On our homestead, we currently raise 3 breeds of heritage chickens. Golden Laced Wyandottes, Plymouth Rock and Non Production White Leghorns.
If you are not "a chicken person," you may be asking, "What is a heritage breed chicken?"
According the the Livestock Conservancy, a chicken must adhere to the following standards in order to be considered heritage.
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.
Naturally Mating - 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.
Of the three breeds of chickens that we raise, the Plymouth Rock and White Leghorn chickens are both on the Livestock Conservancy's "recovering list", which means they were on the list of breeds that were in danger of extinction but, due to conservation efforts, their numbers have come back to a level that is no longer threatened. Unfortunately, these breeds could easily slip again and be put back on the list.
On a positive note, the other breed we raise, Wyandottes, were removed from all of the lists this year and are no longer in any danger. Yay! If you would like to see the complete list of breeds that are being monitored you can see it here.
When deciding what types of chickens we would keep for eggs, we took many things into consideration. The main items included egg production, ability to forage, and broodiness (the likelihood that a hen will sit on her own eggs). All of the breeds we raise excel in one or more of these categories.
Below is a general overview of each breed we keep.
White Leghorn: Leghorns lay approximately 280-300 white eggs per year. One of the best layers around.
Leghorns are active, even ambitious chickens. They are always willing to work, hunting and scratching, giving no prejudice to flower beds or dunghill; if there is scratching to be done, Leghorns are the chickens for the job. On range they are splendid foragers and small eaters. The breed is prolific, highly fertile, and hardy. Leghorn chickens lay very large numbers of white eggs – in fact, they lay as well or better than other breeds. It is the combination of hardiness, rate-of-lay, and small appetite that about 1870 turned American poultrymen’s heads and won the Leghorn chicken lasting popularity. (more here from the Livestock Conservancy)
Golden Laced Wyandotte: Wyandotte Chickens lay around 200 large brown eggs per year.
Wyandottes have a rose comb that is fairly flat and has small rounded points. These are smaller in the female. The face, wattles and ear lobes are bright red. The neck hackles of the cock are full and flowing and the tail is carried at a 40 degree angle. The Wyandotte is a friendly and calm breed that is cold hardy. They are not good flyers. The hens are good mothers and egg producers. The eggs range in color from light to brown. They are an excellent dual purpose bird and mature fairly quickly. They are quite big, weighing about 6.5lbs for the hens and 8.5lbs for the cock. (more here from the Livestock Conservancy)
Plymouth Rock: Plymouth Rock chickens lay around 200 large brown eggs per year.
Plymouth Rock hens grow to 7 ½ pounds and cocks to 9 ½ pounds and their rate of lay is very good at around 200. Temperament is calm and the birds are cold-hardy with early feathering. This chicken has a bright red single comb, face, wattles, and earlobes. The comb of this breed has five evenly serrated points with those in the front and rear shorter than those in the middle. The plumage should have feathers that are crossed by sharply defined, regular, parallel bars of alternate light (short of positive white) and dark (short of positive black) color. The barred color pattern is due to a dominant sex-linked gene. This gene does not add dark bars to light feathers but prevents pigment on colored plumage, thus creating light bars on dark feathers. The male carries 2 copies of the gene and the female only carries one copy, which is why the males are usually lighter in color than the females. (more here from the Livestock Conservancy)
Because we strive to live a sustainable life where we produce (and reproduce) our own food, keeping heritage breeds on our small farm is essential. It is also important to preserve these breeds for future generations. The Livestock Conservancy is committed to ensuring that these breeds, along with endangered breeds of horses, asses, sheep, goats, cattle, rabbits, and pigs, are still around for generations to come. If you are considering livestock for your homestead, check out the list of heritage livestock on The Livestock Conservancy's website. https://livestockconservancy.org