It’s frequently argued that we shouldn’t eat meat ‘to save the animals’, but the truth is that when livestock breeds aren’t raised for consumption, there’s no reason to continue to breed them and entire breeds are wiped from existence. With the advance of industrialized agriculture, in which only the breeds of meat chickens that put on weight the fastest and the cattle who produced the highest volumes of milk were selected for each and every operation, this is exactly what has happened – lesser-producing breeds, despite any other qualities they may have had, weren’t selected and saw a rapid decline.
The Livestock Conservancy, based here in Pittsboro, NC, is working to keep the breeds that haven’t died out completly from doing so. One particular focus is on the heritage breed of chicken known as the Java. Central Carolina Community College’s Student Farm is fortunate to be a part of The Livestock Conservancy’s Java Recovery Project.
Housed on one of the farm blocks not currently in production reside a dozen or so Java chickens. These birds are part of a years-long effort to bring the global population of Javas back up to acceptable numbers. It’s not as simple as just letting a couple of chickens breed, hatching their eggs, and repeating the process until there are thousands of chickens though – when you’re trying to bring a population up from the brink of extinction, you only want to pass along the best genetics to ensure that what you end up with is a strong, favorable population that farmers will want to utilize on their farms.
One of the oldest American breeds, the Java is a dual-purpose bird, suitable for both egg and meat production, with a down-to-earth temperament, a hardy disposition, and the ability to forage or be content in confinement. The Java is most popularly recognized for it’s contribution to the development of several still-common breeds, such as Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock. Ironically, it was the popularity of these breeds that began the decline of the Java within 30 years of its first documented appearance.
The Livestock Conservancy maintains lists of livestock populations and regularly determines the breeds that are of top priority to focus on increasing populations. Once considered rare, the Java is now classified as ‘Threatened’, with fewer than 1,000 registered birds in the U.S. and an estimated global population of less than 5,000. It is not until some time after the U.S. population has reached 2,500 and global population 10,000, after additional careful monitoring, that the Java will be considered ‘Recovered’ – so there is still considerable work to be done.
As a participant in the Java recovery project, the Student Farm receives chicks that were developed by other participants’ Java flocks each spring. After the birds have had some time to develop, they are evaluated by an individual from The Livestock Conservancy for those characteristics they wish to have carried forward – good bone structure, proper comb development, even a particular feather color. Birds that pass the evaluation will remain in the flock, while those that don’t are either passed along to individuals who will not breed them or are culled.
Throughout the year, the eggs that are collected from the Javas are sold by the Student Farm, until The Livestock Conservancy is ready for collection of hatching eggs. Project participants are contacted and asked to set aside eggs that display good characteristics for hatching – full size with a prominent pointed end – for approximately two weeks. The Student Farm then sends these eggs off to someone with an incubator, and a coordinated effort to hatch hundreds of baby Java chicks at one time is overseen by The Livestock Conservancy. Baby chicks from different breeders are then delivered to participants to diversify the genetics within their flocks and ensure the continued success of bring the Java back to prominence amongst American farms.