In the world of chicken keeping, a debate exists between those who raise heritage breeds and those who raise imported breeds. The heritage breed advocates tend to be more vocal than those who prefer imports. I am one of the import fanciers and I am ready to make my case for raising imports, at least as it pertains to me.
Please understand that my opinion is not in exclusion of heritage breeds. I feel there is enough land and chicken feed available in the USA to serve both. I have all the admiration in the world for people who have worked for years to improve and restore breeds from America’s past. Some chicken breeds had become an unrecognizable hatchery image of their former selves, until dedicated poultry breeders brought them back to their former glory. Some breeds remain a work-in-progress. If you have a hatchery Barred Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire Red, or Rhode Island Red you will be surprised when you see these breeds at an APA-sanctioned Poultry Show. They are stunning and it is because of dedicated breeders. So, hat’s off to all the breeders of American heritage poultry and waterfowl.
And, if you like hatchery birds, that’s ok too. They are all chickens and there is no single “right” way to do it. If you like it, it fits your budget, and you have the space for it, raise whatever chickens you like. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently.
After six years of raising chickens, both heritage and imported breeds, we have chosen to work with the imported breeds. We keep a few random hens just for egg laying, assuring us a beautiful basket of tinted and dark eggs. But for breeding, we take a global stance.
- Endangered Status:
The Holland chicken is now the only American heritage breed on the Livestock Conservancy’s critically endangered list. There are others on the threatened, watch and recovering lists. Critically endangered means fewer than 500 breeding birds exist in the United States and estimated global population is less than 1,000. Some of the chicken breeds recently imported into the United States exist in numbers fewer than one hundred worldwide. They too are worth saving in my opinion and I am happy to be part of the effort.
I like birds of a different feather so to speak. While I appreciate the beauty of a show quality heritage breed chicken, I love the oddballs. A little flock of feather footed Pavlovskaja hens moving around the yard in lockstep fashion is a sight to behold. A flock of multicolored Icelandic chickens takes my breath away. While not a fan of large crests that block a chickens vision, I love a bird with a funky crest. All of the imports we are working with are crested, some with small, pretty crests and others with crazy, spiky crests. Mottled and spangled feather patterns suit our fancy as well.
Our imported birds are small to medium-sized chickens but still considered to be large fowl, not bantam. Many of the heritage breeds are huge in comparison. The smaller birds are easier for me to handle, they need less feed and they create less waste. That equates to less work for me and fewer 50 pound bags of feed to move. While that might not be important to most folks, given my health issues, it is a big deal. It allows me to be a keeper of chickens, a hobby I am not yet ready to give up. Worthy of mentioning, not all imported breeds are small either. The imported English Orpingtons are massive birds so, if you choose imported breeds, do your homework.
- Egg Production
Bear with me on this point as it is a bit convoluted. Most people prize the bird that lays the most eggs. Many breeds are bred specifically for their ability to lays large eggs and plenty of them. This is important for someone who sells eating eggs, but not so much for me. I thought I wanted to sell eating eggs until I actually tried it and found that it is definitely not for me. I can’t use all the eggs I collect. I wish I could donate them to the food bank but they don’t accept them. Too many eggs go to waste or get cooked and fed back to the chickens. I feel guilty about wasting food. I am perfectly happy with my imported breeds that lay fewer, and often smaller eggs. I like enough to hatch and sell day-old chicks or fertile hatching eggs, but not so many that they go to waste. Production layers are more prone to reproductive disorders too. Give me a lazy girl with pretty colored feathers and a crazy hairdo and I’m perfectly happy.
This is truly my personal observation, but my imported breeds are spunkier and a lot more fun than the big layer girls. From the day dear Stella flew over the fence and joined our flock, it has been one adventure after another. Our imported breeds, especially the Icelandics, have been excellent free ranging birds and the roosters are awesome flock masters.
This is tough one because there is much good to be said about a broody hen. She will incubate and hatch the eggs, and raise the babies for you. One broody hen is a good thing but a bunch of them is a chaotic mess of fighting, squished eggs, abandoned eggs, stolen chicks, and loss of egg production for months on end. Most of our imported birds are considered “infrequently broody” but it will be next year before we know if that is truly the case. I certainly hope so, although a broody hen now and then is always welcomed.
