Why are heritage breeds appropriate for pastured production?

Heritage Breeds for Pastured Production

by Frank Reese
Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch Inc.

All breeds are created to perform a specific purpose within a given production system. Poultry breeds can be divided based upon products – eggs, meat, or both. Productions systems include the form of culture to be used, such as intensive confinement or pastured production, as well as regional considerations, such as temperature extremes and rainfall. Heritage poultry breeds were developed to match regional challenges and production systems. Profitable production relies on matching breed abilities to the system of production to be used.

Today's industrial poultry is extremely profitable and highly prolific in producing products. But today's industrial poultry accomplish this by use of very specific and controlled diets within a form of culture that minimizes climatic differences – in other words they have been selected to perform within a controlled environment with a high-nutrition diet and no environmental challenges. Separating industrial poultry from the form of culture for which they have been developed would be akin to using a racecar to commute to work – certainly a racecar is fast, however it has no brake lights or turn signals, its tires are not meant for rain or snow, and does not run on regular unleaded fuel. In short, driving a racecar for commuting would be expensive and dangerous.

Shortly after the end of World War II, society's obsession with "modern", "scientific", and "the future" gave rise to a new system of poultry culture – intensive confinement. This system works under the premise that when diet and environment are controlled, rate of production need be the only important quality of selection in breeding stock. While the controlled environment allowed selection to focus on the best producers, it also removed day-to-day health challenges, which resulted in negative selection for superior immune function. In fact, recent studies by North Carolina State University indicate that extremely fast growing poultry have thinner gastro-intestinal tracts which allow faster nutrient uptake but which are also more prone to infection. This research agrees with research conducted between 1900-1950, which found poor immune function in extremely fast growing poultry. Separating today's industry poultry from an intensive confinement system can be expected to yield challenging results.

Until the period around 1950, heritage poultry breeds were the commercial poultry in America. These breeds were often developed to perform under regional challenges, such as cold or hot weather, and many had feather patterns and colors which were advantageous for predator avoidance. Historic research documents differences between breeds in their ability to withstand the diseases prevalent in their regions of their origin. Heritage poultry breeds, unlike their industrial counterparts, were also selected to forage. In a recent American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) study, a heritage breed was found to actually consume enough forage within a 3/4 acre area that the area did not need mowing during the course of growout – industrial CornRock crosses maintained in an identical area required three mowings of the forage.

There is much to indicate that heritage poultry may offer higher levels of nutrition to consumers. Mother Earth News has conducted research, which indicate that hens with access to pasture produce eggs with much higher levels of a number of nutrients than industrial eggs. ALBC staff has noted great differences in the amount of gelatin produced when making soup from heritage versus industrial poultry – the heritage poultry producing noticeably larger amounts of gelatin. Research from the University of Arkansas reveals that slower growing poultry (heritage poultry) produce more protein and a-tocopherol, developed more yellow color in meat and skin, retained less water in their meat, and have half the fat of fast growing poultry (industrial).

Heritage poultry were the poultry breeds developed for outdoor/pastured production systems and for many reasons should be considered to perform such a role again.