Picking a breed or breeds to include in your flock can be a difficult endeavor, depending on what your requirements are. Some people find it very easy. I do not. I envy those chickens raisers that can go to the feed store and pick up their chicks without agonizing over which breed(s) to add to their flocks.
This post should help you understand how to order chicks and the general characteristics of various breeds and categories of chickens. It is by no means all inclusive.
First off, chicken breeds are not like dog breeds, you can not tell them apart solely by color. Each breed tends to share its color varieties with many other breeds. Not all breeds have more than one color, but most of them do. Some even have a whole bunch! Many breeds have a popular color, which may be the only variation available in your area.
There are four general categories of chicken breeds. The first three are standard size (what you are used to seeing).
1. Egg layers
- The breeds in this category are mainly hybrids (the hen and roo come from different breeds) that can be color sexed at hatch
- Tend to have small bodies and little meat at the end of their production days
- High feed to egg conversion ratio
- Tend to be more flighty than dual purpose breeds
- Excellent egg producers (300+ their first 12 month in production)
2. Meat birds
- Grow faster than the other two types
- High feed to meat conversion ratio
- In general, not the prettiest birds
- There are a limited number of these breeds with one dominating the market
- The birds will reach a marketable weight between 4 and 20 weeks of age
3. Dual purpose birds
- The majority of breeds fall into this category
- Most heirloom and rare breeds will fall into this category.
- These birds will be good egg layers (150-200 eggs per yr, occasionally up to 250), the males will have good meat production (but will take 6-12 months to reach a marketable weight) and the hens will have a decent amount of meat at the end of production
- Smaller versions of the standard size chickens
- Low feed to egg conversion ratio
- Excellent sitters and mothers
- Generally more docile than their standard size counterparts
If all you are concerned with is egg production, then I recommend any of the sex-linked breeds. A roo of one breed is mated to a hen of another (generally a white with a red). They come in various colors of red and in black. There are no other colors of female chickens that are color sexed at hatch. You’ll see names such as Productions Red, Cherry Eggers, Red Sex Link, Black Sex Link, Cinnamon Queen and Golden Comet to describe the hybrid sex linked chickens. There are other breeds in this category but none so excellent an egg layer as the hybrids. Breeds that are considered very good layers are Leghorns, Orpingtons, Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, and NH Reds to name a few of the most common.
As far as I know, there are three meat bird sources. No pure breeds exist, that are excellent meat birds.
The Cornish Cross (a hybrid) dominates the market and you can find it at any hatchery and in every grocery store. It is the only meat bird for the commercial poultry industry. This bird consumes as much feed as you provide and grows at a very high rate of speed. They tend to be very lethargic birds that lose the feathers on their chest due to the amount of time they spend lying down and scooting around to feed instead of standing up. They grow FAST. You’ll have these birds to a marketable weight in 6 wks. They get hot very easily so don’t start them 6 weeks before your hottest weather hits. Better to start them during the hottest weather so that as they grow the weather is cooling off. (I had a run at these last year and did not enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do it again. Its over with very fast!)
The Freedom Ranger line was produced as an alternative to the Cornish Cross by J & M Poultry in PA. Its now a separate hatchery, find it here. Their information states you can get 5-6 lbs of live weight in 9-11 weeks. It is a meat bird for free ranging. Not much is known about the origins of these birds, they seem to be hybrids as there are multiple color variations in the flocks. (I might try these, but I’d rather get my hands on the next type)
S & G Poultry has three meat bird types, each with a different growth rate. “Fast, which is a five pound chicken in less than 50 days (7 wks) on a normal ration, medium, which is 70 to 100 days of age (10-14 wks), and slow, which is 100 to 120 days old (14-17 wks).” These flocks seem to be stable, but again nothing is really known about their origins. They may be working towards stabilizing the flocks into breeds that can be recognized in the future. (I’m very interested in trying these birds out)
Dual purpose birds
Most breeds fall into this category. Including the Delaware, Dominique, Jersey Giants, Dark Cornish, Turken (or Naked Neck), the Plymouth Rocks, Easter Egger (hybrids with the colored egg gene of the Americauna), Buckeye, Barnevelder, Welsummer, Marans, and the popular Orpington. If you are looking for a good homesteading bird, look to this category. Any one of these breeds will make a good urban hen. Though the Jersey Giants require special facilities due to their large size and adult weight.
