Why Raise Heritage And Rare Breed Chickens?

Many small and organic farmers buck the monoculture trend by planting heritage (also known as heirloom) seeds, thereby cultivating vegetables, fruits and herbs that our ancestors grew and enjoyed. Heritage livestock and poultry breeds are more than historical curiosities. These animals are generally healthier and hardier. They also consume less feed than those found on industrial farms since modern breeds’ sole purpose is high yield.

The Livestock Conservancy

The Livestock Conservancy, an organization whose mission is, “to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction” sets criteria for the definition of a heritage breed. It lists endangered and rare breeds in five classes:

Critical: fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States, and a global population of less than 2,000.

Threatened: fewer than 1,000 annual U.S. registrations, and a global population of less than 5,000.

Watch: fewer than 2,500 annual U.S. registrations, and a global population of less than 10,000. 

Recovering: breeds once listed as critical, threatened or watch, but whose numbers are recovering.

Study: genetically interesting breeds that may lack historical documentation.

Heritage chickens

Commercial egg producers overwhelming use white Leghorns on their large-scale farms. Broodiness, or the desire to sit on an egg and raise chicks, has been bred out of them. Commercial meat producers have bred chickens that gain weight very quickly for early slaughter. Heritage poultry breeds can still reproduce through natural mating and raise and nurture chicks. They have the ability to forage outdoors and live a long life if safe from predators. Both egg and meat producers grow at a slower, more natural rate than commercial breeds. The following are some heritage poultry breeds:

Jersey Giant: large, calm, dual-purpose bird, lays brown eggs, on the “watch” list.

Delaware: friendly, medium-sized, dual-purpose bird, lays large brown eggs, considered “threatened.”

Wyandotte: beautiful, large, dual-purpose bird, calm and suitable for cold climates, on the “recovering” list.

Heritage pigs

Contemporary large-scale hog farms use three basic breeds: the Yorkshire, the Duroc and the Hampshire. These animals are designed to gain maximum weight rapidly. Heritage breeds that retain strong foraging and maternal abilities include the following:

Large Black: Extremely hardy and considered “threatened,” these docile pigs can raise their litters outdoors.

Gloucestershire Old Spots: Also threatened, this pig is a first-rate forager and excellent breeder, making it a good choice for the farmer who wants to raise pigs on pasture.

Hereford: On the “watch” list, this big pig gains weight easily and efficiently, and sows produce large litters.

Heritage dairy cows

The contemporary dairy industry relies almost exclusively on Holstein cows, with Jerseys coming in a distant second. While these cows are designed to produce high milk yields, natural mothering and other instincts have been almost bred out of them. For the small farm or home milk production, consider these breeds:

Milking Devon: This medium-sized red breed is currently “critical.” The hardy cows calve easily, and produce especially rich milk. Steers are also good draft animals for the farm aiming to go truly “green.”

Guernsey: This gold and white breed also produces golden milk that is high in carotene and butterfat. These docile cattle, currently on the “watch” list, are good grazers and easily adapt to different climates.

Dutch Belted: Also on the “critical” list, this distinctive breed is either black or red and sports a white “belt” around the midsection. Dutch Belted cows have unusually long lifespans; they calve and produce milk longer than most breeds.

Heritage sheep

Commercial sheep farmers, breeding for meat and wool, use a larger variety of breeds than other livestock operations. Still, many older breeds have fallen out of favor and are endangered. If you want to raise heritage sheep, consider these breeds:

Leicester Longwool: This breed, on the “critical” list, boasts truly lustrous wool. They are easy to handle and friendly.

Karakul: Considered “threatened,” this smaller breed produces a long fleece sought after by handspinners. They do well in various climates and are quite rugged.

Navajo-Churro: Listed as “threatened,” this breed, raised by Native Americans, produces nearly grease-free wool and thrives in hot or dry climates.

Heritage goats

Some of the once-popular goat breeds are in danger of dying out. Heritage breeds considered at risk include the following:

Oberhasli: Listed as “recovering,” this striking goat sports a brown coat with black markings, much like a Bay horse. Large and good-natured, Oberhaslis are not only good dairy goats, but also make suitable pack animals.

Spanish: On the “watch” list, this dual-purpose breed is hardy, has a long lifespan, and is quite fertile.

Guernsey: Considered “recovering,” this small, golden goat is friendly and makes a fine dairy goat and pet.

By cultivating and nurturing heritage seeds and animal breeds, we can improve the sustainability of our farms and protect the delicate balance of our ecosystem.

-Jane Meggitt

Jane Meggitt graduated from New York University and worked as a staff writer for a major New Jersey newspaper chain. Her work on pets, equines and health have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Daily Puppy, The Nest Pets, Horse News, Hoof Beats and Horseback magazines.



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