Choosing Chicken Breeds

Chickens are often jokingly referred to as a gateway animal. We’re not laughing. Okay, maybe a little, but they’re the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. We had plans in place to get chickens since the day we first moved to the country, but as we mentioned, the timing just wasn’t right until a couple years ago. With copious amounts of research under our belts and no real infrastructure in place, we took the leap and decided to order a batch of 25 chicks from Murray McMurray hatchery in late 2015. Our first order consisted of Barred Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Speckled Sussex, and Silver Grey Dorkings. Our choice to order from McMurray centered around the availability of all of these breeds at the same time, something that was difficult to be guaranteed at other hatcheries. The biggest wild-cards were the Dorkings and Sussex as they are not super common breeds and have consistently been on The Livestock Conservancy’s priority list for poultry (They have 5 levels of endangerment: Critical, Threatened, Watch, Recovering, and Study). These breeds were chosen based on their reputations as good layers with good temperaments, and table-worthy carcasses. With the order placed, the pressure was on. We had started building a coop on a trailer at our last house, but much of it had rotted in place over a couple years, so it was time to tear down and rebuild. We wouldn’t recommend not having infrastructure in place prior to getting any livestock, but we were confident that we could finish the coop in time. Spoiler Alert: We did! We have since built a few other coops and will be adding a fifth this year, so we will share those designs along with their pros and cons in another post. We will also document our brooding and incubation procedures next month!

When it comes to choosing chickens for your flock, the options seem limitless. Your location, size of desired flock, and goals will ultimately help you decide the best route for you. When we decided to raise our own chickens we were looking to get birds that would supply us with eggs and meat. In the chicken world, these breeds are usually referred to as “dual-purpose”. Dual-purpose breeds are typically purebred heritage breeds that will lay well and reach a respectable size for the table. Our plan was to order our chicks “straight-run”, meaning that they wouldn’t be sexed at the hatchery and we would likely end up with about a 50/50 split of females and males. Hatcheries usually send an extra chick or two and we ended up with something like 14 hens (or pullets as they’re referred as youngsters) and 12 roosters. We decided that we would keep all of the hens, along with two roosters, and send the rest to the processor around 18 weeks of age. We are fortunate to have a USDA poultry processor about an hour away, so after we labored over processing 3 ourselves, we decided it would be best to have the professionals finish the task for us. On processing day, one of the roosters escaped our grasp and ran into the woods, never to be seen again…or until we got back from the processor and he was waiting to be let into the coop (we ended up selling him, a beautiful Speckled Sussex to a family that had lost their rooster to a fox attack). We kept our nicest rooster, a Barred Rock named Max, as our main rooster and a secondary Silver Grey Dorking rooster to serve as our breeding male to breed purebred Dorkings. The Dorking is said to be a superb table bird and we had planned to use them for filling our freezer in the future. Well, Max turned evil and could no longer be trusted around our children, but since we named him and loved him he stuck around until a hawk did us the favor of ending his reign of terror. The next day we called the Dorking roo up to the big leagues. Two days later, he met the same fate as Max. We were now rooster-less and really wishing we had kept the Sussex, who we heard was doing great and ended up being super friendly. Go figure.

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Our boys with our first Barred Rock rooster, Max. He started out so sweet….

During the course of the first year we lost some of our hens to hawk attacks as well (and a couple Dorkings got hung up in our electric poultry net fence and died, possibly because of their extra toe). So, as any chicken addict would do, we ordered 20 more chickens the following spring. This time we went with Hoover’s hatchery because we were ordering more common birds, they had lower prices, and a lower purchase quantity requirement. We chose to get White Leghorns, Americana (Hoover’s spelling of their variety), Cuckoo Marans, and a hybrid egg-layer call Tetra Brown. This batch would add some color variety to our egg basket with white, brown, chocolate brown, and pastel blue/green eggs. During that Spring we also got half a dozen chicks from our local Orscheln farm store (more Buff Orpingtons, a Rhode Island Red, and some Easter Eggers). Oh, and we also incubated some of our eggs along with some eggs we traded with a friend. And there may have been a trip to Tractor Supply to get some straight-run barred rocks since we didn’t have any birds for the freezer that Spring. When the manager at Tractor Supply says if you take the rest of the Barred Rocks you can have them for $0.50 a piece, you should probably walk back out the door. That’s exactly what we did…with 23 more barred rocks and a couple Black Australorps that had somehow ended up in that batch of Rocks. Fortunately, the biggest chick was a Black Australorp rooster that we called Jon Snow. He is currently our main rooster and is everything we hoped Max would be. He has two Americana roosters, that were supposed to be pullets, as his arch nemesis. Ultimately, we ended up amassing a collection of 77 chickens. Whoops. We ended up selling some and we traded a few older pullets for 9 Muscovy ducklings, a grape vine, and two hardy figs. After all was said and done (and extra roosters processed) we ended up with about half of the number of chickens we started with.

