What is a ‘Heritage’ Chicken?

When I chose to put ‘Heritage’ in the name of the hatchery, I quickly found out that the word means different things to different people. There is no official definition regarding its meaning about chickens, so I’m going to explain what it means to me, and also why I think some of the other definitions are not so good.

Here is my definition: Heritage chickens are the types that were popular and common before modern commercial chickens took over all the meat and egg production.

Can’t argue with that, eh? But do you know what was popular and common, way back then? Believe it or not, a lot of people think that purebred show birds were what used to be popular and common! Ah... no.

The ALBC, for instance, insists that heritage chickens are exclusively the breeds defined by the APA. http://www.albc-usa.org/heritagechicken/definition.html How could they not know that purebred show birds were even less common 70 years ago than they are today?

The ALBC says: “The value of the definition for farmers is that it safeguards the integrity of the breed as expressed by its genetics.” That would be the case if we were trying to produce feathers, but there is very little connection between the superficial characteristics that define an APA breed and the production traits that once made birds of each sort valuable. It is absolutely untrue that one can ‘safeguard the integrity of a breed’ by inbreeding within a closed gene pool. What nonsense!

Fortunately I’m old enough to know what the real situation was, prior to Frankenchickens, and have spent many hours interviewing positively ancient poultrymen (90+ years old) about what they and their fathers bred and raised in the 1920's, ‘30's and ‘40's... Purebred, they weren’t.

People who are interested in meat and egg production have always favored crosses and genetically mixed birds because they have ‘hybrid vigour’ – they are healthier and work harder for their owners. Actually, the modern commercial breeds represent this idea taken to the max; they are carefully crafted 4-way crosses, and that’s why they out-produce the heritage birds.

If you could tour some chicken farms from the 1940's, when the war created a big new market for chicken and eggs, you would not find a purebred flock. All farmers would add outside blood every few years, if not every year, to keep their flocks productive. They might try to maintain a consistent ‘look’ – red birds, for instance – but they were selecting for production traits and had little or no interest in the Standard of Perfection. In their advertising they often used breed names – which were regarded as classy – but they used very open gene pools.

And that pretty much describes TNHH’s chickens. After many generations of breeding inside the closed gene pool of each breed, we have added something else, or have added some birds from another flock that was outbred. We do select for ‘correct’ breed traits, but that is secondary to production traits. It’s our Heritage Cookbook recipe for healthy, old-style chickens!

Every Peep should earn her Keep!