As with wild endangered species, traditional livestock breeds carry advantages that are significant to integrated, sustainable agriculture. They are vigorous and hardy. They can be self-perpetuating, mating and hatching their own offspring, as Harvey Ussery's hen demonstrates here, http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Home.html. They resist common pests and diseases. Their waste, rather than being a pollutant, is an important part of an integrated agricultural operation, returning nitrogen to the soil to enrich it for more productive crops.
Intensive industrial production ignores these qualities in favor of the highest return to the quarterly bottom line. It’s a short-term strategy destined for disaster. Poultry breeds, along with other farm animals, are disappearing, as documented by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, http://www.cgiar.org/. Science Daily noted CGIAR’s 2007 report, Rare Breeds of Farm Animals Face Extinction, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070903094320.htm. CGIAR has created a database to compile information about local African and some Asian breeds, eventually to expand to other developing Asian countries, Latin America and the Caribbean. The Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System, http://dagris.ilri.cgiar.org/, currently lists 124 local chicken breeds. They intend to expand the database to include geese, ducks and turkeys. It’s part of the International Livestock Research Institute, http://www.ilri.org/ILRIPubAware/Uploaded%20Files/200692777140.BR_ISS_043_DAGRIS.pdf
Attempts at ‘improvement’ with hybrids are often doomed, as this example from a cattle experiment in the 1970s in India, http://www.bioversityinternational.org/news_and_events/news/news/article/a-case-of-accidental-extinction-the-importance-of-farm-animal-conservation.html.
In North America, awareness of the inherent vulnerability of allowing large corporations to control how we produce food is growing. As consumers learn about the filthy practices that contaminate food and make them sick, they are recoiling from putting chicken and eggs on their plates. Consumer Reports found two thirds of supermarket chickens are contaminated, http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/january/food/chicken-safety/overview/chicken-safety-ov.htm. Families are adding a few chickens to their gardens, gathering their own eggs and buying meat from small producers.
Traditional breeds such as Robert Gibson's Crevecoeurs, an old French breed, shown here at Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire, http://yellowhousefarmnh.com/, are the best choice for small flocks. Most traditional breeds are considered dual purpose, that is, they are good egg layers as well as meaty enough to be good eating. They don’t produce as many eggs as the industrial Leghorn, but they aren’t subjected to the same practices, either, such as being starved to induce molting in order to increase egg production.
The miracle of chickens is that they do lay so many eggs, without much regard to the seasons that govern egg laying in wild birds. That’s what domestication brought us, plenty of eggs, whether there’s a rooster around or not.
Add a rooster, and most traditional breed hens will lay fertile eggs, set on them until they hatch and then raise the chicks to independence. All for the same price: nutritious food and a safe place to live.
Traditional breeds are the best deal around.