These 7 heritage chicken breeds are perfect for the small, family homestead. They are all prolific layers, docile, and many grow out quickly making them excellent dual purpose chickens for your small, family homestead.
Chickens have been raised by humans for meat and eggs for centuries. And while the way they are raised today in an industrial setting is a far cry from their original upbringing, I’m on a mission to bring back the heritage way of life.
When we first started becoming interested in homesteading, it started with a cast iron skillet. An old cast iron skillet. And that old skillet opened up an entire world of the way life used to be. The gardens, the farms, the families, and the heritage breeds that were raised by our ancestors.
I became passionate about heritage breeds, which are often at the risk of extinction, and decided that when we started our homestead I wanted to preserve these breeds not only because they are excellent for small farm living, but because I don’t want that part of our history to be lost.
There are numerous choices when it comes to selecting a breed (or breeds) of any livestock for your homestead. But, I’ve found the best, most meaningful breeds I could find and decided to list them here for you so that you can make a well informed decision when choosing the breeds for your backyard flock.
What is a heritage breed?
A heritage breed is any livestock bred and established prior to the mid-twentieth century. These are the breeds that were raised by our ancestors. They thrived on the small farms of yesteryear and can do the same today.
These animals were an integral part of life on the family farm back before industrialized farming practices took over where many of these breeds do not fare well. You can read more about the importance of heritage breed livestock here.
Criteria for Heritage Chicken Breeds
In order to conserve traditional breeds and their genetics, heritage breed livestock of any kind has certain criteria that must be met.
Like all heritage livestock, they must have been bred and established prior to the mid-20th century. Many are endangered species according to the livestock conservancy.
These breeds must be recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA). They must be slow growing, naturally mating and have a long, outdoor productive life defined as 5-7 years for hens and 3-5 years for roosters.
Rare Chicken Breeds
Many heritage chickens are listed as endangered by the livestock conservancy. In fact, at the time of this writing there are 49 breeds listed in the threatened, critical, watch and recovering phases and 4 being studied.
Of Those 49 breeds, 11 are listed as critical meaning that if something isn’t done to preserve these breeds, they may very well be lost.
Of the 11 critical breeds, the Holland chicken is the only one listed that was started in America.
The Holland chicken is very similar in appearance to the Plymouth Rock (barred rock). It is said that there used to be a white holland, though much less popular than the barred version. However, it is assumed that the white Holland is very likely extinct.
These birds are said to be ideally suited to small farm conditions. They lay about 3-4 large, white eggs a week. They also are a heavy breed that makes an excellent meat bird. However, they are a slow growing breed. While many heritage breeds are slow growing (that is one of the criteria) this particular breed takes a little longer than most.
These chickens are hardy in the winter, though since they have a single comb can be prone to frostbite. They do not do particularly well in the heat. They can bear confinement well, but they are excellent foragers and can forage up a great deal of their own food if left to free range and much prefer it.
This breed is a good setter and will happily hatch out eggs for you. Though, it is not especially docile, they are said to have fairly calm temperaments.
If you want to raise heritage breeds of any kind, chickens are an excellent place to start and that breed should definitely be considered. Especially if you’re in the United States and want to conserve breeds that originated here.
Barred Plymouth Rock
This breed was developed in America during the mid-19th century. After which the breed disappeared until around 1869 at a poultry show in Massachusetts. It is listed as recovering by the livestock conservancy.
This breed was once the most popular chicken on farms across the United States. This was because it is an excellent layer, docile, winter hardy, and produces excellent tasting meat.
There are several color varieties of this bird. However, other than the barred variety (pictured above) and the white variety the other colors are fairly rare.
This breed is winter hardy as well as having the ability to tolerate heat well. It is a very docile breed that lays 4-5 large, light brown eggs a week. They will bear confinement, but much prefer to free range.
The australorp is a fantastic breed that is listed on the livestock conservancy’s website as recovering. They were imported into Australia around 1895.
These ladies are laying champs, known to be one of the most productive egg layers. While the average is considered around 250 eggs per year, one laid 364 eggs in 365 days! That’s pretty darn impressive.
