Should You Raise Heritage Chicken Breeds?

Reader Contribution by Anna Twitto
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Though all chickens are descended from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), in the course of human history different climate and selective breeding have produced a vast selection of shapes, sizes and colors in this most common domestic fowl. All chickens can interbreed, however, and hybrids can work just fine in terms of egg production, meat production, pest control, hardiness and attractiveness. So why should one invest in a heritage breed, bearing in mind the initial higher cost of the stock?

By raising heritage breeds, we connect ourselves with the history of humankind and farming, and preserve the unique beauty of a breed that had been developed by hundreds of years of targeted selection – though there are also some new breeds, the age of which is measured in decades.

Predictability – unlike hybrids, pure-bred heritage chickens breed true. If you start with a flock of, say, Wyandottes, a few years down the road you will still have a flock of Wyandottes, with largely the same qualities of egg production, growth rates, adaptation to climate, and appearance (though you can improve your flock by hatching eggs from your finest, best-looking, hardiest specimens). With mutt chickens, you can always expect surprises.

Profit – apart from the initial cost of purchasing your purebred flock and/or hatching eggs, it doesn’t cost more to raise heritage breeds; you provide the same food, housing, care, etc, for any chicken. On the other hand, if you have some extra chicks or pullets for sale – and if you plan on breeding your flock at all, you will almost certainly have extra stock in the course of time – people will be ready to give you a better price for purebred stock than for mutts.

On the other hand, when your chickens cost more (even if you raised them yourself and/or acquired them by barter, without paying out of pocket), the stakes are higher – it feels a lot worse to lose birds to predators or disease, or a batch of hatching eggs to a malfunctioning incubator, when you know you could have sold them for a nice bit of cash, and perhaps had counted on it. I still think it’s worth the effort, however.

Another consideration is that, if you plan on raising more than one breed, you need to provide separate space for each one to keep them from mixing. This may raise the cost of housing and fencing. I have met breeders whose space is so limited that they must break it into tiny cubicles and confine each breeding pair/flock to this tiny little space, unable to ever let them roam free. This, no matter how high the quality of the stock, appears sad to me.  

At the bottom line, I would recommend heritage breeds to anyone who plans to have a self-sustaining flock which produces new chicks from year to year. If you only plan to have a few hens for eggs, without breeding them or even keeping a rooster at all, it doesn’t really matter whether you keep purebred birds or hybrids.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna’s books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna’s Mother Earth News posts here.

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