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.
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 Web site: www.TheModernHomestead.us
For more information on heritage chickens, read "Enjoy Heritage Chickens" at Mother Earth News.