Heritage Chicken Breeding: Why Not to Rely on Chicken Hatcheries

At commercial chicken hatcheries, generations of poultry have been bred with different goals from those of the modern homesteader. Learn about heritage chicken breeding methods to achieve a hardy and productive flock.

Icelandic Chickens

The author’s multicolored flock of Icelandic chickens, also known as “Icies,” have been bred to meet his specific conditions and management techniques.

Photo by Harvey Ussery

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Many of us who keep backyard flocks are aware that industrial chicken breeds from commercial hatcheries aren’t the best option if we’re hoping to raise self-reliant birds. We prefer sturdier, heritage chicken breeds, capable of free-ranging and foraging much of their own feed. We want breeds that retain natural resistance to disease and climate stresses. We “flocksters” often prefer to harvest meat and eggs from the same flock, so we’re more interested in dual-purpose breeds than in industrial hybrids with either astounding laying or growth rates.

To meet those goals, we choose to raise heritage chicken breeds, expecting they’ll offer the traits that made such breeds popular on homesteads for generations, including longevity, the inclination to forage, immune system integrity, and, of course, reliable production of high-quality meat and eggs.

But industrial breeds are responsible for such a large proportion of the commercial hatcheries’ business that the rearing of heritage breeds has fallen by the wayside. Many heritage breeds have lost the qualities they were originally valued for.

I propose that we homesteaders and small-scale farmers take heritage chicken breeding into our own hands, and that we support the improvement-breeding efforts of farm-scale hatcheries.

Heritage Chicken Breeds: Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be

The poultry industry has proved quite capable of breeding for the select traits it wants to improve. The most dramatic changes began with the 1948 national “Chicken of Tomorrow Contest,” which challenged producers to grow the largest birds in the shortest amount of time. Traditional chicken breeds would reach market weight by 14 weeks of age or older, but through intensive, selective breeding, modern commercial broilers can reach market weight at only 5 or 6 weeks of age. Such marvels, however, are bred to conform to confinement in climate-controlled facilities and an exclusive diet of highly processed, manufactured feeds. These extraordinarily productive chickens resulted in cheaper meat and eggs, but the effort came with a cost. Several studies have found that rapid growth in commercial broilers affects the immune systems of the birds, as their genes cause them to allocate more resources for growth and provide fewer for immune response. Their immune systems have weakened over generations because hardiness is not a concern for breeding selection; instead, industrial flocks are routinely fed antibiotics to promote growth and ward off illness.

The poultry industry’s focus on only a few supercharged hybrids has meant that other breeds haven’t been rigorously selected and have declined in quality. Unfortunately, even flocksters seeking traditional, well-rounded chicken breeds are likely in for a rude surprise when they order a batch of Wyandottes, Plymouth Rocks or other heritage chicks from commercial hatcheries. Far too often, the chickens raised from those chicks don’t measure up to expectations based on breed descriptions established by the American Poultry Association’s Standards of Perfection. A good example is my own experience with Delawares. My research promised that Delaware hens would be excellent layers that would maintain egg production well in winter, and that both males and females would grow rapidly enough, and to a good enough size, to make quality meat chickens as well. Imagine my disappointment when my chicks matured at only moderate rates to a rather small size, and when the hens turned out to be mediocre layers. My trials of other heritage breeds yielded chickens that were serviceable enough but still didn’t meet the breed descriptions.

Why is hatchery stock for traditional breeds of such mediocre quality? Jim Adkins, founder of the Sustainable Poultry Network – USA, worked for years in the poultry industry before despairing of its exclusive use of hybrids bred for confinement. He explains that large hatcheries routinely practice “flock mating” — that is, they randomly set aside as many breeding hens and cocks as they need and allow them to mate willy-nilly. Over time, the quality of the stock declines. While the resulting flocks retain the appearance of their ancestors, they increasingly perform as “generic chickens,” weak in the utilitarian traits these breeds once offered.

