Backyard flocks spur interest in heritage breeds

University initiative preserves old genetics and distributes rare birds to small flock owners throughout Alberta

EDMONTON — Who knew people cared so much about chickens.

Workers recently loaded 5,500 day-old chicks from five rare, heritage breeds into a truck and sent them to their new homes across Alberta.

They will be raised for meat and laying eggs and help preserve the genetics of the rare birds.

The idea of raising flocks of heritage chickens and helping preserve the rare breeds has caught on across the province, said Agnes Kulinski, business director of the University of Alberta’s Poultry Research Centre.

“It reminds them of what they grew up with on the farm or their grandparent’s farm,” she said.

The five breeds are Barred Plymouth Rock, Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red, Brown Leghorn and Random Breed 1978 with Barred Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red being the most popular. The large birds are good for meat and laying eggs.

The university sold 800 chicks last year through two Peavey Marts in Alberta. This year, they were delivered to all 17 Peavey Marts in the province.

The $20,000 to $30,000 raised from the sales will help develop a proper breeding program for the heritage chickens. Inbreeding because of a small genetic pool is the biggest problem with heritage and rare breeds.

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“I hope this creates an awareness and creates a sustainable program,” said Kulinski.

The average number of chicks bought through the program was 21. The birds were sold to farms and acreages and for use in backyard flocks in Edmonton.

The program began as a way to help maintain the poultry research centre’s heritage breeds following university cutbacks.

The Adopt A Heritage Chicken Program allowed people to adopt a heritage chicken, name it and receive a dozen eggs every two weeks.

Two hundred people participated in a pilot project in 2013, and another 600 were placed on a waiting list.

Last year, 400 people paid $150 each and 400 were on the waiting list. The program helped raise $60,000.

The numbers are the same this year but likely won’t increase because of space constraints.

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“We’re a research facility. We can’t compromise research space for these birds,” said poultry professor Frank Robinson.

However, the program is providing a niche for people who want to help preserve the birds’ genetics and learn more about food.

“This is providing a niche and the University of Albert can provide that. Let’s make the best use of the research facility,” he said.

The adoption and sales programs fill a desire for people who want to raise chickens, especially heritage chickens, he added.

“The resurgence of backyard flocks has created a demand for the birds,” said Robinson, who has held two weekend workshops on flock production and the importance of biosecurity.

“It’s a movement that is going to happen. Let’s help them do that the most carefully they can.”

Contact mary.macarthur@producer.com

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