If you have been reading regularly here, you will probably notice that I have a great affinity for the dual purpose chicken on a homestead. They serve the greatest potential while minimizing the overall workload of the homesteader. When seeking true self-sufficiency it is also best to have chickens who can replenish their own supply. Whether you want chickens for meat, eggs, or both, you have to get the chicks from somewhere.
Even flocks totally dedicated to egg-laying will require occasional replacement of the hens. The average lifespan of a chicken is about seven years, but many other factors can play into that, shortening the lifespan greatly (hawks, foxes, lose dogs, etc.). However, even if your chickens live their full lives, only part of that time is in production.
The first year of a hen’s life is spent growing, regardless of the breed or type of chicken she is. You will not see any eggs for at least six months, and closer to a year in most breeds. In the beginning, egg production is still low as well. It is a good idea to bring in new stock at least seven months before you need them so they have time to develop before you need their eggs.
A hen’s production level will also drop off after a few years. After the initial peak, it will begin to wane and eventually stop altogether. As a rule, chickens will lose most production value by the time they are six years old. They may still produce the occasional egg, but the geriatric chickens will have to be replaced if you wish to continue with your egg supply. That means that between older chickens going out of production and younger chickens needing to mature, you will need to bring in new stock every five years or so, if all of your chickens live to old age.
If you wish to produce meat for your freezer, you will need to buy new chicks every time, usually at least once a year. This creates a very heavy dependency on outside hatcheries. It isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but does defeat some of the staunch homesteader’s desires to be self-sufficient.
These breeds are well-known for their outstanding production of eggs and meaty bodies. While they do not produce either eggs or meat as heavily as breeds designed for those singular purposes, they do both with great style. The biggest benefit is that most of the dual breeds are excellent setters. They go “broody.” In chicken vernacular—broody is a GOOD thing.
Broody means they will sit on their eggs and then raise the resulting chicks to maturity. Those instincts are largely bred out of egg-layers who will “drop and run.” Larger meat breeds also have the desire bred out, but even when they would try and sit on the eggs, their greater weights make it a losing proposition: many eggs end up crushed beneath their large frames.
Some of the most popular and easy to find dual purpose breeds are:
Aracana: These chickens are colorful and have attractive feathering that stands out like a crown around their necks. They do well in all climates and are easy going, but slightly skittish. One of the most attractive features of this breed is the unusual egg coloring. They lay bluish/green eggs that are a real conversation starter, but the eggs taste the same as all other eggs and have the same nutritional value. The Aracana has excellent brooding qualities and will hatch out eggs whenever you allow her to.
Australorp: The Australorp is an attractive black bird. It is very friendly and becomes quite attached to its owners. They are quiet birds with very docile temperaments and have high egg-production qualities. They lay medium to large sized brown eggs. They are only average setters, but they will hatch out eggs occasionally.
Brahma: Brahmas are beautiful black-and-white birds that produce large, light brown eggs. They are very easy to handle and are friendly.
Buff Orpington: This breed is classified as a “heavy” breed. The hens, when mature, will weigh in at around 8 pounds. These birds are very tolerant of the cold and seldom have trouble laying during the short days of winter. They lay pinkish brown eggs.
The Buff Orpington is known for being one of the most broody of the chicken breeds. They are very nurturing to their young. They are also one of the most calm and friendly of the chicken breeds as well.
Crevecoeur: This is not as common a breed, but it bears mentioning because it produces lovely medium sized white eggs and is extremely unusual to look at. It has a long, spiked, hair-like comb on the top of its black feathered head and is quite distinctive to look at. It is a friendly chicken that is very docile, but it isn’t a very good setter and will only occasionally become broody.
The Rooster Debate
For egg production, roosters are not a necessity regardless of what type of bird you get. However, if you want to reproduce your own chickens, they are an absolute requirement. Most chicken owners love the sound of a cocky rooster strutting around their yards.
If you live in an area that restricts roosters due to the noise, or just don’t like the noise yourself, then you are probably better off with one of the breeds dedicated to a specific purpose since you will have to replenish the flock through a hatchery in any case. Dual purpose chickens lose a lot of their value without a rooster. It doesn’t make as much sense to keep them for egg production when an egg-laying breed will provide more eggs, and you can’t get a continued supply of meat from them.