If you’re looking to add to your homestead chicken flock, consider raising some heritage chicken breeds.
I have a slight addiction problem when it comes to raising chickens, or so my husband keeps telling me. I want to raise all of the chickens, and heritage chicken breeds have a soft spot in my heart.
These breeds are the OGs – the ones that settlers, pioneers, and homesteaders depended on for decades to sustain their families. It didn’t matter what egg color they laid; what mattered is that they laid eggs steadily all year and didn’t need to be pampered to survive the climate where they lived.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, everyone had chickens. I grew up hearing stories about my great-great-grandmother chasing chickens down the road in the middle of the city. They lived downtown, but it was normal for families to have a small flock of chickens, and she had meat rabbits as well.
As more people begin to raise chickens ago, I hope to see more families picking to raise heritage chicken breeds. Once you add a few of these chickens to your flock, you’ll see how amazing they are, and you may never raise other breeds again.
What Are Heritage Chicken Breeds?
New chicken breeds appear all the time as more breeders cross lines and develop new ones, especially for egg colors. Heritage chicken breeds are different.
To meet this qualification, heritage chicken breeds are bred from a line that existed before the mid-20th century. It’s the job of the American Poultry Association to watch breeding and make sure that a heritage chicken is one that is hatched from a chicken sired by an APA standard-bred chicken.
Believe it or not, the APA started cataloging chickens in 1873!
If you take a look at the American Livestock Conservancy, they set the standards that must be followed for a chicken to be considered a heritage breed. Here are the definitions.
An APA Standard Breed
First, any heritage chicken breeds must be from parent and grandparent stock breeds that are recognized by the APA before the mid-20th century. They must have genetic lines that can be traced back for several generations.
Basically, these won’t come from a homesteader cross-breeding chickens in their backyard for egg color. While there is nothing wrong with that, they aren’t considered a heritage breed.
These chickens must be reproduced through natural mating, and they must come from mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stocks.
No genetically modified chicken breeds here!
Long, Productive Lifespan When Outdoors
One problem with newer breeds is that they don’t have as long of a productive lifespan as other breeds, but heritage chicken breeds are different. They need to have the genetic ability to live a long life and thrive in the pasture. Breeding hens should be productive for 5-7 years, and roosters should live for 3-5 years.
Slow Growth Rate
These chickens all have a moderate to slow growth rate, reaching average size in no less than 16 weeks. While you might think that a slow growth rate is bad, it actually means that your chicken has a stronger skeletal structure and healthy organs before developing muscle mass.
6 Reasons to Raise Heritage Chicken Breeds
When I learned about heritage chicken breeds, I wasn’t sure why I would select some of these over the other options. Hatcheries offer dozens of chicken breeds, so why do these standard out, especially as homesteaders.
Chickens came over with the settlers when they arrived at Jamestown, and they need to be prolific breeds that produced plenty of eggs but also had delicious meat.
Nowadays, we refer to those as a dual-purpose chickens.
Centuries ago, the idea of raising a pet chicken wasn’t something that would be considered. Settlers didn’t have Wal-Mart to go to to buy food, so all of their animals had to help them be sustainable and self-sufficient.
If you’re trying to decide what chickens to add to your homestead, here are some benefits of using heritage chickens.
1. Dual-Purpose Chickens
Centuries ago, modern industrialized farms had yet to create hybrid chickens like the Cornish Cross, so they needed their poultry to be able to serve two purposes: meat and eggs.
Heritage breeds are more likely to be dual-purpose than newer breeds, but they also grow slower. However, if you want a sustainable meat source, this is the way to go. You don’t want to have to purchase meat birds from hatcheries once or twice a year; that’s not sustainable.
2. Longer Egg Production
One of the requirements to meet the standards to be a heritage breed is that they produce eggs for 5-7 years. Hybrid chickens typically don’t produce chickens for that long, so raising these breeds ensures that you won’t have to replace your laying flock every two to three years.
