Heritage chicken breeds can lay a rainbow variety of eggs and are available in Kansas
Shannin Rettig enjoys raising all types of chickens. She especially loves seeing the different-colored eggs they produce.
Along with the standard white and brown, her heritage birds lay dark brown-, blue-, green- and pink-toned eggs.
"There's so much variety," Rettig said.
Rettig started raising heritage chickens in her backyard in Denver. When she moved back home to Kansas, she had them sit beside her in the moving van.
"They're just fun pets," Rettig said. "When I met Chad, he let me expand to about 40."
Rettig and her husband, Chad Mathis, live on their farm in Haven, Circle Open R. Along with their chickens, the couple has four goats and the same number of horses.
What are heritage birds?
Heritage chickens, according to the Livestock Conservancy, are birds who have a long lineage in the U.S, are listed with the American Poultry Association before the mid-20th century, have a genetic line that can be traced back multiple generations, mate naturally and have the ability to live a long, chicken life. These birds must also be raised outdoors and have a moderate to slow growth rate.
Unfortunately, some of the birds who have more recently arrived from Europe, Rettig said, are not on that list of heritage chickens. But many do have similar qualities.
"I find heritage chickens are easier to maintain," Rettig said. "They seem to be more resilient to illness."
Sabrina Scheerer, of St. George, has about two dozen heritage chickens. She and her kids, who are all in 4-H, keep experimenting with breeds.
The Scheerer family, like many others who raise these birds, are aware of the animals' endangered status. There are 22 heritage chicken breeds on either the critical or threatened list, with many more on the watch list.
Why are eggs different colors?
Eggshells are only white or blue, with blue being dominant. The brown color that makes the brown and green eggs is made by a pigment. Sometimes the pigment gives the egg a pink blush.
Egg color is determined by genetics. The chicken's breed determines what color egg it will lay. Sometimes, a chicken's ear color gives their egg color away — with white-eared chickens producing white eggs and red-eared ones laying brown eggs. The pigment in brown eggshells is protoporphyrin.
"It is made from heme. It's kind of like an ink," said Lisa Van Horn, who runs WillowCroft Farm in Washington and enjoys raising heritage chickens who lay multi-colored eggs. "It goes into the pigment that goes into the eggshell."
Like Rettig, Van Horn not only enjoys her chickens, she enjoys watching what color eggs they produce. She breeds her own chickens and works hard to develop true colors.
"It takes a lot of test breeding," she said.
Both heritage breeds and blue egg-laying varieties do not produce as many eggs as commercially raised chickens.
"Many farmers have found that adding some color to their egg cartons creates conversation and is a point of differentiation," said Mike Badger, the executive director of the APPPA. "The quality of the egg is not influenced by the color, of course, still it provides diversity for the small market flocks and their customers."
Unlike Van Horn, Scheerer, as well as Rettig and Mathis, buy their heritage chickens from breeders.
"We look through the catalogs," Rettig said. "We look to see what chickens we don't have."
Both Rettig and Van Horn are excited that their Welsummer birds lay dark brown eggs. Van Horn also has Marans, who lay dark chocolate-colored eggs.
But as the season progresses, the egg color lightens.
"They (heritage chickens) have good size, good color and genetic strength," Van Horn said.
According to Van Horn, hatchery chickens usually last about two years. While the average laying life for a heritage bird is five to seven years.
Where you can get colored eggs
Rettig sells her eggs at the Haven Farmers Market, which starts up in May. Sheerer hopes to have enough this summer to take her eggs to her nearby market, although hers are only brown and white.
Inman farmer, Tim Nikkel, sells Chicken Track Eggs, which are multi-colored, pasture-raised, conventional eggs. His eggs are available in the greater-Hutchinson area at Hutchinson Dillons on 30 St., Hometown Food Stores in Buhler and Krehbiels Specialty Meat in McPherson.
Van Horn said the demand for multi-colored eggs is high in various parts of the country. She does not see their popularity diminishing.
According to the APPPA, pasture-raised chicken and eggs have higher nutrient densities than non-pasture raised ones — these include Omega 3 and Vitamins A, D and E.
"If 2020 taught us anything about our food supply, it's that consolidation has dire consequences," Badger said. "The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak in 2015 also showed us this. Heritage poultry, whether we're breeding for egg color, hybrid layers or breeding true to standard, play an important role in a diverse, regional, resilient food system."