Industrial Versus Heritage Leghorns
When purchasing Leghorns for your flock, be aware that chicks purchased from hatcheries or feed stores are likely to be "Production" or "Industrial" varieties, rather than heritage birds.
Production birds have been breed specifically for the needs of large egg farms. Production birds are usually hybrids, not pure breed birds. Production birds may lay huge numbers of eggs during the first year of production, but their productivity rapidly declines making them less suitable for those that don't plan on culling their birds at the end of each year.
Production birds are also less able to forage for food, are more susceptible to disease and are more high strung. This latter quality means that Production Leghorns are less suitable for families with young children who who want their birds to act as family pets and not just livestock.
If your interested in finding heritage Leghorns for your flock, you'll need to locate a breeder. Breeders can be found through the Livestock Conservancy Online Breeder's Directory, by subscribing to the Poultry Press or by checking local newspapers or Craigslist for classified advertisements for "heritage," "heirloom," or other description that indicates that the breeder is adhering to the American Poultry Association's (APA) standards.
Historical Development of the Leghorn
The breed name "Leghorn" derives from the port city of Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy from which the breed was first brought to the United States. According to Elias Gallup, one of the earliest breeders of Leghorns, the first birds were imported into Mystic, Connecticut in 1852 by Captain Gates of the clipper ship "Harriette Hoxie."
|Clipper Ship Similar to Harriette Hoxie circa 1850|
Later in life, Gallup remembered these first birds as being of mixed colors but of exhibiting many of the characteristics we observe in modern Leghorns:
“Most of them were similar to what we call Dominique or hawk color today. They had large combs and white ear lobes, yellow legs and beaks. The sickle feathers on the male were with and long, and the tail carried high. These fowls were very nervous and wild and were not favorites with my father until he saw the large white eggs they laid during the cold weather.” – Elias Gallup, circa 1917
Leghorns were excellent layers by the standard of the day and predate the development of other superior layers including the Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rocks and Wyandotte. However, the first Leghorns were much less productive than modern birds of either the Heritage or Production variety. American poultry breeders are responsible for perfecting the Leghorn in terms of type, color and efficiency of egg production.
In 1917, V.H. Tormohlen, an early breeder, looked back with pride on the accomplishments of 65 years of breeding in America:
“The early breeders of Leghorn's struck out boldly to develop all the egg laying ability and beauty that this active foul had. In Italy little attention was given to producing one type or color. American breeders immediately seized upon the opportunity and within a few years produced [Brown, White, Buff and Black Leghorns] and brought out a type that was uniform for all… By careful selection and breeding, their wonderful egg-laying abilities were improved from year-to-year until today the average production for well bred Leghorns is possibly twice that of the original Leghorns imported from Italy.” – V.H. Tormohlen 1917
Tormohlen and other early breeders followed traditional breeding practices and mated pure bred animals with the twin goals of increasing egg production and improving the breed.
This began to change in the 1930's as breeders sought to create birds more suitable for large scale commercial egg operations. These commercial farms placed a premium on high egg production and so breeders responded by focusing their breeding efforts on birds that rapidly produced large amounts of eggs.
|A Heritage White Leghorn|
The breeders were successful in their efforts, but it came at a price for the Leghorn. Whereas Heritage Leghorns can produce large amounts of egg for 5 or 6 years, an Industrial bird will produce enormous amounts of eggs in year 1, but will lay very little after the second year.
These Industrial birds so dominate the breeding market nowadays that backyard chicken keepers are likely to buy an Industrial breed unless they specifically shop for a Heritage bird.
All About Leghorns, Herbert Virgil Tormohlen, Poultry Breeders Publishing Co, 1922. Pages 8-14
Wright’s Book of Poultry, edited by S.H. Lewer, Cassels & Company Limited. Circa 1912. Pages 411-429.