Which Chicken Breed(s) Should I Choose? - North 40 Life

Which Chicken Breed(s) Should I Choose?

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Chickens are the epitome of self-reliance for urban and rural homesteaders alike, providing delicious and nutritious eggs for the family while offering a degree of food security when you can’t make it to the store. To raise your own flock you need to choose a breed.

Getting started with chickens

I considered chickens for a while before eventually bringing home a half-dozen peeps, giving them titles like Lady Bawk-Bawk and Beyoncegg while situating them in their new, fancy home. We experienced a few bumps during that first year, including losing a young bird to a friend’s visiting dog. And when our four-year old came inside and said, “Brittany said cock-a-doodle-doo!” we knew Brittany was actually a he.

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We’ve learned a lot along the way and it’s all been worth it—every day with chickens is like Christmas morning when we see how many eggs we have and can figure out who laid them by their coloration and size. We’ve also discovered individual personalities in our birds, especially when we’ve allowed them to range from their enclosure (with supervision because of our enthusiastic Lab). When ranging they’re apt to follow whomever looks like they might have something interesting to eat, and will hunker down allowing us to pick them up. They are enjoyable to listen to and watch.

I never grow tired of the eggs, especially during baking marathons or when I’m in the mood for frittatas. The yolks are deeper orange than what we find at the store, especially during summer when our birds are eating more insects and fresh greens; the flavor is better; and the eggs from our free-ranging chickens have higher amounts of healthful omega-3 fatty acids.

Chickens have been a winning combination for our family and I’m sure they will be for yours, too. Here are the first things to consider as you’re getting started.

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Check your local chicken regulations and show regard for your neighbors

Before you buy a single bird or build a coop, you’ll want to check into local regulations.

Believe it or not, there are towns and cities where keeping chickens is illegal. So check your local ordinances on-line or call city hall to determine your options. Even in towns where chickens are permitted, there might be regulations stipulating that you can only keep hens, or requiring minimum setbacks from property lines, as well as outlining a minimum space for the birds.

When you’re thinking of where to place your coop, consider your neighbors. Even if it’s perfectly legal to have them in the backyard, not everyone is enamored with these birds. Keep your coop away from the property line and screen it, if possible, to maintain neighbor relations until the entertaining personality of your chickens and the gift of their fresh eggs wins them over.

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Choosing the right chicken breeds for your yard

While it’s fun to swoon over the fuzzy little chicks in the feed-stores, if you want to make the most of your backyard flock, research various breeds to determine exactly what qualities you want. Are you looking for maximum egg production or are you more interested in heritage breeds with an interesting appearance or pretty colored eggs? Some chickens are naturally skittish, while others are happy to hop into your arms. With this in mind, decide the importance of temperament. And consider your climate, particularly if you live in a region of extreme cold where combs may freeze. There are varieties that thrive in sub-zero temperatures with minimal issues and vice-versa.

With dozens of popular breeds, and a handful of more obscure varieties, part of the fun is choosing birds that work best for your lifestyle and expectations. Here are some of the most popular backyard chickens:

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The Breeds

  • Ameraucana—These are beautiful birds with tufted ears and sometimes a feathery muff under their chin. They lay roughly 150 of the eye-catching blue-green eggs per year.
  • Australorp—These lustrous black, dual-purpose birds (meaning they are good meat birds, too) with a sweet disposition produce roughly 250 large, brown eggs per year.
  • Black or Red Star—Producing 300 brown eggs per year, these birds typically don’t fuss if you pick them up, which is a good characteristic if you have kids.
  • Brahma—These impressive dual-purpose birds are equipped for the cold weather. While they only produce 140 brown, mid-sized eggs each year, they are eye-catching and super friendly.
  • Golden Comet—These curious and affectionate hens are exceptional layers sometimes producing 330 brown eggs a year.
  • Leghorn—Leghorns are skinny and often skittish, but are excellent layers producing 250 large, white eggs per year. They are also good at scratching up their dinners in a free range situation, as well as tolerating confinement in smaller areas, although they need extra protection from cold weather due to larger combs.
  • Orpington—These beautiful and friendly chickens range in color from a coppery buff to black, and produce between 175-200 large, brown eggs per year. As a dual-purpose bird, they are acceptable in the meat department with the cockerels growing up to nine pounds.
  • Plymouth Rock—Also called the Barred Rock, this speckled chicken is a fast grower and a favorite for eggs, and is a good heritage meat bird as well. They lay around 200 brown eggs per year and also are known to be good brooders, even if they are a little bossy to the rest of the flock.
  • Rhode Island Red—Laying roughly 250 large, brown eggs per year, Rhode Island Reds are longtime favorites in the backyard flock. The hens are known for their easy-going disposition, but the roosters can be aggressive.
  • Sussex—Growing up to 12 pounds, the Sussex is an excellent dual-purpose bird that produces 200 large brown eggs each year. Predominantly white with speckling around the neck and black hackles, they are as beautiful as they are docile.

