Heritage chicken breeds are APA (American Poultry Association) recognized breeds that where originally bred to be hardy meat and egg producers. However, most heritage breeds where bred before large scale meat production was really around. For this reason, they are often smaller and slower to mature than modern meat production breeds (such as the Cornish cross). Additionally, they may not lay as much as modern Egg-production Chicken Breeds (such as Leghorns). However… is more really better? In this article, I provide more information on heritage chickens and (including why they are so cool). I also include a list of a few heritage breeds…
The True Definition of a Heritage Chicken Breed
Before the big boom in commercial chicken farming, many chicken breeds where developed for both meat quality and egg production. Today, commercial farmers breed for the biggest and the most productive, leaving these older hardier, more versatile and often healthier breeds behind. Many of these older breeds are Heritage breeds. However, not all are… so what is the true definition of Heritage?
According to the Livestock Conservancy, for a breed to be Heritage, it must meet the following criteria:
“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.”
Link to the rest of the Livestock Conservancy’s article: Definition of Heritage Chicken
Note: this means that there are many excellent Dual-purpose Chickens that are not heritage. Such non-recognized breeds include Russian Orloffs, some Easter Eggers (depending on what breeds are used in the cross), Freedom Rangers, Rainbows, Gold/Black Sex-links (depending one what breeds where used in the cross).
Cornish crosses are what you’d likely find in the meat dept of any grocery store. However, Cornish crosses grow fast (ready for butchering at 9-12 weeks) and supply lots of breast meat. However, Cornish crosses have been so overbred, they’re bodies can’t keep up with their ballooning weights. As a result, Cornish crosses are prone to heart problems, foot problems and reproductive problems (when left long enough to mature). To top that, Cornish crosses often have difficulty reproducing naturally (largely due to abnormally large breasts) and are often to heavy to stand/walk for more than a short time.
Most Heritage breeds where bred before large scale meat farming was in. Heritage breeds often take longer to mature (some slow-maturing breeds are not ready for the table until at least 12 months). This makes them less cost efficient for large-scale meat-farms. However, they are much healthier than modern meat breeds. Heritage breeds also supply eggs (which Cornish crosses hardly ever do because they are usually butchered long before they reach maturity). This makes Heritage breeds ideal for backyard chicken keepers wanting healthy meat birds that will supply eggs before being eaten. The only downside to heritage chickens is that they are easy to get attached to… a trait that has compromised many homesteaders’ initial plans.
Difficulties Finding True Heritage Breeds
Today, many of the old heritage breeds are being bred more for egg production rather than meat. For this reason, some heritage breeds have been crossed with egg-laying breeds to produce lighter and smaller versions. Even if such crosses have been bred enough to breed true, they will likely not produce as much meat as the originals. They also may not taste as good. Because of this crossing that is going around, many ‘heritage breed’ chickens really aren’t truly heritage.
My Experience with Cross-Bred Heritage Chickens
I purchased 2 Buff Orpington chicks (popular heritage breed). Each came from a different farm/feed store. Both where female. One (Dusty) grew up to lay very well. Dusty had pale yellow legs (Orpingtons are supposed to have ‘ivory’ legs) and a large comb for an Orpington. Additionally, Dusty was not as fluffy as the other Orpington (Orpingtons are notorious for their soft, fluffy feathering) and her plumage was far lighter in color. The other Orpington (Sandy) was the perfect picture of the traditional Orpington breed. Sandy had ivory legs, a smaller single comb and the typical fluffy rear (characteristic of the breed). Sandy also had a true Buff color. However, Sandy never layed as much as Dusty.
Given the above, my current guess is that Dusty is an ‘egg production’ line of Orpington and has an egg-laying breed (like white Leghorn) bred in somewhere in her parentage. Since Orpingtons have great temperaments (making them great pets), such crossings are perfect for those who want chickens for pets and/or as egg producers rather than meat producers. However, such crossings may not be so good for meat. For this reason, many heritage chicken keepers that want a dual-purpose flock breed their own chickens (once they obtain some truly heritage birds).
Some Heritage Breeds
- Jersey Giants
- Rhode Island Reds/Whites
- New Hampshire Reds
- Plymouth Rocks
- Faverolles (be warned if you want this breed for dual-purpose: Faverolles are cute and hard not to fall in love with!)
- Naked-Necks (Turkens)
Heritage Chicken Breed Gallery