A hot topic in homesteading these days is backyard hens and the eggs they will produce for you. Many people are so swept up in the excitement that they stop by the local feed store and pick up some adorable fuzzy chicks and starter feed. This rash thinking can cause problems down the road as there will be some who are unprepared and have not fully understood the requirements of chicks and then adult chickens. So today I am offering some information of how to select the right chicken for you and your climate. This will not be the end all be all of chicken selection, and I hope you continue to research different breeds to best suit you and your needs. For the sake of simplicity today, we will categorize chickens into four groups: egg production, meat production, dual purpose, and ornamental.
Best Egg Producing Breeds
Hens that are egg laying specialists are ideal for those have no plans to consume the chicken after it has passed peak production. These hens will have less meat on their bones than a dual purpose or meat production bird. This isn’t to say you couldn’t eat the hen after, and many people choose to repurpose them as stewing hens or dog food. While eggs can come in as many different colors as the chickens themselves, there is no nutritional difference between egg shell colors. There is however some general connection between egg color and the climate the bird is best suited for. In most cases, hens that lay brown eggs have a heavier-weight body type, and do better in a cooler climate. They generally have smaller combs and wattles that help them resist frostbite, but leave them disadvantaged in hot weather. Chickens do not sweat, and use their combs and wattles to keep cool. The iconic brown egg laying hen we are almost all familiar with is the Rhode Island Red. These birds come in two distinct strains. For the best egg numbers, search out a “production red”. These birds are less heavy than the heritage Red, but lay more eggs. They still retain strong independence and foraging skills, though slightly less so than the heritage variety.
On the flip side, hens that lay white eggs often have a lighter-weight body type, and do better in a warmer climate. They will lay more consistently in warm weather, and less consistently when it is cold. They tend to have larger combs and wattles to better dissipate heat. This does make them very susceptible to frostbite. If your large combed hens are going to be out in freezing temperatures, it is recommended you apply Vaseline to the comb and wattles to help prevent frostbite. The most popularly used white egg chicken is the Leghorn. They are often seen as white or brown, but other variants are available. Many hatcheries and egg farms have their own specific strains of this breed. Be advised, if you purchase a specialty strain from a hatchery, it will not breed true. This stands for all production type chickens, be it for white eggs, brown eggs, or meat. These specialty strain chicks are produced by the hatchery having two distinct genetic profiles for the roosters and for the hens, and when combined they create the desired chick. If you purchase a male and female of these strains and attempt to breed them, they will not come out as productive as the parents, and may vary significantly. This method of breeding allows the hatchery to keep you buying more chicks to maintain the same quality of bird.
When it comes to “Easter Egger” chickens- those chickens that lay eggs in any color but white or brown, the suitability depends greatly on the genetic background of the bird. These birds are often Araucana and Ameraucana cross, though some may be mixed with other breeds. Eggs can be anywhere from pale blue to deep olive, and infrequently even pink. These hens normally have tufted cheeks and bare legs, with small combs and wattles. They often do better in cooler climates, though they tolerate heat better than some dedicated heavy breeds. While they come in many colors and patterns and add visual interest to your egg basket, these hens do not always guarantee the rock-star steady, high production of specialist egg laying strains. Their production is more similar to a heritage breed, but do not always put on the same bulk in weight.
Meat Producing Breeds
In the other direction are meat type chickens. The vast majority of meat chickens are the previously mentioned specialty strain that do not breed true. Some get so heavy they are unable to breed naturally. If you want a true breeding meat breed that you can raise on your own, then you may want to consider changing the way you raise the chicks. While no heritage chicken that breeds true can rival the meat specialist chickens, some can get pretty close. Some heavy weight breeds, such as the Buckeye and Dark Cornish birds are good choices. These types of birds are lacking in the egg production area, but can still offer you plenty of chicks in a year for meat. When you take a heritage bird and aim it for meat production, they should be fed a diet consistent with production meat birds. As expected, males will grow much larger than females and will offer better meat yields. When it comes time to replace your breeding stock, raise the chicks as you would normal heritage chicks. This is because the heavy production diet can cause irregular development and health problems down the road, which won’t be an issue for the meat birds destined for your freezer. In this way, you can have true breeding meat birds with sufficient yields and still be able to sustain your own breeding population. Keep in mind the plumage and skin color of the breed you select. White feathered birds with pale yellow skin dress out with the cleanest look. It is often reported that the specialty meat strains are also easier to pluck. If you are considering meat chickens, be sure that you are either comfortable processing the chickens or have a place to take them to be processed. If you choose to do them at home, a good way to learn is to ask someone who has meat birds to show you how it is done.
