Beautiful, isn’t she? This is a Rhodebar, – an autosexing breed of chicken that originated in England in 1947 and is rare in Canada. We previously had Rhodebars in our flock along with Light Sussex, Ameraucanas, and commercial hybrids. I enjoy seeing the variety of feathers in a mixed flock in various colours, speckles, and spackles. Sadly, we don’t have Rhodebars nor any other heritage chicken breeds on our farm anymore. Unfortunately, we have had two key problems with our chickens that have influenced our farm makeup.
Problem #1: Biosecurity
Our previous flock was gathered from several sources – at least one of these groups of hens brought Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) into our flock. MG is a highly infectious incurable bacterial disease of birds. MG was something that we lived with while we had to in order to meet our production needs; but we felt it was ethical to cull our entire flock as soon as we had the opportunity to do so. Not only does MG bring production down significantly (10%-20%), we were constantly aware of the fact that we were putting our farm friends at risk of transferring the disease during farm get-togethers. So we took the financial hit, squared our shoulders, culled the flock, cleaned our premises, and started over. In order to reduce our risk of contracting MG in the future we now follow an “all in all out” replacement program with pullets derived from a single source that has commercial standards of biosecurity. For where our farm is at currently, we have not been able to figure out a method of introducing hens from additional breeder flocks that is a low enough biosecurity risk. The thought of keeping two separate flocks on our property has popped into my mind occasionally, but at this point in time we just don’t have the infrastructure or time to accomplish this sort of arrangement.
Problem #2: Egg Production
Our heritage birds just didn’t lay enough eggs for us to make profits without raising our egg prices significantly. Pricing for farm gate sales is its own challenge – suffice to say we are already competing with the convenience of one-stop-shopping and by going too high above retail prices, our customers probably won’t bother making the drive down for their eggs. While we had heritage birds, we were able to keep our flock from putting us in the red by keeping a flock makeup of 60% commercial hybrids. The excellent lay rates of the hybrids payed for the lack of production by the heritage breeds! This is one way to do it, but we still were not accomplishing more than paying for some basic costs – we were not truly profitable. I’d still be inclined to keep a small amount of heritage birds for the reasons I’ll outline below; but once we had gone through the steps of culling, cleaning, letting our buildings and fields sit empty to kill the bacteria, and starting over with a new healthy flock, the risk of bringing in birds from a different source is just too high for us.
Commercial Hybrids For Small-Scale Pasture-based Farming
Currently we only keep commercial hybrid layers and wow, do they ever lay eggs – you’ll often hear me saying that “they lay like the dickens” and they really do! We now have a flock that lays at a rate of 80% at minimum and usually lays upwards of 90%. We have found that commercial hybrid layers are a suitable choice for small-scale alternative method farming. In our case, we have found them to be hardy and well-adapted to pasture-based farming with rotational grazing. We do live in a mild climate here on the south west coast of British Columbia with very mild winters. Our hybrids of choice are Bovans – we find them to be less flighty, calmer, and more efficient on feed than other breeds that we have had. They rarely brood and they stay within the confines of their enclosure of moveable mesh fencing.
Bovan hens on pasture.
The Benefits of Heritage Breeds
Now, all that being said, I’d like to mention a few qualities about the heritage breeds that might make them the best fit for your farm. This is by no means an exhaustive list; but there are a number of notable characteristics that spring to my mind as qualities that I value about heritage breeds.
Heritage birds come in a marvelous array of colours, patterns, and sizes that are sure to please any flock owner. The beauty doesn’t stop at plumage either – various breeds lay eggs of various shell colours. Some flock keepers make it their mission to produce rainbow egg dozens in a wonderful array of whites, pinks, light browns, terra cotta, dark browns, greens, and blues. The colour continues beyond feather and egg: various breeds have different temperaments and behavioural traits that are sure to brighten the farmscape.
One of my favourites, a Light Sussex hen, exploring the pasture.
Heritage breeds allow for a flock-keeper to breed their own replacement layers and thus remain self-sufficient. The farmer doesn’t have to rely on going back to a commercial hatchery annually for a hybrid that is not reproducible. On the matter of self-sufficiency, heritage breeds can offer something else that commercial hybrids cannot: duality. Some breeds have been developed to be dual-purpose and can provide both eggs and meat in a perfectly self-contained farm cycle; augmented by the fact that many of the breeds have a strong instinct to brood and hatch their clutches of eggs.
3. Breed Preservation and Biodiversity
Commercial chicken genetics in Europe and the Americas are owned and controlled by only three companies and these are the genetics found on farms on a large scale (Robertson 2019). In nature, ecosystems with higher biodiversity are considered to be more robust than ecosystems with lower biodiversity. In population genetics, populations with higher genetic diversity are considered to be better able to withstand adversity than populations with lower genetic diversity, as events that effect some individuals in a population may not affect others that have a different genetic makeup. When we apply these ecological understandings to farm animals we can see the value in the diversity of farm species. As we see the way in which only a small genetic pool is being kept on a large scale commercially across Canada, we can understand the value of the heritage flocks around the countryside that is oftentimes overlooked. The greater the diversity of breeds being maintained in any particular farm species, the more robust the system. Thus, keepers of small and “backyard” flocks can be preserving unique breeds and gene pools and contributing to biodiversity, oftentimes without even realizing it (Crawford 1990).
4. Additional Thoughts
There is some thought that the hardiness of these breeds is superior to commercial stock because fanciers tend to cull selectively for health (Crawford 1990). As a side note, I have noticed (anecdotally, of course) that our heritage birds did not seem to continue with prolonged symptoms of MG the way our hybrids did, and I’d be curious to know your own experiences. How do you manage flocks with more than one source of origin? What steps do you take for biosecurity? What do you feel is the least risky method for bringing in fresh lines from small flock keepers?
Crawford, R.D. Editor. 1990. Poultry Breeding and Genetics. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Robertson, E. Commercial Breeding. True North Heritage Hatchery, https://truenorthfarm.ca/blog, (Dec 30, 2019).