The Missing Ingredient in Chicken Breeding

Missing from the industrial breeding approach, which almost guarantees a decline in quality, is rigorous selection of superior individuals as breeding stock. Contrast the “flock mating” approach with the method Don Schrider and Jeannette Beranger of The Livestock Conservancy used in their “rescue” heritage chicken breeding project with the Buckeye. This hardy, dual-purpose North American breed was developed in the 1890s, and it had almost reached extinction when the breeding project began in 2006. Schrider obtained eggs from three unrelated private flocks, from which he hatched about two dozen chicks to start. He and Beranger tracked birds individually and kept meticulous records to ensure only unrelated hens and cocks mated. The following year, they hatched 250 chicks, and they hatched 300 the year after that. Each year, Schrider and Beranger selected superior individuals to mate using the “best 10 percent rule,” meaning they chose only the best chick out of 10 to breed the following generation.

Beranger and Schrider aimed to enhance the meat quality of the Buckeyes. They weighed the birds at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and at their target slaughter age of 16 weeks. Weight was only one of the selection criteria — they also measured skull and back width, heart girth, and other physical characteristics associated with fast growth and large carcass size. Within three generations of careful improvement breeding, The Livestock Conservancy’s Buckeyes increased an average of 1 pound and reached the desired weight in 16 weeks rather than the original 20.

How to Set Up a Chicken Breeding Project

Many experienced flocksters may be surprised to learn how easily they can organize a breed-improvement project, even at the home flock level. Certainly the numbers required to mount a serious project are well within reach of any small farm serving local markets. In my own project, I aim for a breeding flock of 36 hens and six cocks (two males and a dozen females in each of three “clans”).

Breeders who have applied the basic principles followed in The Livestock Conservancy’s project have proved the method’s success with other heritage breeds as well. (See Heritage Livestock Breeds: Why They’re Important for more on preserving genetic diversity.) Successful breeders have accepted as fundamental the need to cull stringently. Maryland breeder Will Morrow started his line of Delawares with 250 hatchery eggs and, within two generations, brought his stock from about 15 percent below breed-standard weights up to the standard (7.5 pounds for cocks, 6.5 pounds for hens). Egg production also increased. In the first year, Morrow kept only 10 percent of the initial 250 birds to serve as breeding stock. Since that time, he’s retained only the best 5 percent of cockerels and 20 percent of pullets. The culled birds provide the family’s meat or are sold at market.

Does culling this severely seem extreme? Remember, for any wild species, nature is a ruthless “culler.” We do our best to protect our flocks from predators, but if we aspire to breed for improvement, we must assume the role of the predator by removing all less-fit individuals from the gene pool and allowing only the superior birds to reproduce.

Environmental challenges play a role in selection as well. When Andrew Christie was breeding his unique, cold-hardy strain of New Hampshires in the 1920s, he kept his birds in pasture shelters through harsh New England winters and bred only the hardiest. The environmental challenge where I live in the mid-Atlantic is more likely to be hot and humid summers, so I cull any bird that wilts in those conditions. The culls serve as my family’s table chicken, so we don’t need to raise a separate “meat flock” from our “layer flock.”

I also always eliminate immune system weakness. Any bird that shows signs of illness is culled immediately, no exceptions. If this seems brutal, I ask: How much more cruel would it be to saddle future generations of my flock with a disposition toward illness?

Despite a goal of effective, strict culling, not all breeders can generate enough chicks to follow a literal best-10-percent rule every season. I’ve found, for example, that hatching more than six dozen chicks per breeding season would be impractical for me. While keeping only 10 percent of male chicks is easy enough (as one cock can service multiple hens), the percentage of pullets I need to keep as replacement breeding hens is more likely to be 40 percent. Though my level of selection should ideally be more severe, it will have to suffice, with the trade-off that my improvement goals may take longer to accomplish.

