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Frequently Asked Questions About Chickens

 

 

Which breed should I get?
What is a Heritage Chicken?
Helpful Terms & Definitions
Chicken Care & Keeping
Where can I buy Heritage Chickens?
Poultry Resources

Which breed should I get?

Which breed is right for me?
To determine this you have to answer several questions.

  • Where do you live? Pick a breed that is adapted for your climate.
  • What are your land and shelters like? If the birds are to range freely, choose a breed that is a good forager.
  • What do you want the birds to do? Provide the family with meat, eggs, both, neither? Choose a breed that best meets these needs.
  • Which breeds do you like? Pick one that you like to look at and will enjoy working with for years to come.

When you have answered ALL of these questions, and have written a job description for your future chickens, go through ALBC’s Guide to Rare Breeds of Chickens to help select the appropriate breed for you.

Which breeds are quiet & calm?
Asiatic breeds, like the Brahma and Cochin, are the calmest and quietest. The Mediterranean breeds, like the Leghorn and Minorca, are the most active and the noisiest. The American, Continental, and English breeds fall in between.

What breeds of chickens do well in extreme cold?
Heavy breeds with small combs and wattles are more cold-hardy and not as prone to frostbite. As examples the Chantecler, which was developed in Canada, has a pea comb, and the Buckeye, which was developed in Ohio, has a rose comb.

What breeds of chickens do well hot and humid areas? Chickens that are light-colored, lightweight birds with large combs and wattles (that help dissipate heat) are best suited for hot, humid areas. These birds are generally better egg layers than meat birds. The Leghorns, for example, were developed in the Mediterranean where the weather is hot and humid. If you want to raise birds for meat, choose one that has a larger comb and light- colored feathers.

Which breeds will hatch their own chicks?
Most chicken breeds have had the broodiness, or the inclination to sit on their eggs, bred out of them. When the hen starts to set she quits laying eggs. Most people, both historically and in the current times, wanted their chickens to lay more eggs, thus, they selected for chickens that were not broody. Some hens will still go broody. Some of these will be good mothers. If you have a broody hen in your flock, and you want to develop this trait, keep the hen for next years breeding. Keep some of her sons as well, as they will pass this trait on to their female offspring.

What is a Heritage Chicken?

What is a Heritage Chicken?
ALBC defined Heritage Chicken in April 2009. The abbreviated definition reads: “A Heritage Egg can only be produced by an American Poultry Association Standard breed. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a Heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.” Click here to see the full explanation.

What is a Standard chicken?
A Standard chicken has a description that has been adopted by the American Poultry Association. Heritage Chickens must be APA Standard breeds.

Are all of the breeds of chickens on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List considered Heritage?
Almost. Only a few are not considered Heritage because they are not APA Standard breeds. They are the Iowa Blue, Manx Rumpy (a.k.a. Persian Rumpless), Nankin, and Russian Orloff. The Nankin is a truly great, historic, natural bantam, though it is not an APA Standard breed.

Is a chicken Heritage if it does not meet the breed Standard as defined by APA?
No. A breed must meet the Standard to be considered Heritage. That is why it is important for those interested in marketing their chickens as Heritage to know the Standard for their breed and, if breeding, to select to the Standard. Because many breeder flocks have not been selected for production qualities and weight requirements as defined by the Standard, many birds will not qualify as Heritage. Producers need to know the quality of the breeding stock from which their production chickens come so they can legitimately claim the Heritage Chicken label.

Is a chicken Heritage if it is raised in confinement?
No. Heritage Chicken must be raised outdoors on pasture to qualify. Why? The natural exposure of chickens to elements and naturally occurring pathogens will ensure that these breeds will retain robust immune systems and healthy constitutions. Additionally, outdoor foraging tests their legs and bodies. If a bird can not walk, actively forage, and naturally mate, it needs to be culled (or removed from the breeding group).

Is a chicken Heritage if it is produced through artificial insemination (AI)?
No. All breeding stock must produce offspring through natural mating to be considered Heritage. Birds conceived through AI may not be labeled and marketed as Heritage, regardless of the purity of their bloodlines.

Who polices the term Heritage'?
Consumers ultimately assure the authenticity of the Heritage label. By knowing the meaning of the definition and knowing what they are buying, they can protect the meaning of Heritage and its value in the marketplace. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Standard Bred Poultry Institute, Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, and others will continue to educate the public and advocate for the honest use of this term.

I have heard Freedom Rangers, Label Rouge, sex-links, and other commercial chickens referred to as Heritage? Are they?
No. They don’t fit the first point of the definition: “Heritage Chicken must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; and with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed. Heritage Chicken must be produced and sired by an APA Standard breed.”

