Welcome to our new blog series, Everything You Need to Know. In this series we’ll explore the different terms and techniques we use on the farm. If you’re not sure what biodynamic farming means, or if you’re curious about the history behind Jewish agricultural practices, stay tuned. (Got a topic you’d like to see covered? Leave a comment below!)
In May we welcomed 48 heritage breed chicks to the farm. We made a pretty big deal about it on social media, but you may still be wondering—what ARE heritage chickens? Today we’re answering your questions and sharing everything you need to know about heritage breed chickens.
What does heritage breed mean?
According to the Livestock Conservancy, nearly forty U.S. chicken breeds face extinction. Over the past fifty years, the commercial poultry industry has bred just a few fast-growing hybrids. The over production of these specialized breeds means other chickens face extinction, and we face the loss of their genetic diversity.
The commercial poultry industry relies on hybrid breeds that grow quickly and lay a majority of their eggs within the first year. Yet these chickens lack essential traits like resilience, longevity, temperature tolerance, and the ability to forage. Heritage breed chickens have maintained these characteristics since they come from long genetic lines. As the Livestock Conservancy puts it, they’re the chickens you’d find on your great-grandparents’ farm.
“It’s the same idea as heirloom vegetables,” says Ellie Honan, our animal husbandry coordinator. “Heritage breeds come from a more natural, evolved gene pool.”
Because of this, heritage chickens have a long and productive outdoor lifespan. They grow more slowly and mate naturally. They thrive outdoors on farm pastures and not in small, cramped cages.
Why did Coastal Roots choose heritage chickens?
Raising heritage breed chickens is valuable for a few reasons. For one, we’re promoting better animal welfare. Hybrid birds raised in the commercial poultry industry have been bred to isolate certain traits. These hybrids suffer from major health issues—their legs break underneath them, and chickens as young as four months will have heart attacks.
We’re also helping preserve genetic diversity by raising heritage chickens. “We’re losing these breeds,” says Ellie. “It’s important to preserve their genes. As an educational forum, it will also be interesting to see how they differ: heritage breed birds have more instinct, intellect, and personality than heavily bred birds.”
Our four-week-old heritage flock includes Barred Rocks, Andalusians, Columbian Wyandottes, New Hampshires, and Leghorns. Once they reach 18 weeks we’ll move them from the henhouse to the farm where they can forage outdoors. They’ll start laying eggs when they become pullets (the chicken equivalent to teenagers). While heritage eggs start off small, as the chickens grow larger they will too.
By raising heritage chickens, we’re helping preserve genetic diversity and raising healthier birds!
Can you tell the difference?
One of easiest ways to identify heritage breeds is by their chest. A highly bred bird has a huge chest, whereas heritage chickens look like regular birds. They’re descendants of jungle fowl and resemble the type of bird you might find roosting in trees.
Heritage chickens also have more instinct and intellect. “When you’re breeding for a specific trait, you’re losing other traits, like parenting instincts,” says Ellie. Heritage chickens know to forage for bugs and other food to keep their bodies (and eggs) healthy. And while hybrid chickens can barely walk, our flock is already running circles around each other.
Compared to our regular production flock, these new heritage chicks are already showing distinct characteristics. “It’s been surprising,” Ellie says. “There really has been a difference in the energy level and personality already.”
As for the taste? The Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA)—our office neighbor—has shared anecdotes about serving heritage chicken to people over age sixty and hearing them marvel at the taste. “I haven’t tasted chicken like this since I was a child,” they say.
We’re excited to learn from this new flock and to eventually offer heritage eggs at our pay-what-you-can farm stand. Thank you for supporting Coastal Roots and for helping us practice sustainable, ethical farming!