3. Supports Conservation and Genetic Diversity
Did you know that there are over 36 chicken breeds that are in danger of extinction?
Honestly, I had no idea until I started reading information by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Creating hybrids and new breeds causes the older breeds to fall off the radar, but when you buy heritage chicken breeds, you support conservation and promote different breeds.
This may not seem important, but it encourages the genetic diversity of chickens. 90% of the chickens in America are factory-farm chickens, so if we want to continue with all of the amazing different breeds, we have to add these breeds to our homestead.
I’m all about that!
4. More Likely to Have Broody Hens
In my eyes, having broody hens is THE best way to add to your flock. Broodiness has been bred out of chickens, but no offense incubators – no one can hatch and raise chicks like a broody mama.
When you have a broody mama, you do nothing. Mother Nature takes over, but with industrial farming, broodiness was an undesirable trait, so it was bred out of them. Heritage chicken breeds are more likely to be broody.
5. Hardier Chickens
When I think about what type of chicken I want on my homestead, I want chickens that lay plenty of eggs and ones that withstand heat and cold. They should be cold-hardy chickens or even heat-hardy chickens, depending on where you live.
Chickens who cannot handle the environment where they are bred are one of the reasons why hybrids are a serious problem.
Think of Darwin and the survival of the fittest.
They have to be able to survive out in the cold or heat. Typically, parents pass down these advantageous traits to their children, but when you have hybrids, that doesn’t happen.
6. Better Foragers
Many homesteaders note that these chicken breeds are better foragers, finding tons of bugs and plants to eat. They are smart enough to to hide from predators, and they teach their young all of these skills as well.
11 Heritage Chicken Breeds
Ancona chickens originated from Italy then migrated to England in the 1850s, and eventually, immigrants brought this breed to America in 1888. These chickens have beautiful coloring, known for having black and iridescent green feathers that are speckled with white. The white tends to get larger and increase after each time that your chickens molt.
Anconas love to forage rather than being stuck in a coop, so if you have the property for them to run around, this breed is great. They lay medium-sized white eggs and are known for being cold-hardy despite having larger combs. `
2. Araucana or Ameraucana
These names are typically interchangeable, and they begin in Chile, eventually moving to the United States and developing into the breed that we know of today. Most people refer to these chickens as Easter Eggers, but E.E. isn’t a specific breed but rather chickens that lay a light-colored egg that is typically blue.
Ameraucana chickens have the telltale tufts around their eggs. They come in a range of colors from brown to blue and everything in between.
I’ve always had a few Ameraucana chickens in my flock, and they handle the varying temperatures in Ohio well. Whether it’s cold or hot outside, they do fine, and since they have small combs, you don’t have to worry that they’ll end up with frostbite.
Without a doubt, I think that every homesteader needs to have a few Australorps in their flock. These are amazing chickens that can lay over 330 eggs per year, and since the average Australorp weighs between 5.5 and 8lbs, they make excellent dual-purpose chickens.
I love how they look; black chickens are my favorite.
Australorps have black, almost iridescent feathers, that reflect green and blue. They tend to be relaxed, calm, and sweet, so if you have kids, these chickens are a kid-friendly breed.
4. Barred Plymouth Rock
Here’s another breed of chickens that I will forever have in my flock; I can’t get enough of the Barred Plymouth Rocks.
Years ago, Barred Rocks started off as a dual-purpose bird, and while they still have that label, more people than ever are breeding them for their meat. However, they are great egg-laying chickens.
This heritage chicken breed was popular from the 1840s until World War II when its favor began to decline for other breeds. I have no idea why because they are fantastic. Barred Plymouth Rocks are excellent layers, producing large brown eggs, and they’re cold-hardy with a great personality.
Brahmas are amazing chickens, in particular, Dark Brahamas are one of the largest heritage chicken breeds out there. They have long feathers around their feet and came to America in the 1800s. Brahmas lay medium to large sized brown eggs, but since they’re large, you also can raise Brahmas as meat birds.