How to Select for a Superior Heritage Poultry Flock

What should we be aiming for as we cull our flocks? With careful selection, we can each enhance whichever utilitarian traits are most important to us. Breeding our own chickens is analogous to saving our own garden seed. Intelligently selecting breeding stock and managing matings can result in a uniquely adapted flock with better health, hardiness and production that’s ever more finely attuned to our own conditions, management practices and production goals.

I’ve been raising Icelandic chickens exclusively and breeding all of my own stock for three years. “Icies” are a landrace rather than a tightly defined breed, characterized by genetic and visual variability, and I select first of all to retain that variability. They are hardy and robust, adept at evading predators, and skillful at foraging much of their own feed if given range. I select to enhance all of those traits as well. I hatch using natural mothers exclusively, and I like to hatch early in the season in one big wave, so I select for early broodiness and mothering skills. Good egg production is also important, so I favor the better laying hens, especially those that maintain good production in winter. (Flocksters most interested in improving egg production may consider investing the extra effort required to use a trap nest to track egg size and laying rates of individual hens. This would make selecting the best layers easier and more accurate.)

Set Up a Mating System

It’s important to choose a mating system that maintains the maximum genetic diversity possible, which will ensure the best chance that traits needed for our birds to thrive with our conditions and management practices, and to meet our production goals, will be expressed in some of the offspring. We must strictly avoid too much mating of individuals that are too closely related. While mating closely related birds with great care can have good results, allowing a lot of random sibling and half-sibling matings year after year is certain to lead to inbreeding depression, which is a decline in vigor and performance resulting from heightened expression of negative recessive traits.

We can choose from a number of mating systems, ranging from simply bringing in unrelated cocks from trusted outside flocks each breeding season, to complex pedigree systems requiring close tracking of every mating of every individual. Because I prefer to maintain a closed flock and don’t have the patience for the detailed record-keeping required in a pedigree system, I assign birds to clans, and then manage the mating between clans in an invariable pattern. If you’re interested in my system, learn how it works by reading How to Breed Chickens Using the Clan-Mating System.

Small Farmers as Leaders

The speed at which breeders can improve average stock, as shown in the breeding projects described earlier, is impressive. Betterment can happen quickly because the basic genetics for superior performance are already there from earlier generations.

A serious breed-improvement project may be a stretch for many homestead flocksters, but cooperatively organized projects are certainly possible. Several backyard breeders dedicated to improving a heritage chicken breed might each keep a part of a flock that they manage, for breeding purposes, as if all of the small flocks were a single, large flock.

Almost all farmers supplying local egg and broiler markets, however, deal with flocks large enough to allow for the stringent selection required to breed for better performance. Small farmers really do have the option of breeding unique strains of their preferred heritage market breeds that are superior to stock available for those breeds anywhere else. These chicks and hatching eggs could even be a marketable product to sell to other farmers or backyard flocksters.

I imagine that many small-flock owners reading this article agree on the need for better breeding, but simply can’t commit to a breed-improvement project. If that’s true for you, support the breeding of improved strains by purchasing your chicks or hatching eggs from those who are doing this important work. Refer to “Find Heritage Chicks” further on in this article for recommended sources of heritage breed chicks.

Find Heritage Chicks

When you’re considering a source of breeding stock, question potential suppliers carefully about their breeding goals and practices. Buy from chicken breeders dedicated to the purity of their stock and to its improvement through knowledgeable breeding.

The Livestock Conservancy: Maintains an interactive Breeders Directory.  

Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities: Publishes a quarterly newsletter and an outstanding Breeders Directory; $15 annual membership; contact Charles Everett,
1057 Nick Watts Road, Lugoff, SC 29078; 803-960-2114.

Sustainable Poultry Network – USA: Maintains a list of certified farms, many of which sell chicks.

Backyard flockster Harvey Ussery breeds his hardy, multicolored Icies and maintains his website in Virginia. He is the author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.