Heritage chickens help raise funds with eggs

The University of Alberta has gotten into the egg business in a bid to maintain its flocks of heritage chickens.

“We’ll raise the chicken for you and you get eggs every two weeks,” said Agnes Kulinski, business director of the university’s Poultry Research Centre.

The centre, which has about 1,500 heritage-breed chickens, has an “adopt-a-heritage-hen” program in which people who contributed $75 receive the eggs of their hen. The current program, which runs until November, is sold out, but Kulinski said a bigger one may be launched in November.

Among the centre’s breeds are light Sussex, white leghorn, dark-brown leghorn, barred Plymouth Rock, and New Hampshire. Kulinski said the chickens cost about $75,000 a year and as the centre faces cuts, the future of the flocks is being considered.

“We haven’t seen any return on them. That’s why the committee is questioning the value of keeping them,” she said.

But genetic conservation is important because the breeds have important traits that may have been lost in commercial chicken breeds, where the focus is on efficiency and productivity, said Martin Zuidhof, an associate professor of poultry systems at the university.

“Preserving their genetics is an important part of preserving the heritage of chicken lines,” Zuidhof said.

For example, researchers at the university are comparing the immunity systems of the heritage breeds to commercial lines, he said.

“So the significance of our lines is we have not selected against immune response in these lines, so if an emerging disease occurs and commercial birds become susceptible… the birds we’re preserving may have a better immune response and may be a resource that is required to regenerate commercial stocks,” he said.

The birds in the university’s flocks come from a variety of sources. The egg layers for the program were acquired from the University of Saskatchewan about 20 years ago, and represent breeds that would have been common on farms 50 to 100 years ago, Zuidhof said. Two lines of chickens come from Don Shaver, of Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms. There’s also three lines from Agriculture Canada that were received in about 1989.

“Those are really interesting lines,” Zuidhof said, noting there’s a 1957 breed and two broiler lines from 1977.

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