How to Select Chickens for a Small Farm or Homestead

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Bernadette Logozar Franklin County Extension specialist

In early September, I was invited to take part in the Mother Earth News Homesteading Fair at the Maple Ridge Center in Lowville, N.Y

I was asked to speak on a number of different topics, one of which was selecting chickens for your small farm or homestead.

Often as an Extension educator I am able to dip into my experience and background growing up on a diversified farm in northeastern Alberta, and this talk definitely was one of those times.

I can honestly say that when I applied for my position with Cornell Cooperative Extension I was certain that I would be using my formal educational background, but I didn’t expect that I also would be using just as much my background as a farm girl practically every day.

But enough about me; let’s talk chickens.

There are more than 200 breeds of chickens! Besides color, plumage pattern, style of comb and wattles, chicken breeds differ on everything from personality, to broodiness (tendency to sit on eggs to hatch them), to winter hardiness or even egg color.

Some people raise chickens to show, or breed rare varieties to keep them going, or just because they like that particular breed.

One of the most rewarding things to have on your small farm is chickens. They can add so much to your farm, by keeping insects down, or taking care of kitchen scraps, or providing eggs and meat for your table.

But with those 200-plus breeds to choose from, how do you know where to start when selecting the best chicken for your small farm?

First, consider size. Chicken breeds are divided into two size categories, standard or large, and bantam. In fact, many breeds are available in both sizes.

Large breeds are, well, simply larger than bantam breeds. They produce more meat and eggs than bantams. Bantam breeds may be one-quarter to one-fifth the size of a large-breed chicken. The bantam eggs are smaller and the birds can continue to fly throughout their lifetime. Large breed chickens cannot fly long distances; however lighter birds are generally able to fly for short distances, such as over fences or into trees where they would naturally roost. Chickens may occasionally fly briefly to explore their surroundings, but generally do so only to flee a perceived threat.

Some small farmers enjoy raising, breeding and showing bantam chickens. Others do the same with large-breed chickens.

But farmers who are raising chickens for eggs or meat will likely choose large-breed chickens for their greater efficiency in producing them.

Some like to have a few bantams mixed in with large breeds just for variety and more as a “pet” chicken. We always had a few bantam roosters in our flock because the bantams tended to have more intense personalities than the larger-breed chickens. Bantam roosters, however, aren’t as intimidating (due to their smaller stature) as larger-breed roosters. They still defend the flock, but wouldn’t challenge people as larger breed roosters might.

Here are some more things to consider:

Heavy breeds: In cold-winter regions like Adirondack North Country, having a chicken breed that is considered “heavy” matters when you are selecting chickens for your farm.

Heavy breeds have thicker bodies and denser feathers and are happier in the cold than non-heavy breeds. And if you are after eggs year round, heavy breeds are more likely to continue laying through the winter as well.

Hardiness: This refers to a breed’s ability to sustain itself through tougher times, and its tendency to forage versus eating feed. Hardiness is often called “thriftiness.: Some older, less heavily farmed breeds, like heritage or heirloom breeds, still retain many of the qualities chickens needed when they were living in backyards across the country.

Conversely, production breeds have sometimes lost the ability to brood over a clutch of eggs or forage for bugs, weeds and small rodents in fields and woods.

Broodiness: As mentioned earlier, this is the tendency to brood or “ nest” over a clutch of eggs. Hens go “broody” over eggs in order to hatch them. If you are trying to hatch eggs naturally, this a good trait to have in a hen, however not so much if you want to have eggs for your own use or for sale.

We always had one or two hens on the farm that we would set on a clutch of eggs. This would add another 12 to 20 chickens to our overall flock each year.

Dual-purpose breeds: These are the old-time, classic breeds raised on farms in early America. Many households had chickens and they kept laying hens, but culled the old, weak birds, the hens that stopped laying or the young roosters for the table.

The “dual purpose” of good laying production and plump meat for the table is the specialty of these breeds. For small farms or homesteading, these breeds are perfect for your farm.

Egg layers: These are the most prolific of egg layers, and their grain-to-egg output is maximized. They don’t make particularly good eaters (for your table) and are not generally suitable for cold climates. But if you are after high output of eggs then select an egg layer.

Meat birds: Some breeds are developed purely to raise for eating. These breeds are the most efficient converters of grain to meat. They grow to their “finished” size of 4 to 6 pounds within six to eight weeks.

So, if you are looking for birds to fill your freezer or your neighbor’s freezer, select a meat bird. The classic is the White Cornish or the White Cornish and White Rock, called the CornishxRock or Cornish Rock.

Egg color: Did you know you can tell what color eggs a chicken will lay by looking at its earlobes? Eggs range in color from all shades of brown and tan to blue, green and white. The most common egg colors are brown and white, and chicken breeds are often described by this characteristic.

There is no nutritional value difference between the colors of the eggs. Nutritional value of the eggs is related to what the chickens are eating, NOT the color of their eggs.

Plumage and looks: One of the best things about chickens is their gorgeous plumage. Chickens come in every color, shape and design imaginable. Likewise, combs come in a variety of shapes. Those that lie close to the chicken’s head are less prone to frostbite, so for our area this is something to consider when choosing your chickens.

Temperament: Breeds are described as docile or aggressive, depending on the traits people have noticed in their flocks. However, among any given flock, temperament will be more influenced by pecking order than genetics.

Those higher in the pecking order will be more aggressive than those lower in the order. Some breeds tend to be more “flighty” and high-strung than others. Sometimes this is good trait, especially if you have problems with avian predators.

If you have small children, then a docile breed would be a better fit for you.

Heritage and rare breeds: In recent years, there has been an upsurge in people’s interest in heritage and heirloom chicken breeds. Some farmers specialize in raising, breeding and selling heritage and rare chickens, while others want heritage breeds for their egg layers or meat birds.

These breeds often display greater hardiness than production breeds. Heritage and heirloom breeds tend to show more traditional chicken behaviors like foraging for food, going to brooding easier and roosting.

To find out more about the different breeds of chickens, a good online resource is: www.hobbyfarms.com/farm-breeds/poultry_chickens_all_landing.aspx.

When choosing the chickens for your farm, think about what you want them for — eggs, meat, both or something else. Use the features of the breeds to help you select the best chicken for your flock. You may find you want to have a selection to see how the different breeds perform in the environment you provide on your farm.

Bernadette Logozar is a rural and ag economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County.


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