Last week hubby and I attended a lecture at The National Heirloom Festival about choosing heritage chickens given by Jim Adkins, an international poultry judge.
We certainly learned a lot of valuable information and I would like to share a bit of what I learned.
The first thing to know is the difference between heritage and heirloom. Basically it’s the same thing, except heirloom usually refers to plants, and heritage refers to animals.
So, what is a heritage chicken? According to Jim, there are four points to consider:
1. The breed must be recognized by the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection, which is a set of different qualities recognized in each breed of chicken, standardized before 1950. For instance, a “perfect” chicken from one breed may have very wide feathers, which would allow that breed to survive colder conditions than another breed with thin feathers, having been bred to live in more temperate regions. In other words, each breed of chicken is supposed to have certain qualities specific to that breed.
2. The bird must be able to naturally reproduce. I didn’t know this, but most of the meat birds purchased in grocery stores today are Cornish Cross hens. These birds are not sustainable because they cannot reproduce! They have been bred to be grown indoors and wouldn’t know how to forage for themselves, cannot reproduce and would probably not survive past the age of 6 months if not butchered at less than half that age!
3. The chicken must be able to live a long and productive life outdoors, and should be able to live and adapt to their environment.
4. The bird must grow at a slow growth rate. Cornish cross hens are butchered at an average of 37 days of life. That’s just 6 weeks and a day, folks! A Heritage chicken would need about 16 to 20 weeks to grow to the same size and stage of life. In fact, according to Jim, slow growing birds taste better and are actually more nutritious!
Further, all breeds listed in The American Standard of Perfection are dual purpose, which means they are good for both meat and for laying.
Another differentiation between terms regarding poultry are Organic and Natural. Organic poultry may not have antibiotics and must be fed certified organic feed. Natural poultry may be give antibiotics, doesn’t have to be given organic feed, and isn’t necessarily open ranged, though it is usually cage free. In other words, natural really doesn’t mean anything – it’s just a fluff word. However, is a chicken is labeled as organic, is must be to receive that certification.
One sad fact that Jim revealed to us was that in 1950 there were 1.6 million farms in the United States that produced about 580 million broilers. In 2007 there were only 27 thousand farms producing 8.9 billion broilers. Billion. Do the math. That means that in 1950 each poultry farm produced about 363 broilers. In 2007 each poultry farm produced 329,629 broilers! Wow! Big difference. No wonder it’s hard to keep quality control under control.
The second half of the lecture was to give us a quick overview on how to select birds for either good meat or laying production (or both).
What to look for in a meat bird:
1. Wide skull, because if the bird has a wide skull it will generally have a wide body.
2. Heart girth (the width of the body between the wings), should be wide as possible.
3. Body depth, which is the area from the top of the back to the belly, the deeper the better. Both the heart girth and body depth lend itself to a bird of substance – it will be heavier.
4. A wide, flat back. I didn’t understand this part. All I could picture was an old nag with a sway back. But I don’t think chickens can have sway backs, do they?
5. Breast bone (keel bone) should be long and straight.
So, when looking at a laying hen you should consider all of the above plus:
1. There should be a wide spread between the pubic bone and keel bone. These bones are together in a pullet. When a hen starts laying these bones spread apart. The further apart these bones are, the better the egg production. These bones should be pliable and the ideal layer has a 3 finger width between her pubic bones.
2. Moulting – birds hatches in the Spring of 2013 should not moult until the Fall of 2014. You want the moult to be as quick as possible because a hen devotes all her energy (protein) to feather production and not egg production. The moult should last no longer than 6-8 weeks.
3. The hen should have a soft abdomen. When a hen is in production, it’s like she is pregnant every day! Really! 😉 Can you imagine being pregnant most of your adult life? Kind of makes me have more respect for that hen!
4. Her vent should be open and moist! Okay – here’s the PG rated version – the vent is the area of the chicken where the egg comes out. If her vent is puckered and dry, she isn’t laying. Also, the vent will bleach out (become almost white) when she is laying, and so will her legs. So, if you have chickens and it seems that you aren’t getting enough eggs for the number of hens, you might check their vents to see who isn’t laying anymore! Then wash your hands! 😀
His final suggestion was that if you are just starting your flock and want heritage chickens, go to a breeder that breeds Certified Flock so that your birds will be true to the breed. This is important because many of the “big” breeders are not necessarily interested in selective breeding and may even allow birds that are inferior in qualities of their breed to reproduce. This may produce undesirable traits, such as aggressive behavior in males. Unfortunately, these big breeders are interested more in quantity than quality. He suggested that anyone interested in heritage chickens visit his website: Sustainable Poultry Network , click on Flock Certification, then on Certified Flocks (by state). This will tell you where to get certain breeds of heritage chickens in your state. It is also a great website if you want to raise heritage chickens for profit (become a breeder) and have your flock certified as well!
After finding out which heritage breeds of chicken are in my state (California) and reading about their traits, I think we have decided to get both Delaware and Chantecler Chickens when we begin our flock, from The Natural Trading Company, a breeder of heritage birds in Newcastle, California. If you have had either of these birds, please let me know how you liked (or didn’t) the breed. Apparently they are supposed to handle cold weather without skipping a beat in their egg laying. So, if you have had experience with these, or if you really like the breed you have (Orpington? Wyandotte?) tell me about it! Thanks.
No, really, the end. 🙂
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