Raising your own chickens is one of the best ways to ensure a steady supply of food for your table, as well as providing fertilizer for your crops and feathers to stuff your pillows and winter bedding. However, to successfully raise chickens, you must choose the right type of chicken to meet your needs.
Types Of Chickens
There are four basic categories of chickens into which the many breeds and hundreds of varieties of breeds can be grouped, based on the breeds that originated in that locale: Asian, English/French, Mediterranean, and American. They can also be categorized as table birds (chickens that are raised for their meat), layers (chickens that are raised to produce eggs), and hybrids (chickens that are raised for both their meat and eggs).
Chickens originated in Asia, somewhere in the band stretching between India and the Philippines. They are mentioned in Chinese historical texts from 1400 B.C., where they refer to the importing of these domesticated birds into China. The breeds in the Asian category tend to be larger and heavier than other birds. They have distinctive fluffy plumage that gives them the appearance of wearing a feathered hat or wig. They thrive in colder climates, making them excellent free-range birds in wintry environments that would require indoor housing for less hardy birds. Unfortunately, their meat is somewhat coarse, and they are not very productive egg layers.
The chickens from England and France, on the other hand, are primarily prized as table birds. Their meat is of an exceptional quality. While many of the French and English birds have sacrificed laying capacity in favor of meat quality, there are some breeds that do provide a reasonable quantity of eggs.
For serious egg production, your best bet is a Mediterranean chicken. These small birds cost very little to feed and produce a high number of large eggs. They start laying eggs younger than most other breeds. Because of their size, they are rarely considered for their meat. The one major drawback of Mediterranean chickens is that they require a mild climate to produce the greatest number of eggs, so they will not produce well in extreme climates.
Finally, the American chickens are hybrids or all-purpose birds. They are moderate in size, falling between the large Asian chickens and small Mediterranean chickens. Their meat is of better quality than the Asian chickens but not as exceptional as the English and French chickens. They start laying later than the Mediterranean chickens but earlier than the Asian chickens, and they produce a respectable number of eggs. Unlike the sensitive Mediterranean birds, the American chickens continue to lay eggs throughout winter.
Free-range layers are chickens that have been bred for hardiness in outdoor conditions. They tend to be heavier than chickens that are bred for laying indoors. Free-range layers can sustain themselves by eating insects found outside, but for maximum productivity should be fed regular meals. Because free range layers do not require as much care and attention as the more delicate indoor layers, they are more well suited for the small-scale home farm.
Excellent free-range layer breeds include the Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and Wyandotte. These breeds can potentially produce more than 300 eggs in a year. Additional choices that produce a good number of eggs are the Black Rock, Bovans Nera, Hisex Ranger, and Lohmann Brown.
Hens can live for up to ten years, but their first two years of laying are their most productive. Therefore, it is important that you replenish the hens in your flock every few years. If you have the services of a cock, you can put him in the same run as the hens so that they lay fertilized eggs and then hatch the eggs. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase new hens from other chicken farmers, which of requires means you will want to ensure they are fed an organic diet, free of hormones, antibiotics, and even arsenic.
The undisputed best layer is the Leghorn. These Mediterranean chickens are small, with the cock weighing an average of six pounds and the hens weighing between four and five pounds. Immature hens (known as pullets) weigh about four pounds. They lay white eggs. The Leghorn’s good qualities are their exceptional egg production, ability to forage for food, and a resistance toward broodiness (the tendency of the hen to sit on her eggs to hatch them rather than continuing to lay more). The downside is that they are noisy and flighty.
If you are equally interested in raising chickens for their meat and for their eggs, select an Australorp. This Australian derivative of the English Orpington breed is a mid-sized bird. The average cock weighs between eight and nine pounds, while the average hen weighs between six and seven pounds. They lay brown eggs. The Australorp’s good qualities are their good egg productions and ease of care. They do not have any special needs that must be met.
Best For Cold Weather
If you are trying to raise free-range chickens in a wintry environment, you should choose an Orpington. These English birds have loose feathers that naturally insulate them against the cold. Heavy birds whose cocks weigh an average of ten pounds and whose hens weigh an average of eight pounds, they make good table birds as well as producing a good number of eggs. They lay brown eggs. The Orpington’s good qualities are their mothering instincts, making them excellent for incubating and raising other breeds’ chicks, and endurance of cold weather. The downside is that they are too docile and so cannot be mixed with other breeds or they may not get enough food.
Best For Warm Weather
A table bird that nevertheless produces an ample number of eggs, the Dorking can weigh anywhere between seven and nine pounds for the cock, and between six and seven pounds for the hen. They lay white eggs. The Dorking’s good qualities are their egg production and maternal instincts. The downside is that they go broody and need protective shelter in cold weather.
Best For Rugged Environments
Free-ranging flocks that must survive in rugged environments such as the mountainous areas of the Northeastern United States that can be both extremely hot and extremely cold should choose a Wyandotte. The cocks weigh between eight and nine pounds, and the hens weigh between six and seven pounds. They make good table birds as well as having good egg production. They lay brown eggs. The Wyandotte’s good qualities are their good temperaments and mothering instincts. The downside is that they have a tendency to go broody.
Best For Hardiness
If you are concerned about the health of your flock and need to be certain that your birds will not fall ill or succumb to parasites, you should consider the Plymouth Rock. Because they have deep, full breasts, they are less prone to chronic respiratory disease or infectious bronchitis. They also tend to live longer than most other breeds. The cocks weigh nine pounds on average, while the hens tend to weigh between seven and eight pounds. They can lay about 200 eggs per year, and they lay brown eggs. The Plymouth Rock’s good qualities are their exceptional hardiness and vigor, as well as docility and a strong mothering instinct. The downside is that they go broody.
Best For Poor Conditions
If you aren’t certain that you will reliably be able to provide food for your flock or will only be able to furnish marginal housing for the flock, the Rhode Island Red will best be able to handle those conditions. These medium-sized hybrid birds are excellent for the home farm with just a few chickens. The cocks run between eight and nine pounds, and the hens average between six and seven pounds. They will continue to lay eggs even if their diet is very poor. They lay brown eggs. The Rhode Island Red’s good qualities are their hardiness and ability to cope with marginal diets and poor housing situations.
The Sussex breed makes excellent foragers. Although originally developed as a table bird, this English breed is now primarily raised for their egg production. They are extremely good layers and lay brown eggs. The Sussex breed’s good qualities are their ability to forage for their own food, and maternal instincts. The downside is that they go broody.
Where To Buy Chickens
The easiest and best way to buy chickens is from a local chicken farmer. If you can barter with him or her, that’s even better. Part of the reason you want to buy locally this is that local farmers are more likely to be raising breeds that will do well in the local environment, and part of this is because you’ll be better able to judge the health of the birds if you can see them in person.
It is easier to purchase pullets (immature hens) that are about to begin laying than it is to purchase fertilized eggs or young chicks. It is also more difficult to raise chickens from eggs or chicks than it is to start your flock with already grown birds.
If you have your heart set on a special breed that your local chicken farmers do not raise or you don’t know any local chicken farmers, you can also purchase chicks online. Since newly hatched chicks can survive for a few weeks without food, they can easily be shipped at that stage.
©2012 Off the Grid News