It’s a bucolic scene. A green pasture dotted with a rainbow of happy poultry scratching the ground and pecking for food to their hearts’ content. The hens chatter contentedly, and roosters crow when the mood strikes. The chickens might be jet black, brown, buff, gray, bronzish-red or a mix of other feather colors and patterns. But all are striking in appearance and fascinating to watch.
A basket full of naturally tinted eggs—brown, cream, green, blue and white—attracts neighbors to the farm for their weekly dozen. A local farm-to-table restaurant buys all the meat—prized for its flavor—that the farmer has for sale.
The poultry mentioned in this scenario could all be rare breed chickens on the Conservation Priority List of The Livestock Conservancy, a national organization with a specific mission: “To protect America’s endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.”
In the commercial poultry world, white is the color of choice whether they’re laying hens or broilers, ducks, geese or turkeys. Yet, for poultry enthusiasts, many other breeds to choose from exist, offering varied options in color and form and valuable genetics in danger of being lost.
Value of Diversity
Today’s animal agriculture is dominated by just a few breeds in each livestock species, admittedly because those outshine the rest in efficiency of meat, milk or egg production. In dairy cattle, the black and white Holstein cow stands easily above the rest in volume of milk produced.
But according to Chad Dechow and Wansheng Liu, researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, nearly all of today’s Holstein male pedigrees trace back to two bulls from the 1960s. What if something goes awry with those bloodlines?
A similar dilemma faces some breeds of poultry, beef cattle, sheep and goats, swine and even equines. A May 2019 United Nations Biodiversity Convention review estimated that 30 percent of the world’s livestock breeds were in danger of extinction and that six breeds were lost every month. The same report stated that 75 percent of the world’s food supply comes from only 12 plants and five animal species, illustrating how loss of biodiversity could intensify human food insecurity.
“Each breed represents a piece of genetic diversity for the species,” says Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at The Livestock Conservancy and a poultry fancier working to preserve the Crévecoeur chicken breed. “When we lose a breed on our Conservation Priority List, we lose diversity we can’t get back because animals that were used to create the breed no longer exist.”
Beranger says that the traits carried on those genes can be in the form of mothering ability, fertility, disease resistance, flavor and so much more. Conserving these genetics ensures they will be available should they be needed later. As American agriculturist and U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security Cary Fowler put it: “We can’t simply look in a crystal ball and see what genes we will need in the future.”
David Adkins, the American Poultry Association secretary, licensed poultry judge and breeder of White-Faced Black Spanish chickens (which are TLC listed as “threatened”), agrees. “One problem you have when there are so few birds of a particular breed is trying to maintain a big enough gene pool that they don’t become so inbred that they basically stop being able to reproduce.
“They may still lay eggs, but the fertility goes to nothing.”
Sorting the Terminology
When researching, it’s important to understand how the words “rare,” “standard-bred” and “heritage” are applied when it comes to describing poultry breeds.
Rare breed chickens are simply that: breeds that are scarce or endangered.
The APA calls their recognized purebreds “standard-breds,” which means they’re bred to a standard of perfection, a written description of the ideal male and female of each individual breed. APA standard-breds include many breeds with a long history of being bred in America, whether they were developed here or imported many years ago.
With a few exceptions, most of the endangered poultry breeds on the TLC’s Conservation Priority List are also breeds recognized by the APA. Beranger explains that some TLC-listed “landrace” breeds (regionally developed and adapted to the conditions of that area) aren’t APA-accepted to date. Cotton Patch geese are an example.
The word “heritage” is often associated with rare breed chickens and livestock and may be confusing. Synonyms and definitions of the word include:
- passed down from generation to generation
- a traditional brand or product regarded as emblematic of fine craftsmanship
While these may all apply to endangered poultry breeds, make sure to understand how the term heritage is being used in livestock advertisements. Is it simply a marketing tool or does it mean something specific in terms of the animal’s bloodlines? When TLC uses the word on their website it means “rare or endangered standard-bred poultry,” according to Beranger.
Also, some of these legacy breeds exist in sufficient numbers, so they aren’t on the TLC’s Conservation Priority List. And, some recently imported rare breed chickens available in the U.S. aren’t APA-recognized because the process to admit them hasn’t yet been completed.
Reasons to Raise Rare Breed Chickens
In addition to doing good work by preserving genetics, raising and marketing these traditional breeds gives the producer a chance to spotlight value-added traits such as enhanced flavor of the meat and eggs and the novelty of additional egg colors. If they wish to market breeding stock, they can tout the beauty and virtues of their favorite breed.
For the competitive-minded or those who want feedback on the progress of their breeding program, exhibiting at shows is a great way to fulfill those goals and have fun socializing at the same time. Rare breed chickens can make great youth projects for 4-H, FFA and APA Junior Shows and even be cherished family pets.
Dave Anderson of Fillmore, California, is a past president of the APA and TLC board member. He finds the breeding and exhibiting of standard-bred poultry to be very rewarding in many ways.
“There is a certain satisfaction in continually trying to create a more perfect bird via selective breeding and also in knowing that you are helping to keep some of the old, rare breeds prospering,” he says. “Another very important aspect of the hobby is the life-long friendships developed throughout the years with people who share your interests.”
Another long-time poultry breeder, Don Schrider of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, has specialized in Light Brown Leghorns since 1989 and proudly shares that his flock descends from the stock of four top breeders who are all gone now. He was fascinated by his neighbors’ chickens from the time he was 2 years old and started keeping his own poultry by age 13.
“I have always enjoyed watching chickens,” he says. “They interact with each other, are inquisitive, always moving about. Then there is the beautiful plumage in many stunning colors. While they provide food, eggs and meat, they are also exotic birds. I show competitively and enjoy the camaraderie and the competition. For me, the chickens have been a big part of my life for many decades.”