Bantams are smaller versions of standard size chickens. They are not a breed unto themselves. There are a few true bantams that have no larger size equivalent. Bantams range in size from just under 2 pounds to about 5 pounds, while standards range from about 5 pounds up to about 8 pounds (except the Jersey Giants which can get up to about 13 pounds).
Bantams take up less space, eat less food, but also produce less eggs. If you get more than a few dozen eggs a season from a bantam consider yourself doing great. They tend to be much more docile and friendly than standard size chickens.
I find bantams to be useful on the urban homestead as broody mothers. They raise each successive generation of chicks for me. I always write a post about my newest broody so search the archives if you’d like to read about how it works. I’ve successfully gotten my broodies to accept day old chicks, three week old chicks, and to hatch fertile eggs. I admit its fun to raise chicks up on your own under a heat lamp where you can handle them at will, but its more fun and easier on you and the flock if your hens raise their own successors. Some people segregate their broodies and the chicks for a number of weeks. I do not. I will fence off the broody on hatch day, for about 40-48 hours. This gives the chicks some food that the older girls can’t get to, while they wait for mama to decide that all the eggs have hatched. About 48 hrs after the first chick hatched, mama will give up on the rest of the eggs. She will then get off the nest and take the chicks in search of food. I also provide a fenced off part of the run for them to have their own feeder of non-medicated chick starter. The opening to this yard within a yard is too small for older members of the flock to get into.
If you are just starting or even if you are starting a new flock, I highly recommend that you include a bantam or three. Some bantams are mostly for show and are not good mothers, so make sure you know which is which. (Silkies and Cochins are great broodies, but Sebrights are not.) Your chicks will be smarter for it. Mamas can teach them much more, in a far shorter amount of time, than chicks can learn on their own or from their human care takers.
Chicks are ordered one of three ways. Pullets are all female (most hatcheries guarantee only 90% accuracy so you might get a roo). Cockerels are all males. And Straight Run (SR) is a grab bag which is roughly 50/50. The smaller your order of SR chicks is, the more likely you are to get a result that isn’t 50/50. All orders of hatching eggs are SR, there is no way to sex an egg accurately, though there are many ways people swear by to do it at home.
If you can only have female chickens in your flock and you don’t want to deal with any roos, its best to only get pullets. If you can only have female chickens are okay getting a lower number of hens than you hoped for, but you don’t mind a chicken dinner, try ordering SR. If you can find a breeder in your area, you might consider ordering from a local farm. You’ll find that birds from your area are more accustomed to your climate and food sources. Make sure you vet any farm you consider buying from as not all chicken raisers have the same standards as you. For that matter, not all hatcheries are equal. I have doubts about the breeding stock for my hatchery, but am not able to get all of the breeds I want locally.
I know this doesn’t answer all your questions, but each flock and strain of chickens has different characteristics. Its hard to say with any accuracy what the personality of a breed is going to be like due the vastly different conditions in which each is raised. For example, I’ve never met a friendly red chicken, no matter the breed, so I won’t ever add one to my flock. However, I’ve heard from people all over the country that their particular flock of this or that red chicken is the sweetest they’ve ever met and they wouldn’t have a different breed for anything.
My last piece of advice today is that you choose your chicks wisely. The oldest birds will create a social structure and culture within the flock that will persist. Each successive generation will learn from the previous ones. Be sure, take your time, and consider making concessions in order to create a flock culture you can be happy with for years and years to come.