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Baby Jon Snow – Our Black Australorp Roo. We first joked that the farm store gave us a baby crow.

As we mentioned in our post about our puppies, we’ve lost several more chickens and we’ve also decided to build our flock up a little bigger than it was so that we can expand our egg sales (which have come to a screeching halt after losing half our flock). We wanted to add good production and color variety into the flock, so this year we chose to order some Ameraucanas (blue/green eggs), Speckled Sussex (since we have none left), Blue-laced Wyandottes (beautiful birds), Welsummers (of Kellog’s cereal Rooster fame), Pearl White Leghorns (egg-laying machines), Columbian Wyandotte (beautiful – our youngest son picked them), and a fresh batch of Silver Grey Dorkings (to restart our attempt at breeding). Our oldest son has been asking to get Turkens for about a year now, so we decided to get a few of those for him. Turkens are also called “Naked Necks” because they have no feathering on their necks and look kind of like little turkey buzzards. He also wanted to get some White Crested Black Polish chicks, so obviously we caved to that request, too. You’ve probably seen those little gals, they look like they’re wearing a fancy little hat of feathers. The final component to this year’s order is our first batch of Cornish Cross meat chickens. While we have enjoyed the meat from our heritage birds, they really aren’t going to be a viable meat bird solution as we start producing chickens for market. Cornish Cross can create a bigger bird in 7-8 weeks than a heritage bird will in 16-20 weeks. We could ramble on for some time on our decision to raise Cornish Cross, so we will, in another blog post. Another thing we’ll do to round out our flock this year is to incubate some eggs ourselves. We are going to try to hatch out some of our own Easter Egger type chicks along with several mutts and probably some eggs that we will swap with a friend of ours that is also a chicken hoarder. We will be starting the incubation process later this month and taking the incubator to our youngest son’s classroom a couple days before hatch so the kiddos can experience the process. His teacher has put together a whole lesson on chick hatching that includes eggs for each of the 21 days that show what is happening inside the egg as the chicks grow. Sharing this process has certainly been a highlight for us in our short chicken-keeping careers.

It may seem that our process is a little haphazard and probably not the best way to maximize profit in an egg production venture. That is correct. We have discussed shifting to a system that includes only one type of hybrid egg-laying bird, but it just isn’t what we want to do. We enjoy going out and seeing a multitude of colors in our flock and having egg colors that range from white to green and myriad browns in between. Would we produce more eggs with a strictly hybrid flock? Yes. Would the nutrition levels of the eggs be the same? Yes. Would the eggs look the same once the shells were cracked open? Yes. Egg production is just a component of our farm, not the primary focus, so we have the luxury of being able to make a choice that brings color to our lives and our customers’ refrigerators. You can bet, though, if we wanted to just focus on eggs, we would definitely be using hybrid layers that could give us the best egg production of uniform size and color possible. Again, your goals need to dictate your choice when it comes to selecting your chickens. Every farm is different, so what works for us, may not work for you.

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Our lovely egg colors. Its hard to tell but the ones furthest away are green!

A final word of caution when assembling or expanding your flock; be careful bringing chickens in from other farms. If you have a local breeder or hatchery that is trustworthy and has a good track record of healthy stock, by all means, use them. But, be wary of buying chickens from auctions or off Craigslist. Biosecurity is a big issue for farms and you could unknowingly bring a contaminated animal onto your property that could infect your flock. Any time you buy an animal from another farm, make sure to assess the health of the animal and the practices of the farm you are buying from. If you see unsanitary conditions for the animals or any indications that the animal could be sick, don’t be afraid to walk away. It is also good practice to quarantine any animal you bring onto your farm until you can confirm that it is healthy and does not pose a risk to your other animals.

Okay, didn’t mean to scare you. Go get some (more) chickens.

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