The Label Rouge is a French production system that has enjoyed considerable success. For a nice summary of the system see Label Rouge: Pasture-based Poultry Production in France by Anne Fanatico and Holly Born.

Helpful Terms & Definitions

What is the difference between a meat, egg layer, and dual purpose chicken?
Meat birds have a blockier body that fills out with muscle for meat. It will lay fewer eggs, as a general rule. The egg layer is leaner and rangier in body type. It will lay more eggs, as a general rule. The dual purpose chicken is intended to grow a good body, adequate for putting meat on the table, and lay a nice quantity of eggs. The dual purpose chicken will not provide as large a carcass as a meat bird, nor lay as many eggs as an egg layer.

What is the difference between bantam and large fowl, sometimes confusingly called Standard birds?
A bantam is a small breed. The large fowl are the larger birds that have and are still used for production. Most bantams are scaled down models of large fowl and were developed for the pleasure of show.

Chicken Care and Keeping

What do chickens eat?
Chickens are omnivores with simple stomachs. That means they can and will eat both animal and vegetable products. In addition to foraged plants and insect, as caregivers, it is important to provide them with adequate protein in a form that is easily digested, especially if you’re growing chickens for market. Heritage Chickens need more protein than is in rations prepared for commercial chickens. ALBC recommends feeding for the first 16-18 weeks of age a ration containing 28% protein, most often found in Game Bird rations or Flock diets for turkeys and waterfowl. For adult birds, the feed protein level can be backed off to 18-20%. For breeding birds, make sure their diet consists of a quality diet formulated for breeders. Note that the typical layer pellet is an industrial breed ration that contains minimal calcium and often does not include sufficient vitamins and minerals to ensure high fertility and hatchability of eggs. If you are growing for market do not skimp on the food - ever. Provide fresh food and clean water throughout the day to ensure healthy, productive birds.

Do I need a coop?
Coops are a wise investment as they keep your flock safe from nighttime predators. Before acquiring chickens, learn what predators might be in your area and prepare accordingly.In ALBC's Turkey Manual, Chapter 8 is called "Protecting Heritage Turkeys from Predators." This is a good place to start. Resources about coop and fence building can be found in many of the published resources at the bottom of this page.

I currently have chickens and would like to add turkeys. Can they be raised in the same area?
It is generally not a good idea to raise chickens and turkeys together. Turkeys can contract a disease commonly known as “blackhead” from infected chickens. The protozoa that cause the disease, Histomonas meleagridis, does not negatively affect chickens, but can be lethal to turkeys. However, if you know your ground is free of the protozoa and your chickens and turkeys are healthy you should have no problem running chickens and turkeys together.

What is the American Poultry Association?
The APA is the oldest agricultural organization in North America. They develop, revise and maintain the descriptions - known as Standards - for poultry. The APA publishes the American Standard of Perfection that contains all of the standards and a wealth of information that will help breeders.

How do I keep my birds healthy?
Be an excellent poultry husband. That is old language for take very good care of your flock. When they are chicks, you have replaced their mother. Take care of them with the same consideration and concern you would have for any newborn. Keep them warm, clean, and dry. Give them nutritious food and clean water. As they grow, keep your standards high and you will be rewarded with healthy birds. If you do get a disease in your flock, be careful not to track it to your friends flock. Develop and follow a biosecurity plan for your farm before you get your first chick. If you already have a flock, start now. There is no time like the present. ALBC has developed some biosecurity materials to help breeders and raisers keep their flocks healthy.

For breeders, it is wise to have your birds tested by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) for several infectious diseases, including pullorum and typhoid. NPIP is interested in keeping the national flock healthy. This testing is simple and free. Each state manages the implementation of NPIP within its borders. Contact your state vet for more information.

If commercial layer feed is optimized for commercial hens in production, is there any danger in feeding such a high-calcium feed to heritage breeds that lay significantly fewer eggs (or to hens that aren't laying for several months during winter?) Can mature chickens excrete excess calcium without health problems? (Answer courtesy of Donna Carver, NC State Extension)

Calcium needs of different types of poultry can be very confusing. First of all, excess calcium can damage the kidneys of birds causing renal (kidney) failure and/or gout. While the reproductive tract is not affected directly, birds with renal disease are not likely to be good layers or to lay at all.

Calcium utilization by all creatures is dependent on phosphorus and vitamin D as well. Feeding birds the proper amount of calcium and phosphorus is tricky because they deposit so much calcium in their egg shells. Basically, young birds need calcium and phosphorus sufficient to build a strong skeleton. Grower feeds are ideal for this and layer feeds should not be fed to chicks due to there being an excess of calcium which must be excreted. Switching to a layer diet is important just prior to or at onset of lay. The calcium requirement goes up quickly when egg shells are being produced. If there is not sufficient calcium circulating in the bloodstream hens will remove calcium from their bones to deposit on the eggshells. Layer mash should work well for providing needed calcium during lay.

