Today was one of those days that makes us glad to be farmers. Our first lamb of the year was born early this morning. The weather was balmy. I was able to get in the garden to prep beds for peas, lettuce and spring turnips while the kids played in the sandbox and pulled one of their pet ducks around the yard in a red wagon. As I was raking mulch, I watched an assortment of birds—turkeys, chickens, peacocks and guinea fowl–stretch themselves out in the sunshine at the edge of the tree line. They were all glad for the warm weather too.
I mused about the unique qualities of each breed of animal that we keep on the farm. Probably many people never think about the breeds of the animals that provide meat, eggs and dairy for their table. A cow is a cow, and a chicken is a chicken, right? Not quite.
One of our goals here is to provide a haven for a few rare heritage breeds of livestock. Rare heritage breeds are usually a type of farm animal that was once favored for certain qualities, or developed and used in relative isolation in a certain region of the world, but has since been all but forgotten as farmers switch to raising newer, higher producing breeds. We feel it is important to preserve old breeds of livestock for two reasons: First, as a genetic insurance policy. Once a breed becomes extinct, those genetics are lost forever and can never again contribute their qualities to agricultural production. Second, to preserve history. When people visit historic Mount Vernon, for example, they get the chance to see George Washington’s home and belongings preserved for posterity. They also get to see heirloom plants in his gardens and historic breeds of livestock on his farm that look like the plants and animals that he himself raised. Plants and animals cannot be preserved in a museum. They are living and breathing and can only be preserved by farmers dedicated to raising and breeding them to preserve their unique qualities.
So, we love our heritage breeds, that is obvious. But I realized I have never expounded on the qualities of more modern breeds developed for commercial production. Huh, you say? Yes, you read that right. I have no problem with modern commercial breeds of livestock, only with the ways in which they are often used on industrial scale farms.
For the sake of discussion, let us compare two types of chickens that we keep here on Crowfoot Farm.
The beautiful Dorking chicken has been around since the time of the ancient Romans. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were common on American farms and were considered an excellent table fowl. They are very hardy, handle cold temperatures well, and start laying very early in the spring–late winter, really—earlier than most other chicken breeds will when kept only in natural light (day length affects chickens’ egg laying cycle and so farms will sometimes use artificial lights in the henhouse to “extend the day” and keep the hens laying all winter long). Dorkings are also very smart and some of the best I’ve seen at evading predators. They retain their natural instincts and will hatch and expertly rear a brood of chicks out in the field, protecting them from predators and the elements. They also prefer to forage for their own food rather than sit around the grain feeder and are an excellent choice for homesteaders looking for a self-sufficient bird requiring little upkeep to provide a few eggs and some meat for the table.
On the flip side, Dorkings lay many fewer eggs per year than newer breeds that have been selected for their egg production. They tend to drop off production later in the year, and their tendency to go broody causes them to lay fewer eggs as well. And while Dorkings are a heavy breed, their eggs tend to be small—closer to medium-sized than large-sized as most people have come to expect from chicken eggs. They require a lot of space for free-ranging and will all but quit laying if kept too confined. That’s fine if they live on a farm with space to roam, but they would not be a good choice for a small urban coop. And while they are free-ranging, they will often decide to hide their nest in the bushes rather than lay eggs in the henhouse where they can be found. Dorking have become so rare that those who keep them pretty much have to produce their own replacement birds on the farm. That is a good thing to do, but it will further contribute to a lower number of eggs produced by the flock in a year as eggs are used for incubating and if hens are used for the hatching and rearing, they will stop laying for the duration. Breeding replacement birds on the farm also contributes to management costs because of the time and complication factor. If a farmer purchases replacement Dorking chicks, he can expect to pay $5-$6 per day-old chick. What does all this mean for the egg consumer? When you factor in the time and expenses to the farmer, a dozen medium-sized Dorking eggs is really worth around $8.00 or more. A homesteader raising food only for his family may be able to just “let the chickens do their thing” without worrying about numbers, but a farm of any size in the business of selling eggs really doesn’t have that luxury.
And here we have the Red Sex-link Chicken, also called a Red Star or a Production Red. (Sex-link types are called so because their color is differentiated by sex, making it simple to tell males from females at hatch.) Technically not a breed, the Reds are a hybrid type of chicken bred by crossing Rhode Island Red roosters with White Rock hens. (Similar hybrids such as the Black Sex-link and the Golden Comet are also bred by crossing similar breeds.) Foundation stock for Reds have been selectively bred to favor their egg laying capabilites and minimize other characteristics such as a heavy body requiring more feed, or natural mothering instincts that will cause hens to go broody and stop laying eggs for a time. Selective breeding is achieved through the natural reproductive processes, not bio-engineering. As a hybrid, Reds would not be a good choice for someone looking to breed their own replacement birds, unless they wanted to maintain separate flocks of breeding stock. So one downside is the need to rely on commercial hatcheries to provide replacement birds at around $2 per day-old chick. Most of the time, Reds will not sit on a nest, so they shouldn’t be expected to hatch and raise chicks. They are also a very light weight bird that certainly can be eaten, but doesn’t yield a very meaty carcass. Simply, they were bred for one thing—laying lots and lots of eggs—and they do that very well. A Red hen will use her ration of feed very efficiently to lay 300+ eggs per year. That is great news for the farm in the business of selling eggs and the consumer who likes an affordable dozen. And who is to say that the Red hens running freely around our farm are any less happy than the Dorkings?
Many old breeds of livestock are multi-purpose (meat & milk, or meat & eggs, or meat, milk & fiber, etc.), well suited to an era when most farms were small, diversified family farms that were more or less self-sustaining. Newer breeds have been developed to excel in one area of production. Red Sex-link hens excel in egg production just as Cornish-Rock chickens excel in meat production. Jersey cows excel in milk production while Angus excel in beef production. Such production is wonderful when achieved responsibly, not at the expense of the animals’ health and happiness, the nutritional value of the end-product, and not to mention flavor. High performing animals need plenty of good quality feed (forages, and grains if appropriate to the species) to maintain their health and vitality, and deserve fresh air and space to roam just as much as their heritage counterparts. Multi-purpose breeds are useful, especially to farms looking to achieve self-sufficiency, but do not excel in any one area of production. There is nothing wrong with using livestock that are extremely efficient at converting their feed into products, but we would be on shaky ground indeed if we lost all of our old breeds and only had high-production breeds. One example is the commercial broad-breasted white turkeys that are very efficient at producing meat, but cannot breed naturally (hens must be artificially inseminated) and are much more susceptible to disease than heritage breeds of turkeys.
So I don’t think it is fair to call one breed of animal good and another one bad. I have talked as many people out of raising Dorkings as I have sold starter flocks to. I believe it is important for people to know their breeds and choose something that will be a good fit for their farm and their needs. Likewise, consumers well educated in the various types of livestock are empowered to shop for their preferences with confidence and achieve a greater appreciation for the food on their table.