Youâ€™ve heard the story of a child who prays for a pony, right? Well, shortly after my parents relocated their young family to a country residence back in the 1990s, I had a prayer of my own, and it wasnâ€™t nearly so ambitious. I prayed for chickens!
You may laugh, but after reading Chickens in Your Backyard: A Beginnerâ€™s Guide by Rick and Gail Luttman (Rodale Books, 1976) at the ripe old age of 11, I was fascinated by the feathered creatures. And I still love raising poultry to this day.
The early morning crow of a rooster at sunrise is a welcome alarm to my satisfied senses. Itâ€™s a sort-of siren call for the miracle of life.Â
Back to the 90s. Out of the blue, my parents received a surprise call from a local hobby farmer of their acquaintance. He told them that some 3-year-old White Leghorns were going cheap from a commercial egg facility.
I was ecstatic! At the unbelievable price of $1.25 each, we â€śliberatedâ€ť 25 of those debeaked factory prisoners. The rest of their lives were lived in peaceful retirement, with green grass and room to scratch.
They churned out dozens of eggs in gratitude. And weâ€™ve raised chickens more or less ever since.Â
I think back fondly on those early days. The wonder of watching an egg laid for the first time, the tears when a hatch of chicks from my Styrofoam incubator died, the exasperation of seeing those leghorns eat their own eggs and wondering, “What in the world?”
All of these were valuable experiences for a youngster. They taught lifelong lessons about nature and mortality.Â
Dual-purpose means a chicken that produces meat and eggs in a reasonably efficient manner. (Technically, any chicken could serve as a dual-purpose chicken. Leghorns could be harvested for meat, or a Jumbo Cornish could lay eggs. Theyâ€™re just not efficient at it.)Â
For a point of contrast, let me give a brief explanation on non-dual-purpose chickens:Â
Egg-layers are bred for a light frame with little (or zero) instinct to brood (set eggs and raise their own young). Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds and Hybrid Red Stars, for example, consume light feed for body maintenance and tend to have few interruptions in egg production.
These birds could still be harvested for meat. But their slight frames and skimpy meat-to-bone ratio donâ€™t seem suited for much beyond bone broth.Â
Meat birds are bred for bulk (sometimes to the detriment of natural functions). The hybrid Jumbo Cornish/Rock cross (the most popular meat breed in America) dresses out in six to eight weeks. The large size, rapid weight gain and clunky build make the birds inefficient as barnyard fowl, as they consume huge quantities of feed, are prone to heart attacks and can have difficulty breeding.Â
For the backyard hobby farmer or the new homesteader, it seems that a middle-of-the-road version would be the best flock foundation. Something that can hatch out fresh replacement layers each spring and supply extra cocks for the dinner table. Weâ€™ll discuss some of these lovely dual-purpose chicken breed options later.Â
However, if youâ€™re new to chickens, order a few mail-order hatchery catalogs (or browse their websites) for baby poultry. Pick out all the birds you like and read the full descriptions to learn more about them.
My personal favorite tends to be â€śsurprise me!â€ť by ordering assortments.Â
Breeds for Both
Some of my go-to favorite dual-purpose chicken breeds are:Â
These golden beauties lay beautiful brown eggs and have a solid meat yield. Their golden feathers help to maintain an attractive plucked table carcass, and roughly 10 to 30 percent of an Orpington flock seems to go broody.
Thatâ€™s a good ratio if you want chicks and eggs. The percentage of brooding-prone hens will depend greatly on the hatcheryâ€™s breeding program.
Our ancient Black Australorp hen is the best broody weâ€™ve ever had. Sheâ€™s hatched sets of chicks, a duckling and guinea fowl.
I hope she makes it another year. I may let her set turkey eggs next!
Australorps are a similar size to Orpingtons and perhaps a tad more docile. The black feathers require slightly more attention when plucking the carcass, but itâ€™s worth the effort.
Black Australorps cross very well with Buff Orpingtons. And the resulting chicks are sex-linked for easy identification.Â
Iâ€™ve raised Silver-Laced Wyandottes that had zero interest in brooding, and Columbian Wyandottes that dependably set twice a year. They lay lovely light brown eggs and have a good body weight.
They cross well with Orpingtons or Australorps for maintaining diverse genetics in your backyard flock. Iâ€™ve also crossed Columbian Wyandotte hens with a Columbian Brahma rooster with excellent results.Â
For the past four years, I havenâ€™t needed to purchase chickens. My Columbian-cross girls faithfully hatched out chicks. I harvested the roosters each fall and picked a new cock for the coming spring.
I introduced a heavy Ameraucauna hen influence, which resulted in light-green or pink eggs. Over the years, I lost some birds to old age, some to predators and sold a few here and there. Last fall, my thriving free-range flock attracted the attention of an eagle-eyed bird of prey.
One by one, my chickens disappeared. Now, Iâ€™m starting over again.Â
Still, there are two seasoned broodies left to start afresh next spring. At the time of this writing, the barnyard is full of feather-footed varieties, Orpingtons, Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Silver Leghorns and a few oddballs. I love the colors and variety of this new set, despite my sadness at the loss of my old flock.
Such is life on the farm. Through thick and thin, the life cycle must go on.
Sidebar: A Note on BroodiesÂ
A dependable broody is valuable if you wish to raise chicks the old-fashioned way. When testing dependability of a first-time broody, a small clutch of six eggs works well. If she quits after a week, you know not to give her eggs again.
A dependable broody will continue to set beyond 21 days, if eggs havenâ€™t yet hatched. (Some will set up to six weeks.) On average, a full-sized hen can incubate a dozen eggs. You should select premium eggs for incubation.Â
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue ofÂ Chickens magazine.