritage chicken breeds are traditional breeds that have been carefully developed and passed down through generations. They possess distinct characteristics, such as hardiness, productivity, and historical significance. These breeds are recognized for their ability to thrive in backyard settings while maintaining the traits that make them valuable to homesteaders.
Q2: Why should I consider raising heritage chicken breeds in my backyard?
A2: Raising heritage chicken breeds offers numerous benefits. These breeds are typically more resilient, have better foraging abilities, and can provide a sustainable source of eggs and meat. Additionally, supporting heritage breeds helps preserve genetic diversity in poultry, which is crucial for long-term food security.
Q3: Are heritage chicken breeds good for beginners in backyard poultry keeping?
A3: Yes, many heritage chicken breeds are well-suited for beginners. They tend to be docile, easy to care for, and adaptable to a variety of climates. However, like all chickens, they require proper housing, nutrition, and care, so some basic knowledge and preparation are essential.
Q4: What are some popular heritage chicken breeds for backyard enthusiasts?
A4: Popular heritage chicken breeds for backyard keepers include the Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Sussex, Black Australorp, Orpington, and Wyandotte. These breeds are known for their friendly disposition, excellent egg production, and suitability for small-scale poultry keeping.
Q5: How can I find heritage chicken breeds for my backyard?
A5: You can find heritage chicken breeds from reputable hatcheries, breeders, or local poultry associations. It’s essential to research the source, ensure they prioritize breed preservation, and prioritize the health and well-being of their birds.
Q6: Can I mix different heritage breeds in my backyard flock?
A6: Yes, you can mix different heritage breeds in your backyard flock. This can add diversity to your flock’s appearance and egg colors. However, be mindful of the space and resources available, as different breeds may have varying space and dietary requirements.
Q7: How can I contribute to the preservation of heritage chicken breeds?
A7: You can contribute to heritage breed preservation by raising these breeds of chickens, sharing your knowledge with others, and supporting organizations dedicated to conserving rare and endangered poultry breeds. Additionally, consider participating in breeding programs that aim to maintain genetic diversity.
Q8: Do heritage chicken breeds require special care compared to modern commercial breeds?
A8: No, heritage chicken breeds are more resilient and hardier than modern breeds and generally do not require special care beyond the basics of poultry husbandry.
Q9: What should I consider when selecting a heritage chicken breed for my backyard?
A9: When selecting a heritage chicken breed, consider factors such as your climate, available space, egg or meat production goals, and the breed’s temperament. It’s also a good idea to choose breeds that align with your personal preferences and homesteading objectives.
Q10: How do I ensure the health and well-being of my heritage chicken flock?
A10: To ensure the health and well-being of your heritage chicken flock, provide them with a clean and secure coop, fresh water, a balanced diet, and protection from predators. You can also learn more about having a happy, healthy flock in our Poultry Health section here on TFL.
As organic, non-GMO farmers, it’s important to us to help preserve our heritage in the poultry, livestock, and seeds we use and reproduce here on the farm.
We love knowing that we are producing heritage eggs every day and these breeds will be a great choice for our grandchildren.
Heritage chicken breeds are not just a connection to the past, but a bridge to a sustainable future for homesteaders and chicken enthusiasts alike. These remarkable birds embody the rich history of our agricultural heritage, and by nurturing their existence, we ensure that these living treasures continue to thrive.
Remember, on your homesteading journey your choices have the power to make a difference. Whether you choose to raise heritage breeds for their unique qualities, their exceptional taste, or their role in preserving biodiversity, your commitment to these breeds contributes to a brighter, more resilient agricultural landscape.
As stewards of the land and keepers of these timeless breeds, we play an essential role in ensuring that these feathered friends continue to grace our homesteads, reminding us of the enduring connection between past, present, and future. Together, we can preserve the legacy of heritage chicken breeds for generations to come.
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