Paul Bradshaw is owner of Greenfire Farms in Havana, Florida, where they raise a variety of rare breeds, some very new to U.S. soil (thus not APA-recognized or TLC-listed) and others that are APA-recognized and on the TLC’s list. They market fertilized eggs, chicks and started adults. Bradshaw notes a huge increase in interest in legacy poultry in recent years.
“The average small-scale chicken owner doesn’t want boring chickens with no survival skills, and that’s the best way to describe modern, commercial strains,” he says. “Heritage breeds are beautiful, hardy and often the embodiment of fascinating history.”
Adkins offers three points to consider for anyone interested in getting started with poultry, whether rare breed chickens or something else.
First, spend time investigating the various breeds and, based on that research, determine which are of most interest. He cautions against trying too many breeds at one time to help sort out preferences without being overwhelmed.
Second, clearly outline your objectives. “Are you just wanting chickens in your backyard for eggs?” he asks. “If that’s the case, any of the hatcheries will sell you some chicks and ship them to you through the mail, and that will be fine for what you want to do. On the other hand, if you think you want to get into the exhibition aspect of things, then spend some time to find a reputable breeder to purchase your birds from.”
Third, plan what equipment and supplies will be needed to keep the poultry healthy, happy and safe. Consider the space needed to raise them, and devise a plan to deal with potential predators.
“Most of the time you can have some chickens loose in the backyard, but if you don’t pen them up at night, it won’t be long before you won’t have any more chickens,” Adkins says.
Selecting a Breed
All interviewees emphasize that it’s very important to obtain a copy of the APA’s Standard of Perfection. It’s the definitive guide to all recognized poultry breeds and varieties and includes many artist representations (of large and bantam chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea fowl.) All advise reviewing as many other references as possible, too, including books, magazines, websites, hatchery catalogs and videos.
The TLC and APA websites feature lots of useful information including breed descriptions and links to clubs, advice on getting started and poultry care, a glossary of terms and definitions, breeder advertisements and more. The Livestock Conservancy Directory of Rare Breeds and Products Resource Guide and the annual APA Yearbook are places to start looking for birds, too.
They all suggest going to poultry shows to see the various breeds and talk with competitors (when they aren’t busy) as a great way to learn more. Adkins says an easy way to find poultry shows in your area is to look under the “Events” or “Shows” tabs on the APA or breed club websites or go to PoultryShowCentral.com, which has an extensive listing of exhibitions.
Beranger advises to note whether breeders and hatcheries have been inspected and certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the NPIP program is voluntary, she explains that if they’re selling fertilized hatching eggs, chicks or adults, they should participate. “If they’re selling over state lines or competing in shows, legally they have to be. If they have a closed flock and don’t send birds off property, then it’s their choice.”
Look for breeds that match your available resources and wish list by considering the following points.
- How much space do you have? Can you accommodate a larger breed or are bantams a better choice for your facility?
- A pond or pool is advised for raising waterfowl.
- Pay attention to the type of climate that best suits a particular breed. Does your location offer that or would you be better off with another breed built for the weather and terrain in your area?
- What is your objective? Do you want to sell meat or eggs?
Do you want to raise birds for exhibition and sell breeding stock? Is your goal a hobby flock or a youth project?
- Carefully review the temperament and activity descriptions of breeds you’re contemplating to make sure they’ ll work for your situation.
- Don’t forget to review local and state ordinances for keeping poultry in your area. If you live in an urban area, you may be restricted on the number of birds and may not be allowed to keep a rooster.
- Schrider’s top tips on breed selection: “Try a few birds of several breeds before you make your final choice. Be prepared to pass them along to make room for the breed you love. And take the time to seek out the best possible quality, not the easiest to obtain.”
Bradshaw put the attraction of raising rare breed chickens in a nutshell: “Chickens are the ‘gateway livestock’ for many backyard gardeners and homesteaders looking for an easy way to get into raising farm animals,” he says.
“For many people, the benefit is that their eggs can provide a source of delicious animal protein without slaughtering the animal itself. For me, the attraction is a combination of fantastic looks, entertaining social behavior and, in many cases, the rarity of individual breeds.”
Conservation Priority List
There are four status classifications for rare breeds on the The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List, each designated by a single-letter abbreviation.
- Critical (C): Fewer than 500 breeding birds in the U.S., with five or fewer primary breeding flocks (50 birds or more) and an estimated global population less than 1,000.
- Threatened (T): Fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in the U.S., with seven or fewer primary breeding flocks and an estimated global population less than 5,000.
- Watch (W): Fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the U.S., with 10 or fewer primary breeding flocks and an estimated global population less than 10,000. Also included are breeds that present genetic or numerical concerns or have a limited geographic distribution.
- Recovering (R): Breeds once listed in another category but have exceeded Watch category numbers and still need monitoring.
The best marketing strategy for you depends on what you want to market. If you want to sell meat and eggs for human consumption, then the target market will likely be direct to consumers through farmers markets, local advertisements and social media; contacting local restaurants; and often word-of-mouth testimonials from other clients. Make sure to research local and state health department requirements for selling food products.
On the other hand, if you develop a solid breeding program and gain success in showing over time, you may eventually want to market breeding stock through sales of fertilized eggs, chicks and/or young adult birds. In that case, marketing avenues may take the form of breeder advertisements in American Poultry Association or The Livestock Conservancy publications and/or social media and website marketing. Some hatcheries also contract with established breeders to supply them with chicks from various breeds.
Seeking advice from experienced breeders on their marketing and shipping procedures and understanding state and federal laws on the process are must-dos. Also research the need for liability insurance and sales and property tax obligations as any business owner would.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.