The eggs came first, but the chickens are really coming on strong for the University of Alberta’s heritage breed program.
The Poultry Research Centre’s ‘Adopt a Hen’ program has been running for many years and is an unqualified hit. Starting with 175 supporters, there are now 504 participants in the Edmonton area, and a waiting list about as long to join the $150-a-year program, which runs from January to September.
“Really what the supporters are doing is that it’s a donation to keep this heritage chicken program alive,” said Dawn Hage, the program’s co-ordinator. “In return as a thank you, they get a dozen eggs from these girls every two weeks. Their money is funding the program and they love chickens as a rule.”
“The first year we started with 200, now it’s 500 hens,” added Agnes Kulinski, the program’s former co-ordinator.
The heritage breeds are Brown Leghorn, White Leghorn, Barred Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, and New Hampshire.
In 2014, the centre started selling chicks and that program is also taking off.
“There’s more and more interest. Now we have workshops for people who want to raise chickens,” said Kulinski.
Chicks are sold every spring through Peavey Marts. The hatch occurs in the last week of April and the first week of May. Starting with 100 chicks and two locations in 2014, the program expanded to 5,700 chicks sold in 17 Peavey Marts and two educational flock workshops (in Lacombe and Edmonton). In 2016, it expanded to locations in Regina and Kamloops, B.C., with 7,000 chicks sold.
“The whole idea of maintaining the breed stock is that the chicks are going out to farmers all over Alberta,” said Hage. “They’re raising them and hopefully hatching their chicks. Thousands and thousands of these birds are now in backyards in Alberta or on small farms.”
Interest continues to grow both locally and internationally. A couple of years ago, the program hosted a large conference with heritage chicken groups, attracting scientists and government officials from across the country as well as the U.S. and Europe to discuss how to protect heritage chickens and share knowledge.
“We’re trying to have collaboration in what we research,” said Kulinski. “We have these chickens and not too many people are using them for research.”
For more information on both the chicken and egg programs, go to the Heritage Chickens website.