Processing meat chickens in any large volume is a significant work load. Many families choose to dedicate a day and process them assembly line style, so that everyone helps and the work goes faster. It always pays to have the processing area entirely prepped and ready to go before starting. Be sure to think ahead on making sure there is more than enough room in the freezer. If you choose to pay to have someone do it for you, consider the processing cost into your overall cost per pound meat. The price can sneak up on you!
For those homesteaders looking for an all-purpose solution, nothing beats a dual-purpose heritage bird. For many people, this means the Rhode Island Red. As previously mentioned, the Red comes in more than one distinct strain depending on the purpose of the bird. A “production” Red will be of lighter weight, with more intense focus on egg laying. A strain of Reds for show lays the focus on appearance, and less on egg production, ability to forage, etc. A quality heritage bird should come from a line that has steady growth, moderate or better egg production, and sharp wits. For homesteaders who wish to let their hens free range, a sharper bird is more likely to not only find more food on its own, but to avoid being food for something else! Many heritage dual purpose birds can be encouraged to set on a clutch of eggs, and are entirely capable of raising their chicks without help.
Other popular heritage dual-purpose breeds include Australorps, Orpingtons, any of the Rock (barred, partridge, buff) family, and Brahmas. Always keep in mind that birds vary significantly, even from the same stock, based on diet, age, and conditions. Many seasoned homesteaders choose to breed their own birds after some time, to establish the equivalent of a “land race” population. A land race is a breed or strain of bird specifically bred to be best suited for a given environment, with little to no focus paid to aesthetic features like plumage or egg color.
Ornamental chicken breeds may not come to mind when considering what to add to your backyard flock. They do not offer the meat production or egg production of any previously mentioned class. If you are dying for the bright colors and interesting shapes some ornamentals come in, there are some tasks they are well suited for. The primary function of ornamental or bantam hens specifically on a homestead is to raise other birds’ babies. Bantams, such and Silkies and Cochins, or even smaller, such as Serama hens, can be of huge value for a homesteader who is looking to not have to rely on an incubator. While you can use the small hens to set large eggs, you can’t use a large hen to set the tiny eggs of quail or pheasant. While some pheasant will set their own eggs, the vast majority of quail will not. If you have decided to add these birds to your homestead, small bantam birds can be vital to continuing your breeding population without the use of an incubator. Click here to learn more about raising quail and the use of different incubators.
Larger bantams, such as the Silkies and Cochins, can be used to set the eggs for your other large breed hens. Keep in mind that they are not able to cover as many eggs as a large breed hen. Brooding a clutch of eggs is a huge strain on the hen, and while they are brooding they will not lay eggs. If you want to maintain the egg laying rate and body weight of your large breeds, letting the bantam do the heavy lifting is a great strategy. When creating a mixed flock of heavy breed and ornamental breeds, it is not a good idea to mix in Polish or Silkie hens with vaulted skulls. Vaulted skulls are essentially a bubble of skull that is often frail and may leave the brain prone to injury. The vaulted skull is bred in show birds because it helps add body and structure to the poof of feathers on the tops of their head. Polish and Silkie hens with vaulted skulls often get so picked on by large hens that they are constantly suffering or may even die. Their timid nature and irresistibly bubbled, feathered heads lead to many other birds pulling out their feathers and pecking their heads. This can be a death sentence for these hens, as the skull vault may be weak or not complete. Always be certain the “top hat” breed strain you are acquiring does not have a vaulted skull.
At the end of the day, every flock is as unique as the homesteader who tends to them. What works best for you may not work best for your neighbor living just down the road. I encourage you to take careful stock of exactly what it is you want out of the birds, and just as importantly, what it is you are willing to put in. Be honest with yourself about the limitations presented by your climate, your land, and your personal schedule. Read up on the essentials of chicken health, the requirements of raising a chick, and be sure you have all the resources needed for happy, healthy, productive chickens.
Written by Ruby Burks