We have several black Australorp hens in our flock. This breed is very friendly, they’ll come up to me when I go outside and even eat out of my hand. They lay plenty of beautiful large, light brown eggs and they grow out fairly quickly.
The only color accepted by the APA is black. Their feathers are beautiful, especially in the sunlight where they reflect green and purple.
This breed can be broody. In our experience, it’s hit and miss. We allowed one hen to set and despite the fact that it is said they have a tendency to not set to term, she was a very dutiful mother. Their super sweet/gentle nature is passed on to their mothering instincts and they are excellent mothers to baby chicks.
The faverolle chicken was developed in France. It was imported into America around 1901. This particular breed is listed as threatened by the livestock conservancy.
There are several color varieties of the faverolle, but the most popular are the salmon (pictured above) and the white. The salmon coloring is exclusive to this breed. This chicken has feathered feet and legs as well as a beard. And has a single comb, which can make it prone to frostbite in the cold winter months.
This breed is winter hardy, save its susceptibility to frostbite. It does not do well in extreme heat (though, that can be remedied). It lays 4-5 light brown, medium eggs a week.
Faverolles were developed especially for meat quality as well as winter egg production making them an excellent choice if you’re trying to increase production during the winter months. This breed was said to be the best French breed yet produced in the early 1900s.
Hens do have a tendency to go broody and can be good setters. This breed is incredibly docile and submissive making them great for homesteads with small children, though you will have to watch pecking order if you have a particularly aggressive bird at the top. For a while, anyway.
This particular breed is on my list for the spring when we add some new layers to our flock and I’m definitely excited about it.
The houdan chicken was developed over centuries beginning in A.D 4! They were imported into the United States in 1865. It is here in the U.S where the white houdan was developed and accepted into the APA in 1914. It is listed as threatened.
This breed is similar to the Polish chicken, and many say it is an ornamental show bird. But according to the livestock conservancy is highly useful. In fact, it has received the “Label Rouge” in France which is given for highly productive, excellent tasting breeds.
Houdans are not known for their sitting qualities, however they equal white leghorns in their laying capabilities and produce an excellent carcass with low offal.
This breed is not overly cold hardy, but it does tolerate heat. It’s exceptionally friendly and can be handled by others easily making it great for a family homestead. It bears confinement well and is a great addition to a small, mixed flock. My oldest wants one, and I will likely oblige if I can find the right breeder.
The brahma, often referred to as the king of poultry due to their massive size and strength. These birds can be huge. In fact, some of the largest chickens are brahma’s.
This breed as listed as recovering on the livestock conservancy and has a very controversial past. However, it was accepted into the APA in 1874 save the buff variety which was accepted in 1924.
Originally bred as a table bird, their laying is a bit lower than many prefer, but they tend to lay more in the winter and slow off in the warmer months. They will lay large medium brown eggs with the bulk of their laying in the cooler months. Which, like the faverolle, means you can have more production in the winter.
Our hen, Snowy, pictured above. I can say with confidence that she is laying daily with -10 temps going on outside. She wasn’t a great layer in the hotter months, even as a new laying hen, but she’s laying like crazy now. Always in the coop singing her song.
The brahma can be broody and can be an excellent mother. Despite their size, they are a very calm and docile bird, perhaps because their size intimidates others? Their feathered feet can cause a few issues, especially in the winter when snow can get stuck to the feathers and increase the risk of frostbite.
The Delaware breed was developed around 1940 in Delaware in the United States making it a relatively new breed. It is listed as a watch by the livestock conservancy.
This breed was developed to maintain excellent egg laying qualities while also producing excellent meat. It dominated the scene for a short time because it was known as one of the best dual-purpose breeds.
Since this breed, despite its egg laying abilities, was originally bred for meat, it quickly went on a decline. It was quickly replaced by the cornish cross we know today in the 1950s.
This breed is seeing a comeback as more small homesteads realize it is a fantastic example of a dual purpose bird. These ladies can be expected to lay around 280 eggs a year. Which is pretty good, really.
They have a very calm and people-oriented disposition, bear confinement well, and are winter hardy (save their comb that must be protected in the cold winter months). They are not particularly heat hardy. This breed is also broody and can be a good setter.
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