Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Choosing the Best Chicken Breeds for Your Flock

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By Harvey Ussery and Mother Earth News editorial staff — Photographed by Irina Igumnova

From time to time, you may want to add some birds to your flock. I suggest that you not introduce the newest "superhybrids" to your backyard flock just because that is what is on hand at the local farm store. Select one of the reliable older breeds, many of which will demonstrate better foraging skills and greater immunity to disease.

This also will help to preserve traditional and historic breeds, which are in danger of being lost forever. You can find out more about traditional and rare poultry breeds, and contact preservation breeders, via these two organizations:

Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities
Charles Everett, SPPA Secretary-Treasurer
1057 Nick Watts Rd.
Lugoff, SC 29078
Tel: 570-837-3157
Website: www.sppa.webs.com

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
P.O. Box 477
Pittsboro, NC 27312;
Tel: 919-542-5704
Website: www.albc-usa.org

ALBC maintains a list of breeds in need of preservation and a list of members who are breeders.


 Not all chicken breeds have a strong instinct to hatch eggs and nurture young. To foster these traits, Harvey Ussery is working on an experimental cross of old English games and rose comb Dorkings. — Photo by Harvey Ussery

Two Experts Weigh In

There are numerous chickens available for you to choose from and there are many factors to consider when deciding which breeds or hybrids will be best for you. Climate, housing and goals for the flock should all be considered when selecting which chickens to raise. Two experts share their opinions on breed selection.

Harvey Ussery raises cuckoo Marans, silver spangled Hamburgs, old English games, and an experimental cross (the boxwood broody) for personal use on his homestead in Virginia. Here are Harvey's thoughts on breed selection:

Recently, poultry breeding has been geared toward greater specialization — fast-growing meat hybrids ready to slaughter in as little as 44 days or egg-laying hybrids that begin laying at 17 weeks and, for a few seasons, lay large numbers of eggs. I think such "souped-up" hybrids are less hardy and long-lived, and are more likely to succumb to disease or environmental stresses. More purchased inputs are required, both of feed and medication, to compensate for breeding that has lowered their foraging skills and emphasized maximum production over strong immune systems.

I prefer many of the dual purpose, traditional farm breeds of past generations. True, they do not match the super-hybrids in either category of production, but they are good layers, usually of large brown eggs, with good rates of growth to table fowl size. These breeds symbolize a priceless part of our agricultural heritage:

Wyandottes, buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire and Rhode Island reds, Plymouth rocks, buckeyes, Delawares, dominiques, Jersey giants and more.

Modern breeds were developed from older historic breeds and you may wish to choose these. Dorkings, traced back to Roman times, are gentle, elegant birds that are a pleasure to work with. Old English games are a breed with a 1,000-year history as utilitarian fowl and, if given ample space to forage, they feed themselves almost entirely on their own. Old English game hens are among the best chicken mamas anywhere.

Choosing a breed because it's superior at foraging its own feed is extremely sensible for homesteaders, as is keeping the sturdier breeds expected to have stronger immune response. Using hens that know how to incubate and rear their own chicks — while not as practical for those operating on a larger scale to produce income — is the most practical choice for the homesteader who can just let the willing hen do her work without management of incubators or artificial brooders.

Barred Plymouth rocks are quite productive. Many people find the black and white barring attractive. — Photo by Ladd Van Tol


Robert Plamondon usually raises commercial hybrid layers (commonly red sex-links from Privett Hatchery) and modern hybrid broilers. His pasture-raised eggs sell for $4 per dozen and his grass-fed broilers for $3 per pound. Here's Robert's opinion on breed selection:

As they always have been, standard-bred chickens are being over-hyped. Many breeds are being touted on the same exaggerated claims that were made 100 years ago. The bar was a lot lower then. Actually, the only egg breeds that have ever had any commercial importance in this country are barred Plymouth rocks, Rhode Island reds, New Hampshire reds, white Leghorns and possibly white Wyandottes. Before the introduction of these breeds, the American farmer survived with breeds such as English game, Houdans, Hamburgs and dominiques — low-performing breeds that were abandoned by practical farmers in the mid-19th century. Most breeds, however, haven't had a following among practical farmers — they have just been hobbyist breeds.