Red Stars and Brahmas hens breeds of chicken

How many hens do I need?

Chickens are like potato chips—you can’t have just one. But with so many wonderful breeds, it’s difficult to narrow your choices to find your favorites. Feel free to mix and match different varieties if you are unsure of what you want. The only consideration is understanding that sometimes more aggressive breeds, such as the Plymouth Rock, can bully smaller birds.

As a rule of thumb, six hens that average 200 eggs per year feeds a family of four. Plan on four to five eggs a day during the height of the summer. If breeds like the Ameraucana are used, increase the number of birds to compensate for decreased egg production. And, if you want to maintain these egg laying numbers during winter, add an extra hen or two to mitigate for fewer eggs during the shorter days.

If you want to step up egg production to the point where you’re supplying friends and family, or selling a few dozen on the side, a couple of dozen hens (or more) will mean constant and consistent egg laying.

When and how do I replace birds—chicks or pullets?

Most backyard flock owners add new birds every two-to three years, once the older hens slow down egg production. (The old hens are either butchered, re-homed, or allowed to live out their retirement days with the rest of the flock.) Replacing birds can be as easy as buying new chicks at the farm store for roughly $3 a piece, or buying pullets from a local producer for anywhere from $8 to $25 per bird (or more for rare heritage breeds).

There are pros and cons to each size. It’s entertaining to watch chicks grow, and this is a particularly enjoyable endeavor with children. But, it takes approximately six-to eight months from the day you buy your chicks to the time you see your first eggs.

The benefit of buying pullets, which are almost mature when you get them, is you don’t have to feed them for as many months before they begin to lay. Plus, you will know the sex of the bird. The drawback is they can be more difficult to find, plus you need to research the place you by them from to reduce the risk of bringing a disease issue into your existing flock. Talk to your local poultry community to find healthy, well-bred birds.

Do I need a rooster to get eggs?

For most people, a rooster is unnecessary and sometimes problematic since their protective nature can lead to aggression . . . beyond keeping the flock safe from four-legged predators. But if you wish to raise your own chicks, eggs must be fertilized and a rooster is a must in that equation.

How do I know when chicks are near?

You have a good idea chicks are in your future if one of your hens decides she’s not leaving the nesting box. In addition, she might pluck out her chest feathers to make a more comfortable nest. And, she may peck at you when you try to move her. If you have a rooster and you want chicks, a broody hen is great news. If not, she will monopolize the nesting box and disrupt the coop, so you’ll want to discourage her by removing eggs as quickly as possible, and preventing her from spending time in the box.

Raising urban or rural chickens. Is the effort worth it?

Eggs are usually the main reason people opt to have chickens in the backyard, but they’re pleasantly surprised when they discover that these birds have delightful personalities. When you pick the breed (or breeds) that fit your lifestyle and expectations, you’ll discover that chickens are truly the heart of the homestead.

 

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Amy Grisak is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in gardening, cooking, and sustainable lifestyle topics, as well as a particular interest in anything to do with the beautiful Montana outdoors. Her articles appear in the New Pioneer, Rodale's Organic Life, Camp Cabela's, Hobby Farms, The Farmers' Almanac, Horticulture, the Great Falls Tribune, and many more.

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