Heritage Hill Poultry Farm is dedicated to disappearing breeds.
Dennis Reynolds, owner of Heritage Hill Poultry Farm in Springdale, Ark., didn’t know much about heritage breeds until he met a poultry judge who explained the difference between the heritage breeds and the ones Dennis was raising.
After looking into the breeds and discovering how fragile their bloodlines were, Dennis decided to try his hand at raising these purebred chickens.
“The reason I got into heritage chickens is I found out about the Livestock Conservancy and I started looking at the critically endangered breeds,” he said. “I was amazed at the breeds that were on their list.”
Today, with more than a dozen heritage breeds of his own, Dennis works with the Conservancy, whose goal as a nonprofit organization is to promote and preserve all heritage breeds of livestock. “My goals are to keep the old chicken breeds pure and together as long as I can, try to educate people, and try to keep the youth involved.”
Dennis’ experience with chicken and poultry goes back years.
“I’ve been doing this since the 1970s,” he explained. “I’ve had every breed of poultry you can have – chickens, geese, ducks, wild ducks, peacocks, ornamental pheasants, pigeons, doves. I have two emu now.”
Heritage chickens are birds that meet the American Poultry Society’s standard of perfection requirements.
“They have to breed on their own and be true to what the original breed looks like. There’s no disqualifications. It’s in the details of every single thing in their anatomy,” Dennis explained.
Compared to other chickens, heritage breeds have long productive lives.
“Even though they are slow growers, they are steady in their egg production.,” Dennis said. “Even when they get old, they may only lay four or five eggs a week, but they’ll do it every week and that’s even when they’re 8, 9 or 10 years old.”
Dennis raises his chickens naturally.
“I don’t put lights on them and I try to let them out, free-range, every chance I can to eat bugs. In the summer, I let them set their own eggs and raise their own babies. The hen-raised chicks are very healthy,” he said.
In addition, he feeds his birds a mix of feed, sometimes adding sunflower seeds for their high protein content.
Every spring, he cleans out all the pens, spraying or powdering for bugs, as well as doing the same to the chickens, along with worming them. As a member of the National Poultry Improvement Program, all birds are blood-tested each year.
“Their biggest enemies are predators; raccoons, opossums,” he said. “Everything likes to eat chicken.”
To keep the predators from getting in under pens doors, he’s added an extra ledge that keeps the doors tightly shut.
But, Dennis’ biggest concern is how easy it is for a breed or bloodline to get completely lost.
“You’ll hear about someone whose dog has killed their heritage chickens or a raccoon has gotten in and killed them, or they’ve just gotten out of having chickens; that’s how a bloodline disappears,” he said. “There are instances where someone dies and the chickens go to the nearest sale or they’re eaten.”
One of the ways Dennis believes he can help save the heritage breeds is by getting more youth involved.
“The youth are very, very important,” he said. “I give free roosters to 4-Hers. I try to pick out some of the best chickens I’ve got for them, so they’ll win. If the kids win, they’re going to be hooked.”
But, it’s what happens when the kids grow up that interests Dennis.
“What happens to those kids is that they quit doing it when they’re teenagers, but when they’re in their 30s and 40s, they come back to it,” he said.
Ironically, some breeders have found another way to preserve the breed – eating them. With the advent of the “slow food movement,” which advocates preserving culinary heritage, the slow-growing heritage breeds are marketed as being more flavorful and are commanding premium prices.
Heritage breeds can be hard to find.
“True heritage birds means no modern breeding to them,” Dennis explained.
At one time he had more than 300 birds and has shipped hatching eggs as far as Puerto Rico and Alaska.
“Even though I have this itty-bitty farm, I’ve shipped thousands of eggs,” he said.
In addition to selling hatching eggs throughout the year, Dennis sells starting birds every summer. As a long-time breeder, he can also find any breed a purchaser may want. He also suggests finding heritage breeds at poultry shows or by checking the breeder’s list of the American Poultry Society or the National Poultry Improvement program.
Dennis will be the first to admit raising and selling heritage chickens is more of a passion than a business.
“Even though I’ve had these chickens all these years I still learn stuff about chickens. It’s an amazing hobby.”