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.


| April/May 2016



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

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.

Holly
3/30/2016 10:10:06 AM

In image four of this article it depicts the author, Harvey Ussery, cutting homegrown grains for his flock. He is in, what appears to be, an incredible chicken run. It looks so soothing for them compared with most chicken runs I see and with the wonderful overhead cover, I aim to build one similar soon. We have huge hawk and owl issues on our farm. Is there any way it would be possible to see more of this amazing coop run filled with homegrown greens and lovely hidden hen-sheltering areas?? I would love to know more about how it was constructed. If so, I would thank you very much. Holly Jorgensen A Mother Earth News subscriber in Moore County, North Carolina






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