March 20, 2023

Make plans before starting heritage bird flock

CHICAGO — The first step for starting a heritage poultry flock is to decide the purpose for the birds.

“Do you want meat, eggs or birds that can do a little bit of both?” asked Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at The Livestock Conservancy. “Do you plan to maintain a breeding flock or rely on hatcheries?”

These are the kinds of questions a farmer should ask before thinking about getting a bird, said Beranger during a webinar hosted by the Food Animal Concerns Trust, a national non-for-profit organization that has been working for the humane treatment of food-producing animals since 1982.

“Always start with a good plan because you need to think about space and if you need a mentor,” Beranger said. “If you are going to sell birds, you need to have a market in your area for that kind of animal and you need marketing to promote what you’re doing.”

Finding a processor for poultry can be challenging.

“You are graced if you have a processor that handles small batches of birds,” Beranger said. “Otherwise you’re going to have to do it yourself.”

Heritage birds do not perform like commercial birds.

“If you’re expecting heritage birds to grow really fast and lay tons of eggs for you, forget it,” Beranger said. “That’s not what heritage birds are about.”

Poultry producers should be realistic about purchasing heritage breeds.

“People jump into raising these birds and put a lot of money into it and then it turns out to be a money pit,” Beranger said. “If the birds are a financial drain for you, it’s not going to be fun having them.”

Heritage breeds of poultry will breed naturally and have a long natural life span.

“I have a Leghorn hen that’s 14 years old,” Beranger said. “She came from purebred parent and grandparent stock.”

Leghorn chickens are one of the more popular heritage breeds.

“They are great egg layers — they can produce more eggs on less feed than any other breed of chicken,” Beranger said. “They are not very big because they put a lot of energy into egg laying.”

Australorp are popular egg laying chickens.

“An Australorp holds the world’s record for egg laying at 364 eggs in 365 days,” Beranger said. “They lay big brown eggs and people like them for pasture production because they are really good layers.”

Buckeye chickens are excellent meat birds, Beranger said.

“They are considered the most active forager and they are very cold tolerant,” Beranger said.

“Rhode Island White chickens are excellent layers and easy going birds,” she said. “This is a breed you probably want to get from an individual breeder because most of the hatchery birds are hybrids.”

Some ducks will lay more eggs than chickens, Beranger said.

“There is a rapidly growing market for duck eggs as more people find themselves allergic to chicken eggs,” she said. “Ducks are excellent foragers, especially in wet areas and they can handle the cold, wet and heat.”

Saxony ducks are one of Beranger’s favorite breeds.

“They out lay Buckeye chickens by a lot and they are easy to take care of,” Beranger said.

“You don’t need a pond to have ducks. They can drink from a waterer just like a chicken,” she said. “I like to offer a place for the ducks to wash themselves, so I have a horse trough that the ducks can get into.”

Appleyard ducks are one of the most common heritage breeds.

“They are among the top of the egg layers and they have a decent carcass size of 8 to 9 pounds,” Beranger said.

“Most geese are geared for meat production and all are excellent foragers and very adaptable,” she said. “The great thing about geese is they are largely grass eaters, so you can supplement your feed bill with foraging opportunities during the warmer months.”

Geese are also excellent watch dogs.

“Geese will know something is going on before any other animal in the farmyard and they’ll let you know about it,” Beranger said.

“I suggest the American Buff for beginners because they are laid back and not very noisy,” she said. “They have a beautiful buff color and they are decent egg layers.”

Toulouse is the giant among geese.

“They are primarily a meat bird and they can be more challenging to breed because they are heavy bodied,” Beranger said. “And they need water at least two feet deep to breed.”

Chinese geese are the best egg layers.

“They lay from 40 to 100 eggs,” Beranger said. “They’re one of the more noisy breeds — they are talking all the time.”

Turkeys are great for insect control and they are very adaptable to all kinds of climates.

“Holiday meat sales are strong and there seems to be more demand than product,” Beranger said. “We’re losing quite a few long-time breeders, so we need folks breeding more heritage turkeys.”

Black turkeys get really large.

“The challenge is the black feathers sometimes leave ink spots in the skin which are completely harmless,” Beranger said. “But some people get put off by it visually, so we need to educate customers.”

Midget White turkeys are the best layer of all the turkey breeds, Beranger said.

“They lay 60 to 80 eggs which are fabulous for deserts,” she said. “But they are not good for lighter pastries like Angel Food cake.”

Raising poultry on pasture is more sustainable, Beranger said, since the feces are spread over a larger area.

“Demand for pastured birds outweighs the supply because they take a bit longer to get to market weight,” Beranger said.

“A lot of breeds do fabulous on pasture,” she said. “But there are challenges for pasture because the birds are vulnerable to predators, they are less protected than in a barn during severe weather and you will have escapees.”

For more information about Food Animal Concerns Trust, go to

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor