Thirty odd years ago, my grandparents and great-grandparents could be found in the front yard dressing and preparing hundreds of chickens to be shared between their two families. They would stock their freezers for the upcoming winter, thinking tantalizing thoughts of homemade chicken noodle soup and fried chicken. A self-sustaining lifestyle wasnâ€™t a hobby or wishful notion. It was a reality of life.
If you wanted to eat, you had to work for it.Â
Throughout my own childhood, the brooder house was never empty. Fresh eggs filled the fridge that sat in the mudroom.
We had a variety of poultry and waterfowl, so from a young age we had sampled the eggs from turkeys, geese, ducks and, of course, our faithful laying hens.Â
A few special roosters and hens seemed to have personalities of their own. At one point, my next younger brother and I had each claimed a rooster.â€”Roovert and Doovert, we comically dubbed them. They two unfortunate souls were chased around the hill by children eager to capture and stroke their beautiful, colored feathers.Â
Chicken Breeds of Choice
My mother was a fan of dual-purpose birds in her henhouse. She preferred to have a breed of chicken that allowed for the roosters to be butchered at a young age. The hens grew old while supplying us with a steady stream of delicious eggs.Â
Even to this day, chickens are a staple back at my folkâ€™s home. Over the years,Â a variety of chicken breeds graced the threshold of the brooder house. But the flock today mainly consists of a mixture of Buff Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Red Sex Links and Golden Laced Wyandottes.
Later, on my own, I started my own flockâ€”a mix of Dominiques and Golden Lace Wyandottes. A heritage breed with the disposition of the calmest bird Iâ€™ve seen, the Dominique has become a favorite in my own henhouse.Â
Read more: These rare and heritage breeds are odd birds!
What Questions to Ask?
When you go to purchase your chickens, youâ€™ll encounter a variety of questions youâ€™ll want to answer before picking a breed.Â
- What do you want these chickens for? To raise for meat (fryers), eggs (layers), both (dual purpose) or just as ornamentals?
- Will they be show birds and exhibited at poultry shows or just for your own homestead?
- Will this chicken breed be able to thrive in the climate you live in?Â
- Do you want full-sized chickens or their smaller counterparts, bantams?
- How serious of an egg-layer are you looking for?Â
- And just for fun: What color of eggs would you like?Â
Knowing Which Chicken Breed to Buy
When choosing which breed of chickens to purchase, a little research can go a long way. One of the first things to decide: what purpose you want the birds to serve.
Fryers are chickens with stocky bodies that fill out with muscle, and are fed and grown with the intent to butcher them at a young age. They donâ€™t lay as many eggs as layers or dual-purpose chicken breeds.Â
Layers are chickens that have a more lean body build and lay an average of an egg a day. Theyâ€™re not intended for butcher. Rather, they spend a majority of their life producing eggs. The age a hen starts producing at and the number of eggs you get a day will depend on the breed of chicken you choose. An excellent layer should average between 250 to 280 eggs a year.Â
Dual-purpose chickens are meant to provide a bit of both worlds. Theyâ€™ll have a stockier body than layers and thus be able to be butchered. But the hens will also produce more eggs than fryers, making them able to be kept for years for egg production.
If you decide to go for a dual-purpose breed rather than strictly an egg layer, donâ€™t expect them to produce the same number of eggs. They will still lay an adequate amount. But because theyâ€™re meant to fulfill two needs (meat and eggs) their body will also spend energy on building muscle as well.
You might also find that dual-purpose chicken breeds tend to be slower growing than their commercial counterparts, the fryers. Rather than a downside, some people find their slower growth to be a healthier alternative to some fast-maturing fryers.
Besides the constant entertainment chickens offer, why else would you want to go through the effort of purchasing them, building a shelter, buying feed and all of the other work it takes to maintain a healthy flock?
Chickens have grown increasingly more popular as people begin to question the health of commercial poultry offered in the supermarkets and rising prices. Many people also tend to enjoy the feeling of security offered by growing their own food, whether in the form of a garden, chickens or cattle.Â
Chickens as a Lifestyle
The longer you have them, the more woven into your daily life and habits your chickens will become. Kitchen scraps and yard waste can be diverted from the landfill and sent straight to the backyard. In return, youâ€™ll be given fresh, deliciously rich eggs.
If left to free-range, hens will help keep your yardâ€™s pests in check. Things such as ticks, fleas, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, grubs, aphids and even small reptiles are liable to end up on the wrong end of a henâ€™s beak!Â
If you enjoy gardening, chickens can be challenging pets to keep. While they might sneak a few bites of a tomato or dig a tender onion, theyâ€™ll mix your topsoil and organic matter as they scratch and kick around the dirt.
Garden pests will dwindle, and both you and the hens will reap the benefits of summertime eggs. Just consider it their way of repaying any missing produce!
Read more: Chickens can bring big benefits to the garden!
