Genetic Diversity and our Poultry Heritage

 

Standard, or heritage, breed poultry varieties retain many of the characteristics that allowed them to flourish in the farming conditions prevalent in America from the 18th to the early 20th century. They are very active and mobile birds with excellent foraging instincts and an unsuppressed desire to interact with their environment and each other. They are alert and will quickly notice and react to both aerial and land based predators. Males commonly attempt to protect the females. The birds mate naturally and frequently hatch and raise their own young. They are naturally healthy birds with strong immune systems that don’t require medication and can withstand Colorado temperature extremes without artificial temperature control. However, the same characteristics that provide their success in a traditional farming operation, combined with their smaller stature and slower maturation rate makes them ill suited for a modern commercial operation.

The ‘improved’ varieties utilized in commercial poultry operations have been genetically modified to survive in their arguably bizarre industrial growing conditions. With intense selection, science has developed inactive birds with dullard intellects and little individuality. Their legs have been shortened to discourage movement. Meat varieties have had their keels shortened to force their breast meat to appear more voluminous and fleshy. They have been selected for extremely fast development of commercial attributes (meat or egg production) over normal, natural maturity. All these ‘improvements’ have made the commercial breeds more manageable in industrial operations but at great expense to the health and overall wellbeing of the animal. Inbreeding has weakened their immune systems, requiring the frequent medication. Their contorted shapes compress their internal body organs with debilitating affects. They are sensitive to temperature fluctuations and fair poorly without climate control. Many have lost the ability to naturally reproduce and are maintained solely through artificial insemination. The monoclonal nature of their genetic makeup leaves them extremely vulnerable to disease or other unanticipated crises. The recent out breaks of Exotic Newcastle Disease, Avian Flu, and the West Nile virus demonstrate the need for strong and diverse gene pools.

Years of genetic research and selection has created commercial strains of poultry with market advantages over the traditional heritage breeds from which they were derived. The commercial strains grow larger, convert lower quality feed into meat quickly and efficiently, and come to market weight in half the time. This all adds up to better economics and higher profits for the commercial poultry producer. But, is it only all about money? Does the diminished quality of life for the birds and the reduced quality of food for the consumer justify commercial success? It’s an individual decision, but one we hope is based on thoughtful consideration rather than mindless habitual behavior.

There are millions of individual industrial production birds, but only a few thousands of the standard breed individuals left. For some breeds, the remaining mating pairs number in the mere hundreds. Without concerted effort by dedicated breeders, many standard varieties of poultry are in real danger of being lost forever. By supporting the Co-op, members not only get the quality of food they desire, but they help ensure the continuance of our rich biological diversity. And they can be assured that the meat they consume comes from animals raised with the dignity and respect they deserve for the sacrifice they make.

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