Saving Heritage Breed Chickens

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Rhode Island Red Rooster, "Red"

Did you know there are many endangered heritage breeds of poultry? Chickens, turkeys, geese, and more are on the American Livestock Breeders Conservancy list of at risk breeds. The risk levels run from Critical to Studied. Over the years, the old breeds have been interbred in an attempt to control and reproduce characteristics like egg production, egg color, and meat production for commercial breeders.

During one of my talks on choosing your breeds, establishment, and care of your flock, a man interrupted me to say, “I’m sick and tired of hearing people like you talk about ‘old breeds’ and how we should be raising our birds like the old-timers. We don’t have the same birds they had, we know more than they did, and our feed isn’t the same.”

In my best southern I answered him, “Bless your heart,” by the inflection I placed on all three words my meaning was clear. 🙂 “If we establish our flock with heritage breeds, they are very close to, if not the same had by our grandparents, great-grandparents, and maybe even further back. You’re right, our feed is not the same. It’s made of GMOs. That’s why I free range, grow some of our feed, and when we purchase feed, we purchase organic, Non-Gmo feed. By doing this, I can feed my heritage breed chickens the way my grandmother and great-grandmother did.” He had no further comment.

What is a “heritage breed”?

The term heritage breed can be simply defined as breeds that were raised by our ancestors. They are animals we’d find on our great-grandparent’s farms. Most all heritage breeds are on the risk list. You will find a thorough definition of heritage breed chickens and standards they must meet on the ALBC site. There are dozens of chicken breeds on The Livestock Conservancy list.

Choosing a breed:

Deciding to help an endangered breed is just the first step. To choose a breed or breeds you have to consider a few things.

Your climate – You want to pick a breed that will do well where you live.

Purpose of your birds – Do you want dual purpose birds (birds for meat and egg production), or do you want birds just for meat or just eggs?

Size of bird you want – Standard or bantam. Most people have a preference as to which temperament, size of egg, and look they prefer. The size of housing and yard you have will be a deciding factor. Me personally, I don’t like bantam breeds. That’s just me, my grandmother liked them.

Will you free range or not – If you want or plan to free range your birds, you’ll need to be sure your birds are good foragers.

Do you want breeds that get broody – Today’s chickens are bred to not get broody so their egg production will stay up. A heritage breed hen will have the desire to set and hatch eggs. Some breeds are more broody than others.

Once you have made these decisions, you can determine which breed you want. The ALBC has a handy chart that will help you compare the different breed characteristics. Most hatcheries have something similar for you to use also.

We have chosen to raise at risk heritage breeds not only for their sakes, but for ours also. We have two breeds that my grandmother had and I enjoyed as a child. We used to have 5 different breeds, but have narrowed it down to our three favorite. We narrowed it down to three because we are adequately equipped to maintain the bloodlines of this many breeds without any difficulty.

As you can see in the photo of our chicken compound, we have two brooder coops and two rooster yards. One rooster stays with the flock, right now it is Red, our Rhode Island Red rooster. Sambo, the Black Australorp rooster, and the Speckled Sussex rooster (to be named Chief, probably) have their own yard. When spring rolls around and we are ready to breed, we put our best Black Australorp hen in with Sambo and our best Sussex hen in with Chief and let nature take its course.

Chicken Compound Breeding Yards

I add eggs from our RIR hens who are in the main flock with Red to each of the brooding hens’ nests and let them set. Once they begin hard setting, I shut their gates and the roosters are on their own again. So you see, three is the magic number for us.

What we raise:

We raise dual purpose birds because we are sustenance farmers. This gives us both eggs and meat. The breeds we have chosen are also our favorites personality wise.

Black Australorps

Black Australorp:

We started keeping this breed years ago because it is one that my grandmother had and enjoyed so much. When we first began keeping them, they were on the ALBC Threatened list. Now they are on the Recovering list. This breed originates from Australia. In the 1920s they were introduced to our country. They lay large brown eggs, are heat and cold tolerant, have great personalities, and are excellent foragers.

This breed proves to be an excellent meat bird. The roosters will dress out between 8 to 9 pounds and hens between 6 to 7 pounds, on average.

One hatchery site stated these hens are not likely to sit on eggs. In all my years of keeping this breed, I’ve found these hens to be excellent setters and mothers. Read about this year’s hatchings.

Rhode Island Red

Rhode Island Reds:

RIR is the other breed that my grandmother and my husband’s grandfather had. We began keeping them for nostalgic reasons a couple of years ago. They have proven to be a great asset to our flock. They were bred in the early 1900s in the state of Rhode Island. They’re on the Recovering ALBC list.

They’re heat and cold tolerant, good forgers, excellent layers of extra-large brown eggs, and have a friendly disposition. They’re also excellent meat birds with the roosters dressing out between 8 to 9 pounds and hens between 6 to 7 pounds, on average.

Our Rhode Island Red rooster, Red, is one of the best roosters we’ve ever had as far as watching out for the girls, friendliness, and general disposition.

Speckled Sussex Chickens

Speckled Sussex:

This is our favorite breed, edging out the other two only slightly. We find their dispositions, productivity, beauty, and reproduction habits unsurpassed. We’ve never had a better setter or mother than the Speckled Sussex. This bird was developed in Sussex County, England well over 100 years ago.

When we first began keeping them, they were on the Critical list. Now they’re on the Recovering list. I’m not questioning The Livestock Conservancy, but these birds are increasingly more difficult to obtain than we we first began keeping them. Maybe it’s their popularity that makes them hard to order.

They lay large brown eggs, are heat and cold tolerant, good foragers, and excellent meat producers. The roosters dress out between 9 to 10 pounds and hens between 7 to 8 pounds, on average.

Our Sussex rooster was named Chief because of his size and plumage. We lost our last Sussex to predators a couple of years ago and have been trying to re-establish them since. To do this, we pre-ordered our chicks in November to arrive in June. They arrived safely and our healthy happy birds.

Speckled Sussex Chicks

As organic, non-gmo farmers, it’s important to us to help preserve our heritage in the poultry, livestock, and seeds we use and reproduce here on the farm.

Do you raise heritage breed poultry? Which breeds? Why did you choose them? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below. You can also reach me personally by using the Contact Me page.

This post first appeared on Backyard Poultry Magazine

Safe and Happy Journey

Rhonda and The Pack


  1. Larry Kirkman on August 22, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Hello, I always wanted some chickens here on the farm. So this year I got my wish. I got 12 Rhode Island Reds hens and 3 rosters as chicks. They are now 17 1/2 weeks old. Soon to start laying for us.
    I did not think of them as a heritage breed. I just have always loved them.
    I am so glad I found you blog an look forward to reading many articles form you.
    Wishing you a great weekend.

    • Rhonda on August 22, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      Larry, I thank you so much for taking your valuable time to stop and share with us. You certainly picked an awesome breed! They are great layers and like people, I guess you know that though since you saw the article 😉 I’m so glad you’re a part of The Farmer’s Lamp Family. Be sure to always feel free to get in touch with any questions or concerns. If I don’t have a post on what you need, I can answer your questions personally. Thanks again.

  2. […] of increasing your flock. Especially if you have modern breeds. One of the reasons I choose to raise heritage breed birds is because of their ability to reproduce. Many modern chicken breeds have been bred for meat and […]

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