Living out in the country our thoughts turn to the possibilities of raising our own food, getting close to our ancestral roots, close to nature and closer to our own food source. Some in the valley have been more successful than others at this; experimenting with raising what feeds us and makes a ranch a home. In this column I will share some about that experience, the home farm and the ranch animals that bring an interesting flair to ‘The Countryside of Life.’
Heritage breeds were raised by our forefathers on family farms before the commercial operations of the day developed super livestock which grow fast and have other undesirable qualities for the backyard keeper today. Heritage breeds possess traits such as fertility, good foraging ability and longevity as they have the ability to mate naturally and their maternal instincts are intact. They are usually resistant to disease and parasites plus traditional historic breeds retain the essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency.
Spring is coming and it will be time to plan on chickens, turkeys, geese and other foul. We will be exploring a few heritage breeds of poultry and non-heritage breeds to give you a comparison to choose which is right for your family farm.
When choosing a breed to raise consider the geographical climate. Can they take the heat, cold, or other weather anomalies that affect the area?
What is the intended use? Are you raising poultry for meat or egg production or both?
What are the housing needs for your poultry? Where and how will they be housed, caged, free-range or a combination of both .
What are the personality traits you desire in your poultry? Do you want calm, self- reliant, good foragers or good brooders?
In Anza the heat and cold play a factor in choosing breeds. Free-range for chickens and other fowl is great if you can build fences that keep out coyotes and hawks. We would let our 30 chickens roam the property which was enclosed on all sides by a 5-foot ranch wire fence and chicken wire in the daytime and lock them up in a smaller animal proof pen at night.
Our dogs never bothered them when they were out and would keep a sleepy watchful eye out as they are up guarding at night. For a time that worked out great until one day, a smart coyote discovered that the big dogs would sleep under the truck during the day away from the chickens. My chickens began to go missing. At the same time I noticed that my smart flock of chickens moved closer to the house during the day. That slowed things down for a while until the coyotes got so emboldened that they would sneak as close as they could to the house and grab a chicken on the run. By the time the big dogs were alerted that coyote – and the chicken it snagged was gone. Sometimes I could get outside and when they saw me, they would stop and run. They are truly adaptable creatures and a challenge to outsmart. My chickens being fearless and friendly did not help the situation.
Recently, a new neighbor got chickens and was surprised that his chicks were coming up missing. They had a six foot fence up but with no roof, the hawks were swooping in for an easy chick meal.
The other common challenges in raising of fowl in this area are ground squirrels and snakes. Ground squirrels will dig under to eat your feed, so can weasels who will use the ground squirrels’ holes and eat your chickens. Yes, there are weasels in some parts of Anza. I have seen them. We dug up the ground about a foot deep in the main pen and put wire down to keep anyone from digging under and then covered it back up with dirt. Chickens love to scratch in the dirt and take dust baths.
Snakes can go through chicken wire climb nearby bushes or trees. So install smaller wire a foot or two high, clear out near-by bushes and overhanging branches. This will prevent snakes from getting in.
There are raccoons in some areas as well who will eat both your chickens and eggs. Possums will too if you have them. Raccoons are smart and very strong so your gate latches and wire fences must be well connected and strong. This will also help keep out domestic and wild canines.
Calm friendly chickens are a joy, they love to be near and learn to follow. They can learn a routine like letting them out and to return back to the secured pen or barn after a day of foraging. They do not have the instincts to flee quickly like a wilder chicken who would appear nervous to you and I. Wilder fowl will take to the trees and not corral easily if they are let out.
That reminds me of a funny story. My big dogs had pups and as the pups grew, their retriever mother would hunt and bring them rabbits to eat. Her mate, another retriever who was a much younger dog, was trying to help. He had never hunted or killed food before and was trying to mimic the mother dog who would bring the rabbit whole to the pups. I heard a chicken squawking and carrying on. The noise sounded strangely muffled and was coming from the direction of the dog house. When I opened the lid to the pups’ home I found a very upset black hen along with a rabbit dinner. Miss hen was in a panic to get out. She did not like the company she was keeping. I soon realized what had happened. Big dog was just trying to help feed the pups. I laughed and then had to scold him. He is a smart dog it never happened again, but I thought how sweet that he cared enough to help momma dog with her pups.
Here are some breeds of heritage chickens:
I love the black and white checked or barred chickens there are two heritage breeds marked like this, one older, the Dominique and other the Plymouth (Barred) Rock.
The breed was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Excellence in 1874.The Plymouth Rock was developed in America in the middle of the 19th century and was first exhibited in Boston, Massachusetts, as a breed in 1849.The Plymouth Rock became popular very rapidly, and in fact, until World War II, no breed was ever kept and bred as extensively as these birds. Its popularity came from its qualities as an outstanding farm chicken: hardiness, docility and broodiness. They are excellent egg layers producing a brown egg.
They are also good for meat it is considered tasty and juicy. The Plymouth Rock was one of the foundation breeds for the broiler industry in the 1920s. Plymouth Rock hens grow to 7 and one-half pounds and roosters to 9 and one-half pounds and their rate of lay is very good at around 200 in their lifetime
Temperament is calm and the birds are cold-hardy with early feathering. Several individuals claimed invention, using crosses of Spanish, White Cochin, Dominique, Buff Cochin, Black Java, and Brahma breeds of chickens to developed the breed. The original Plymouth Rock chicken was of the Barred variety and other color varieties were developed later including: White, Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge, Columbian and Blue, according to www.livestockconservancy.org.
At first glance, Dominiques and Barred Rocks appear strikingly similar, often leading to confusion when discerning a particular breed. The strongest indicators are the comb, plumage and color.
Dominiques possess a rose comb while Barred Rocks possess a single comb. This is generally the most obvious difference. They also exhibit staggered barring in their plumage, lending to a somewhat mottled appearance. Barred Rocks exhibit crisp, parallel barring. Dominiques exhibit a softer contrast of not quite black on not quite white while Plymouth Rocks exhibit a high-contrast black-on-white color.
After the Plymouth Rock breed was developed from the Dominiques in the 1870s, the Dominiques’ popularity declined, until by 1950 they were so rare as to be considered nearly extinct. During the 1970s, Dominiques were listed in “Critical” status by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, with fewer than 500 breeding birds in North America. However, due to a revival of interest in them and other rare breeds, they have made a comeback and are now listed on the “Watch” list, indicating lesser danger of extinction.
The Dominique, also known as Dominicker or Pilgrim Fowl, is a breed of chicken originating in the United States during the colonial period. It is considered America’s oldest breed of chicken, probably descending from chickens brought to New England from southern England during colonial times. By the 19th century, they were widely popular and were raised in many parts of the country. They are a dual purpose breed, being valued for their meat as well as for their brown eggs. They weigh 6 to 8 pounds at maturity. In earlier times, their feathers were much sought after as stuffing for pillows and mattresses.
Dominique hens tend to be calm, personable birds; producing eggs at about six months of age. Dominique roosters can sometimes be aggressive they have been known to kill small cats, snakes and even mink. The hens tend to be good mothers, brooding and raising chicks with a high rate of success. The Dominique is hardy and a good forager, traits which are attributed to the harsh conditions in which the breed first developed.