As for heritage breeds who do not lay eggs as frequently as industrial leghorns, you need to provide additional calcium but may not need the levels found in layer diets developed for commercial layers. You might consider these breeds "breeders" in terms of nutritional needs. You can ask your feed supplier for a diet that would be used for "broiler breeders". These birds lay fewer eggs than standard industrial birds but have calcium levels sufficient to support strong eggshells and developing bones in the embyros. One thing to consider is that heritage breeds have egg shells that contain more calcium (thicker) than those that you find in the grocery store, so they are likely using more calcium per egg than commercial layers.

Where can I find more information about keeping heritage chickens or raising poultry for market? ALBC has assembled a list of published resources. You’ll find it just below.

Where can I buy Heritage Chickens?

Where can I buy purebred chickens to raise or breed?
Resources are available for people interested in buying chickens to raise and breed. Click here for the online breeder's directory.

Additional sources containing lists of or advertisements for chickens by breed and variety include:

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Breeders & Products Directory. The directory includes members who report breeding, a list of hatcheries, and chicken breed clubs. A hard copy comes with ALBC membership. Join ALBC

The American Poultry Association, PO Box 306 Burgettstown PA 15021 (724) 729-3459

The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities Directory, Charles Everett, 1057 Nick Watts Rd., Lugoff, SC 29078, crheverett@bellsouth.net

Chicken Breed Clubs
Poultry Press, PO Box 542 Connersville, Indiana 47331, 765-827-0932

Resources

Organizational Resources:
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312, (919) 542-5704. www.albc-usa.org

The American Poultry Association. Box 306 Burgettstown PA 15021 (724) 729-3459, www.amerpoultryassn.com

American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. PO Box 87, Boyd, WI 54726, 888-662-7772, www.apppa.org

The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Charles Everett, 1057 Nick Watts Rd., Lugoff, SC 29078, crheverett@bellsouth.net, www.feathersite.com/Poultry/SPPA/SPPA.html


Published Resources:

Many of the following items can be purchased through the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. A wealth of valuable husbandry information can be found in books and leaflets published before the 1950s. While the health information is dated, much of the management information was written expressly for the breeds we now define as Heritage. These out-of-print items are often worth reading. ALBC maintains a reference library which contains many of these publications. Anyone is welcome to visit the office to use the library. We also welcome new additions.

Sand Hill Preservation Center Catalog. Annual. It contains a wealth of data on each breed including such things as egg size, rate of lay, etc. Available from Sand Hill

American Standard of Perfection. American Poultry Association. Contains the standards for chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Available from the APA.

APA Yearbook. American Poultry Association. Annual. Contains advertisements with contact information for breed clubs and breeders of purebred poultry. Available from the APA.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens
by Gail Damerow. Storey Publishing.

Eggs and Chickens by John Vivian.A Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin. Storey Publishing. 1978.

Building Chicken Coops by Gail Damerow. A Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin. Storey Publishing. 1999.

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock by Judy Pangman. Storey Publishing. 2006.

The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. Storey Publishing. 1994

Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game by John J. Mettler, Jr., DVM. Storey Publishing. 1986.

Counting Our Chickens: Identifying Breeds in Danger of Extinction by Marjorie Bender, et. al. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. 2004. Reports on the status of chicken breeds in the United States. Contains contact information for breeders of all breeds of large fowl.

How to Raise Heritage Turkeys on Pasture by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. 2007. While this book is written for heritage turkey producers, it contains useful information for chicken producers on predator protection, health promotion and biosecurity, labeling, marketing, and more.

Chicken Assessment for Improving Productivity by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. 2008. This free download from the ALBC website shows breeders how to determine which birds in their flocks are the most productive and should kept for breeding. Individuals following these guidelines can improve the overall quality of their flocks within 3 – 5 years.

Biosecurity materials are available from many sources. ALBC has developed several tools that are considered among the best available. Several items can be found at this link.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has developed a wealth of information. Some of this is published in book form. Other is available as on-line reports from SARE funded grants.

Resources for Small-Scale Poultry Keepers by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension

 

Links


Definition of Heritage Chicken

ALBC Conservation Priority Chicken Breeds

Pick-A-Chick: Heritage Chicken Breed Comparison

Download Press Kit

Materials for Heritage Chicken Breeders

Frequently Asked Questions

Where to Find Heritage Chickens

Additional Resources

 

Poultry Resources

ALBC's Chicken Assessment for Improving Productivity

Cooking with Heritage Chicken