Preserving The Chicken and The Farmer

Posted by Dana Penrice on September 10, 2014 1 Comment

10 days and counting… On September 18th, we will have had our heritage chickens for 15 weeks and 3 days and they’ll be off to the butcher. For us, it will be the end of a very meaningful project and the beginning of hopefully a long and fulfilling career as farmers.

This year was our first year diving more fully into farming and the launch of C & E Meats at Lacombe, Alberta. We started a few different projects, including raising lamb and doing some custom grazing but our chickens held a special place for me because it was an amazing way to get into farming with a much bigger purpose in mind.

I began my working career at the University of Alberta’s Poultry Research Centre. While I got my education on the chicken industry, I also got a lesson in the importance of genetic preservation.

Similar to crops, research facilities once held a larger role in breeding livestock and poultry. For many years, universities across the county and Agriculture Canada kept populations of breeding stock and ran breeding programs. A shining example was the University of Saskatchewan’s poultry program, led by Dr. Crawford. Since 1965, he maintained flocks of unselected breeds of poultry, meaning that they were not artificially selected for specific traits and have maintained their ‘pure’ breed qualities.


Following Dr. Crawford’s retirement, not wanting to lose these valuable flocks, the University of Alberta took on some of the heritage flocks. Along the way, the U of A also acquired similar flocks from Agriculture Canada’s Research Station in Ontario. The U of A is now one of the last remaining public institutions to run a heritage breed program.

Unlike a seed bank this can be a costly undertaking as preserving livestock genetics involves live animals and the maintenance of appropriately size populations for maintaining a randomly-bred sample. In recent years, the heritage flocks have been on the chopping block as university budgets are tightening.

With a commitment to maintaining these flocks, the U of A’s Poultry Research Centre establish an ‘Adopt a Hen Program’. Members of the public can adopt their own hen, give it a name and every two weeks they get a dozen heritage eggs. The program has been wildly successful with 400 people currently in the program, hen adoptions maxed out, and 400 people on the waiting list.

Brown Leghorn

Its been a great example of local community engaging with food issues and a great opportunity to educate the public about rare breed conservation. Staff talk with the adopters about how the current poultry system is set up and how chicken breeding has evolved over the years. They share the importance of keeping old lines of chickens around since we don’t know what the challenges of future generations will be and what kind of chickens will be required.

In comes our farm! With the growing community of people engaged with the heritage program, staff wanted to explore selling heritage chickens as meat since they are a dual purpose bird. After sharing my interest to get into farming more this year, we were approached to raise some chickens for people on the waiting list.

We got some land from family, set up a brooder, built our pasture poultry pens and all of a sudden chicks were on their way! We are close to the end of our 16 week project and starting to reflect back on the experience. It had its ups and downs but by far, its been an amazing project to engage consumers and market our farm using this larger purpose.

Farming is a noble profession. I feel very lucky to have gotten into farming through a noble cause. What could be better than starting a farm and preserving heritage chicken genetics at the same time? From what I’ve seen, many new farmers start out this way. They hold strong values that support a healthy, sustainable, community-based future for agriculture and food production. There are many opportunities to link these values with those of consumers and create a win-win situation like we’ve done with the Heritage Chicken Program.

If you are looking to raise some of these heritage breeds, the U of A is starting to sell heritage chicks. If you’re interested contact for more information! (Or go to to find out how you can support the program through the Adopt a Rooster campaign!)



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