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PHOTO: Kirsten Lie-Nielsen
For the small-scale farmer or homesteader, heritage breeds are a great way to get the most out of your flock. Heritage breed animals trace their lineage back to our forefathers. They were the breeds common on the homesteads of the first American settlers.
In the time of our ancestors, nearly every home had a family cow and a flock of chickens, and farming was a way to keep the family fed. Therefore, in birds and livestock farmers looked for versatile breeds that could be hardy through harsh winters, lay well and provide good meat.
An organization known as the Livestock Conservancy works to preserve heritage breeds in the U.S. today. It maintains that not only are these animals important to our history, they also are the most useful creatures to keep on small farms because of their numerous benefits. For the small family farm, heritage breeds are the way to go, even if their history is not your priority. Their versatility alone makes them perfect for the small farm, and harks back to a time when all of our food was grown and raised by families who needed to diversify in order to ensure the health of their farm and flocks.
Heritage Goose Breeds
Geese are no longer a common sight on the backyard farm, and therefore many breeds of geese are now considered endangered heritage breeds. These include some beautiful, versatile breeds that would delight any homesteader.
American Buff, Cotton Patch, Pilgrim, and Toulouse geese are all considered heritage breeds. They are perfect examples of why these breeds are so special. They’re larger birds with plump bodies perfect for eating. They’re also reliable layers with healthy appetites for weeding, and they possess loud voices for guarding. They can do many jobs on the homestead and will accomplish them with pleasure. Other heritage breed geese include the Sebastopol, a largely show bird with striking feathers; the smaller Roman goose, which is an excellent guardian; and the long-necked Chinese (pictured above) that is desirable for its weeding abilities.
Heritage Duck Breeds
Many modern farmers think of either Pekins or Mallards when they first think of ducks. However, these are not always the most common or most useful backyard duck breeds. In fact, heritage duck breeds are often much more suited to a hobby farmer.
Some heritage duck breeds are primarily meat birds that also can lay tasty eggs. These include the heavier Buffs, Anconas, Cayugas (pictured above) and Rouens. Other, lighter-weight breeds were created primarily for their egg production, but are surprisingly useful for pest control. These include the distinctive Indian Runner and other Runner breeds, as well as the slightly heavier Khaki Campbell.
Heritage Chicken Breeds
There is a vast array of heritage chicken breeds, just as there are many more breeds of standard chickens than there are ducks or geese. While there are varieties bred for certain traits, especially exhibition breeds, a great number are noted for their versatility, their hardiness and their long egg-laying lives.
Some of my farmyard favorite birds are heritage breeds, including the striking Australorp and the friendly Cochin (pictured above). Exhibition heritage breeds are remarkably distinct and include the tall and slender Modern Game and the long-tailed Sultan. But others breeds are hearty additions to a farm that experiences harsh winters, such as the robust Russia Orloff or the tough Icelandic.
For the most part, heritage breed chickens are known as excellent foragers, needing less grain than other breeds of chickens and rewarding you with plenty of eggs and meat.
Whether it’s geese, ducks, chickens or another livestock animal or bird, heritage breeds offer you a great deal for your investment. They are ideal for the homesteads of today, because they originate from a time when everyone kept a small holding and made every effort to provide their own food for themselves.