You’ll find a vast number of different chicken breeds offered today. But here are some of the most common and practical layers you could consider adding to (or starting) your flock with.
Rhode Island Reds
Rhode Island Reds are a dual-purpose chicken breed developed in the state of Rhode Island. They are excellent layers and will produce a large, dark brown egg.
Some of the hens can go broody and make good mothers. These are a great option for new or experienced chicken-keepers and easy to care for.Â
Red Sex Links
Red Sex Links are a hybrid chicken and, interestingly enough, cannot reproduce purebred offspring. They are the result of a red cock (New Hampshire or Rhode Island Red) mated with a silver-based hen (such as a white Leghorn, Rhode Island White, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, etc.).
They are tremendous layers, producing large, brown eggs, and are quite hardy in a variety of weather environments.Â
Barred Plymouth Rocks
Barred Plymouth Rocks are another great dual-purpose breed of chicken, developed in Massachusetts. An extremely popular breed, the hens lay brown eggs and can turn broody, yet overall are hardy, calm birds.Â
While their coloring is similar to their relative, the Dominiques, the single comb of a Barred Rock will help you differentiate between it and the Dominique, who has a rose comb.Â
Leghorns are an active, lively breed developed in Italy. They can come in a variety of colors, two comb variations, and either bantam or large breed size.
Leghorns are hardy and excellent layers of large, white eggs.
Golden Laced Wyandotte
Golden Laced Wyandottes get their name from a Native American tribe that was collectively known as Wendat or Wyandot. The original variety of Wyandotte was the Silver Laced. Today, however, you’ll encounter multiple different varieties including Blue, Black, Buff, Columbian, Partridge, Silver Penciled and White.
They are good layers of brown eggs and can become broody. They are a rather fluffy-looking chicken, thanks to their short tail and back, and loose feathering.Â
Australorps, developed in Australia, are another dual-purpose chicken breed. They originated from Orpingtons and eventually came to be known as Australorps.
Australorps are excellent layers of brown eggs, and have a single comb and docile disposition.Â
Beyond the Breed
Chicks can be bought from a variety of places. Local farm-supply stores often host â€śchick daysâ€ť and will have stock tanks full of chickens or ducks you can purchase and take home right that day. Many hatcheries also offer the option to order online and have the poultry shipped straight to your local post office for pick-up.
Local breeders will also sometimes have poultry for sale. If you decide to buy from an individual, try to get a look at their flock and the living conditions before you purchase any birds. This will give you an idea of not only the history of your birds, but what problems you could run into in the future.Â
Hereâ€™s a quick run-down of how chicks are often offered for sale.
The chicks have not been sexed (had their gender checked). You are buying a random assortment of cockerels and pullets.Â
This is a selection of chicks that is supposed to be males only. Donâ€™t be surprised if a pullet or two slips by once in awhile!
These chicks have been sexed and determined to be pullets (or females) only.
Keeping chickens can be quite an adventure at times, but if youâ€™re ready for a little backyard companionship and fresh eggs, theyâ€™re the way to go! Be careful on the number of poultry you get for your space, but donâ€™t forget to have a little fun with it. A basket of multi-colored eggs could look beautiful sitting on your kitchen table!Â
A Few More Questionsâ€¦Â
Sometimes people have questions they feel are too simple to ask. Donâ€™t be that person! How else can we learn if we donâ€™t start with the basics? Here are a few things you might have wondered about.
Do you need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs?
Nope, you donâ€™t need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs. Roosters simply fertilize the eggs, and the hen does all the work of making them. She can do that just fine without a rooster.
If you think youâ€™ll want a self-sustaining flock in the future (meaning youâ€™ll hatch your own eggs, whether in an incubator or stuck under a broody hen), then youâ€™ll need a rooster.Â
Do eggs come in different colors?
Yes! Eggs can come in a rainbow of colorsâ€”they arenâ€™t all brown or white! There are varying shades of blue, green, pink, white, brown, etc.
For brown eggs, look at the Buff Rocks, Golden-Laced Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, etc. For a more colorful egg such as blue or green, look at the Ameraucanas, Cream Legbars, Olive Eggers and so on.Â
What is the difference between a â€śsingleâ€ť comb and â€śroseâ€ť comb?
A single comb is how a lot of people imagine chickensâ€”with a single flap of skin standing up on top of their head. A rose comb is a more flat and wide piece of skin that looks rather bumpy and lays down close to the head.
If you live in a cold climate, a chicken breed with a rose comb might be somewhat more desirable as it wonâ€™t get frostbite as easily.Â
How many eggs will my hen lay?
An average layer should produce between 250 to 280 eggs a year. When chickens are just pullets, they will probably lay an egg every three to four days.
As they mature, their eggs will grow larger and they should be producing two eggs every three days. (I typically would look for an egg a day from my full grown hens, give or take a few.) Â
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue ofÂ Chickens magazine.