These breeds grow slowly when weighed against hybrid broilers. I believe you would need to charge three times as much per pound to break even, and there's not enough difference in quality to support this; there's not anything about these broilers that's worth paying three times as much for. A "slow-growing" commercial broiler strain will yield better results, such as Privett Hatchery's "slow white Cornish" or the "red broilers" and "black broilers" sold by some hatcheries, which are a cross between a modern broiler and a kind similar to a New Hampshire red or black australorp, respectively.

If you want heritage breeds and plan to make a profit, find the highest-producing "egg strains" of these breeds. Because poultry fanciers hold competitions that are basically beauty contests, any breed can have its performance bred out of it as a consequence of selecting for beauty alone. When in doubt, contact the hatchery and ask the manager for suggestions.

Temperament is very important. I tried at least one new breed each year for many years, before I settled on Privett Hatchery's red sex-links as an ideal combination of performance and docility. This is a worthy strategy for heritage breeds as well. Some of them are nice, but others are not.

If profit isn't your motivation, then temperament is key. I'd begin with barred rocks. They're the gold standard of pleasant hens, and they have been a favorite of the American farmer. They're attractive and many strains lay pretty well. Buff Orpingtons are also a good choice; though they most likely won't lay as well.

If you are not planning to sell your eggs, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the production of a small flock, so choosing high-producing chickens might present a problem. I've always thought that this is why backyard poultry breeders have such inflated opinions of their flock's performance. If they have an overabundance of eggs, their flock must be great producers, right?

Harvey Ussery is committed to helping revive small-scale backyard poultry production. Visit his website: www.TheModernHomestead.us

Pasturing the flock is the best thing you can do for your birds' health and for nutrient-rich eggs and meat. Pasture shelters can be designed in all shapes, sizes and materials to meet specific needs. — Photo by Harvey Ussery

Some Recommendations from Mother Earth News

When we and our chicken experts discussed what poultry breeds are ideal for a small chicken coop, Buttercups, Brown Leghorns, Hamburgs and Anconas emerged as top candidates. To understand why, just consider: For thousands of years, chickens have been domesticated, and many gorgeous breeds have been developed. Some are considered “dual-purpose” breeds, as they lay a good number of eggs and also put on weight well for meat. Two examples are Rhode Island Reds or Barred Rocks. Some smaller coops are designed specifically for egg production by foraging hens. So, we asked our chicken experts to recommend breeds that are the top egg-layers and good foragers. In the end, the four recommended breeds are smaller egg-laying specialists and those who may be more comfortable in the restricted space of a small coop.

Buttercups originated centuries ago in Sicily and are golden-colored, with unique cup-shaped combs and beautiful, dark-spangled feathers. Wright’s Book of Poultry (1910), describes Buttercups as “small eaters and great foragers.” Their eggs are “of a rich and delicate flavour” and the birds are especially unassuming, “due, doubtless, to their long and close association with the Sicilian peasants, in whose homes they wandered freely in and out.”

Brown Leghorns (pronounced “leggerns”) originated near the city of Leghorn in Italy. They are outstanding egg layers and are hardy and active. Female Leghorns are medium brown with delicate penciling, darker brown wings and salmon-colored breasts. Their energetic chicks are striped like chipmunks.

Hamburgs were once recognized in Holland as the Dutch Everyday Layers. They are very snappy and alert and can be gold or silver, spangled (polka-dotted) or penciled (pin-striped). They are small eaters, good foragers and prolific egg layers.

Anconas, originally known as Black Leghorns, sport lustrous black feathers, occasionally tipped with white, giving a beautiful mottled appearance. The chicks are black and white. As very active foragers, Anconas are “as good as the best at winter laying” and are easily trained in pens, according to Wright’s Book of Poultry.

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