We have chosen breeds known for their hardiness and ability to tolerate temperature extremes. While it doesn’t get terribly cold here in northern CA, it does get hot. Some of the bigger bodied birds don’t tolerate heat as well as others. Our coops are insulated to maintain comfortable temperatures and muffle noise. Each chicken run has two types of automatic waterers to assure that fresh water is always available.
One chicken requires four square feet of space in the coop and a minimum of ten square feet of space outside. An overcrowded, poorly insulated coop is a recipe for disaster. We have four small coops with a maximum occupancy of 9 chickens each and a large coop which will accommodate 15 chickens. Since my imported breeds are smaller than their heritage counterparts, they actually have more space to stretch out, eliminating fighting and feather picking. Our large outside runs would accommodate up to 375 chickens but, thanks to zoning regulations, we are limited to one hundred, so that will never happen! By using best management practices, hobby farmers can greatly reduce or eliminate problems of odor and fly control, noise, and contamination of surface and ground waters.
Our current plan, should all go as expected, will be for each small coop to house a rooster and 7-8 hens. That is a perfect ratio to maximize fertility of eggs and avoid over-mating of hens. I like to sell fertile hatching eggs within four days of being laid. With this plan, I can easily have a couple of dozen hatching eggs to sell weekly during peak laying season. The large coop will serve as a retirement home for the old girls, a place for broodies and babies, and home to our little layer flock for eating eggs. So while we are zoned for 100 chickens we will certainly be at a more manageable 50 or so, smaller imported birds.
I am not referring to chicken drama, rather breeder drama. The chicken forums are rife with spats and disagreements. Who has the best birds, the darkest Marans eggs, the top show quality bird? Whose birds come closest to the Standard of Perfection, and whose line carries disqualifies. This is just a partial list of poultry defects and disqualifications according to the American Standards of Perfection!
- Stubs or feathers on shanks or between toes.
- Leg and toe color foreign to breed
- Decidedly squirrel tailed or decided wry tail.
- Slipped wing, split wing or clipped wing.
- Twisted main feather in wing or tail.
- Entire absence of mail tail feathers.
- Side sprig on single comb.
- Split comb.
- Comb foreign to breed.
- Rose comb falling to one side.
- Lopped single comb except in female of the Mediterranean class and the New Hampshire breed.
- Absence of spike on rose comb varieties.
- Crooked backs.
- Deformed beaks.
- Bowed legs or knock-kneed (matter of degree).
- Enamel white in the earlobe of American or Asiatic varieties.
- Entire absence of spurs on cock birds.
- Brown or buff quills of primary or secondaries in white varieties.
- Foreign color in any part of plumage of white varieties except slight gray ticking.
- One or more entirely white feathers in outer plumage of Rhode Island Reds or New Hampshires.
- Two or more solid black primaries, secondaries or main tail feathers in Barred Plymouth Rocks.
- Red or Yellow in any part of the plumage of the Barred Plymouth Rocks.
- Red covering more than 1/3 of the surface of ear lobes in cockerels or pullets in White Leghorns, and more than 1⁄2 in cocks and hens.
- Faking in any way.
- In all breeds having weight clauses, except leghorns, Anaconas, Bantams, and turkeys, any specimen falling more than two pounds below standard weight.
- In Leghorns and Anconas males falling more than 1-1/2 pounds and females more than one pound under standard weight.
I just can’t get into all this. I don’t even like to weigh myself, much less my chickens. I’ll leave this to others, while I raise my imports, many of whom do not have a Standard of Perfection, even in their native country. Where a standard does exist, we will strive for that, even if it means weighing them. 🙂
I also have to mention that drama amongst chicken breeders is not limited to heritage or American Poultry Association recognized breeds. A flap in the Icelandic chicken community couple of years ago nearly caused me to give up the breed. So I retreated to my corner, allowing the troublemaker her 15 minutes of fame, but kept my Icelandics and even quietly added new blood lines to my flock. I will never be as vocal an advocate for Icelandic chickens as I once was, but my love for them is as strong as ever. I am too old for chicken drama. Raising chickens should be an enjoyable pastime, not a platform for bullies.
At this time, our plan is to breed and sell hatching eggs and day old chicks of four selected imported breeds. We will spend the Fall and Winter growing our little flocks to the point of lay. Hopefully by Spring 2015 we will be back in business selling rare breeds to backyard poultry enthusiasts who like quirky as much as we do! Please check back for availability of:
- Icelandics, from Iceland
- Pavlovskajas, from Russia
- Brabanters, from Belgium
- Le Merlerault, from France