Unlike other breeds, Brahmas excel at laying eggs in the winter. They lay a majority of their eggs from October to May, but they aren’t prolific layers. You typically receive three eggs per week from this breed.
I’ve only raised two Brahmas, but I noticed that they tend to be laid back and relaxed, and they don’t mind being inside of a coop or foraging. The only downside is that feathers feed and snow isn’t the best combination.
The Delaware chicken breed began in – SURPRISE – Delaware in the United States in the 1940s, so it’s a much newer breed than other chickens. They were developed for their egg laying production, but they’re well-known nowadays as a dual-purpose breeds.
For years, Delaware chickens were THE meat chicken, but when the Cornish Cross chickens arrived, that drastically changed. They’re making a comeback on small homesteads, especially those that want to focus on self-sufficiency and sustainability.
In recent years, I’ve noticed more homesteaders raising faverolle chickens, which began in France and came to America in the early 1900s. These chickens as listed as threatened by the livestock conservancy.
One thing that is different about faverolles is that they have several color varieties recognized by the APA. The most common is salmon and white; this is the only chicken breed with a salmon coloring!
Faverolles have feathered feet and a beard, and it’s considered a winter-hardy breed that doesn’t like the heat. The hens lay around 4-5 eggs per week; they originated with the goal of being a dual-purpose breed that lays eggs in the winter. So, if you’re trying to get more eggs in the winter, try Faverolles.
Another reason that homesteaders are loving Faverolles is that they’re known for going broody and sitting on eggs well. They’re docile and handle children well, perfect for a homesteading family.
Holland chickens are on the critical list, meaning that they’re on their way to extinction, and they’re the only one started in America on that list. These chickens look quite similar to Barred Plymouth Rock chickens. Years ago, a white Holland chicken existed, but it’s assumed to be extinct at this point.
Holland chickens are well-suited for small farms and homesteads. They lay 3-4 eggs per week, and since they’re a larger chicken, they work as a meat bird as well.
Since they’re larger, they handle cold winters well, but they aren’t considered a heat-hardy chicken. Hollands prefer to forage, and if left to free-range, they’ll forage most of their food rather than eat layer feed., but they handle confinement as well.
Unlike most chicken breeds that started elsewhere, Buff Orpington chickens started in America and eventually traveled to England and other European countries. Orpingtons ended up being one of the most popular chickens in England because they’re practical, hardy, and large birds that work for meat and egg production.
Believe it or not, until 2016, Orpingtons were on the endangered chicken list! While they are off the list now, it’s important to bring attention to this breed to ensure it never happens again.
Orpingtons lay tons of extra-large brown eggs, and they’re known for producing eggs well into the winter.
10. Rhode Island Reds
The very first chickens that we started with her Rhode Island Reds; they might be most popular chicken breed in the United States. RIRs are a farm chicken, known for being a dual-purpose breed.
As the name suggests, these chickens started in Rhode Island in the 1880s with the purpose of having a chicken breed that produces plenty of eggs but also offers plenty of meat. They typically weigh 6-8lbs and produce up to 300 eggs per year.
Something to note is that, as breeders got ahold of this breed, they started to breed them more for egg production and less for their meat. Efforts are being made to focus on bringing back the original Rhode Island Red chicken.
11. Speckled Sussex
The Speckled Sussex began in England over 100 years ago, starting as a meat bird, but now, it’s considered a dual-purpose chicken that lays brown eggs all year. It’s a gorgeous chicken with black and white speckles all over its body, making it one of the most attractive heritage chicken breeds.
Aside from its beauty, Speckled Sussex chickens are cold-hardy birds that are known for being amazing foragers and highly intelligent with spunky personalities. If you’re looking for chickens that will bring some fun to your homestead, you’ll love these birds, and they generally love to be held and with their humans.
Try Adding Heritage Chickens
Without a doubt, these heritage chicken breeds are the quintessential backyard homestead chickens. Follow in the footstep of homesteaders before us and try raising a few of these chickens this year.