Hatching Success

Funding from Edmonton Community Foundation helps launch the Poultry Research Centre’s heritage chicken adoption program

It’s no exaggeration to say that when the University of Alberta (U of A) hired Agnes Kulinski as the Business Director for the Poultry Research Centre (PRC) in 2013, it was a matter of life and death. Her first task was to do a market analysis to see if they could sustain the PRC’s heritage chicken breeds. If her team couldn’t make a financially viable business case, they would have had to eliminate 10 heritage breeds, losing their genes forever.

Heritage animals include traditional breeds that existed before industrial agriculture limited breed varieties. Some heritage strains are selected for specific traits including feather colour or meat and egg production — but the U of A strains are randomly mated to maintain all the genetic variation that existed when the strain was established.

Exclusive breeding does produce bigger and higher volume egglaying birds, but they have reduced genetic diversity, which plays a role in susceptibility to disease, food security and problems with environmental adaptation. Heritage breeds’ diversity helps to ensure poultry are healthy and adaptable for years to come.

As Kulinski explains, “There are similarities to dog breeding. Purebred dogs have so many health issues, from birthing problems to being more prone to cancer, because breeders wanted only certain traits. Mixed breeds are more adaptable and diverse.” The PRC’s heritage breeds have been unselected and genetically preserved for more than 100 years, and contain genes no longer found in commercial meat and egg strains.

Her team took its time, looking at farmers’ markets, among other avenues, and eventually decided to sell eggs and meat directly from the U of A Farm to program supporters. Initially, they brought up the idea half-jokingly, but it eventually became the best option, along with holding annual chick sales to local farmers. With crucial equipment funding provided by Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), the Adopt a Heritage Chicken Program hatched.

For $75, consumers can adopt a chicken — certificate and biological history included — and collect a dozen free-range, farm-fresh eggs every other week. With 500 chickens spoken for, and hundreds of people on the waiting list, the program has taken off fast. Already, it’s a challenging numbers game to ensure there are enough eggs for customers and for next year’s flock.

Now that they’ve successfully sustained the Adopt a Chicken Program, the PRC is supporting research of the heritage breeds, using their genes as a baseline of comparison between them and those of commercial breeds.

Of course, none of it would have happened without ECF’s donation to replace the PRC’s egg grader, an advanced, mechanical version of traditional egg candling, which allows anyone to see inside the eggs to check for flaws.

“It was a one-time donation but it pretty much started the program,” Kulinski says. “None of it would be happening without the new egg grader. We use it all the time, and people love it. Every time we have students at the barn, they all want to touch and use it, so it serves as educational equipment, too. Now, we can find out more about their diversity and make sure their genes are preserved at PRC as long as possible.”