Raise Your Food

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Raising Heritage Chickens for Meat and Eggs

Written By: Julie - Nov• 04•13

buckeye roosterWhen I got serious about raising meat for my family I decided that we needed a heritage breed. Heritage breeds are those breeds that have been recognized by the American Poultry Association since at least the mid 20th century. While we have raised the ubiquitous Cornish Rock X chickens, they are not able to reproduce naturally. They were delicious. They were also easier to raise than I had been lead to believe. However, having to buy new chicks for each batch is just not as self-sufficient as our family is hoping to be. So I started searching for a heritage breed of chickens that met our needs.

Breeding any animal comes with responsibility for the resulting offspring. Some people do keep chickens merely as pets, but most expect their chickens to be useful. Males will need to find jobs as sires for future offspring or in the case of farm animals, dinner. I wanted a breed that was heavy enough to yield a good-sized roaster. A three pound chicken just seems like a waste to me. I prefer a chicken that gets to at least 4 pounds of processed weight by harvest age, preferably larger.

Hens will need to be able to find jobs as egg producers. This will be easier if they are prolific layers. When they stop laying, it is nice if they are big enough to provide a decent meal as well. I wanted a dual purpose breed so both the hens and roosters could be successful in their careers. For a micro-farm to be profitable, and therefore able to sustain itself, both the male and female chicks need to be productive.

If I am going to go to the trouble of breeding chickens, I like the idea of helping to preserve an endangered breed. I soon narrowed down our list of potential breeds to those that are on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy list as threatened or critically endangered.  Both Delaware and Buckeye breeds are listed as Threatened, which means that at the last national count, there were fewer than 1,000 breeding birds. The estimated global population of each of these breeds is less than 5,000. Pretty cool to be able to play a small part in helping to preserve these heritage breeds. Both breeds are known for laying well and for making great meat birds.

Wait – did I just say I plan to eat endangered birds? Yes, yes I did. You see, with farm animals such as these, we need to breed them to protect them. The excess and less-than-perfect birds need to be removed from breeding programs. The obvious answer is to eat the extras. As we promote and encourage markets for these birds we also make it possible to keep breeding these birds in a sustainable way. Farms need to produce food and/or money and there is simply no practical way to rehome all of the excess chickens.

To protect a breed we need to hatch a lot of birds and keep only the best of the best for breeding. Serious breeders will hatch hundreds or even thousands of eggs each year. The best breeders are chosen by selecting those birds that are closest to the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection for each breed. Many breeders also select for how fast a breed reaches market weight or how fast the hens start laying, how often they lay, and other desirable characteristics.

After narrowing down my choice of breeds to Buckeyes and Delawares, I managed to find some gorgeous heritage birds from a couple of serious breeders (the rooster shown here is molting his tail feathers!). Tip – if you want to breed chickens for your own micro-farm – be sure to get your stock from a quality breeder. Hatchery birds are fine if all you want is eggs, but if you want to breed your birds you will want the superior genetics of birds from a breeder who is carefully breeding for size, color, body shape, and other qualities.

An important consideration for family farms is breed temperament. While there are always exceptions, some chicken breeds tend to be easier to handle and are friendlier with humans. I have found both the Buckeyes and Delawares live up to their reputations for being gentle and friendly. My Buckeye rooster has never shown a hint of aggression to anyone. I had to remove a rooster of a different breed who became aggressive with my daughter and was mean to our younger birds.

If you are interested in raising heritage chickens a good place to start is by looking at the resources on the ALBC web site. Check out the http://www.livestockconservancy.org/ site for info on breeds, breeders and more.


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