How to Choose a Chicken that is Right for You
What Came First, The Chicken or The Egg?
Everyone knows that chickens lay delicious eggs. But some people don't realize why humans have picked chickens to produce this tasty item for us. Chickens are one of the few domesticated fowl that are in-determinate layers. Determinate layers, such as geese or ducks, lay a specified number of eggs, i.e. 18, in a clutch to hatch. If the 9 of the eggs are removed, the mother will only lay 9 more and sit. In-determinate layers will continue to lay eggs all year-round. Chickens are in-determinate layers, with some species laying an average of almost a egg a day all year.
Eggs, Meat, or Both?
The first thing you have to decide is what type of flock to you want. Do you want to produce eggs? If so, color and size will be the next question. Do you want to produce meat? If so, feed to meat ratios and average age to butcher, are some questions you will be asking yourself. And just like in most farm animals, there are heritage breeds to can and do accomplish both needs.
In general, chicken breeds that are considered solely meat birds have low egg production, mature very quickly, and tend to not be very good free-range birds. This is because their bodies have such need for high nutritional foods that energy is wasted on foraging. For example, one of the best known meat chickens is the Cornish Cross. This chicken matures in about 6 to 8 weeks and is a 12 pound bird at that time. Their food demands are high and mostly sit and eat. The best way to prepare a meat bird for the table with the right meat to fat ratio is a 12-12 split. Basically the birds have access to plenty of food for 12 hours and nothing for 12 hours to mimic the natural foraging they would have if free-ranged. Too much food all day long (over the 12 hours) puts more fat on the bird. Also, it is best to force them to do some exercising. One way to get this accomplished is to put their food on one side of their enclosure and water on the other.
When raising your own meat birds, such as the Cornish Cross, make sure you do not over order or buy too many birds. Six to eight weeks comes quickly and all of the birds need to be butchered at that time to ensure quality of the meat. We will touch on it again, but this is why a heritage dual purpose chicken might be a better way to go.
Oh the Brightly Colored Eggs!
Chicken eggs come in all colors and sizes it seems. They can range in size from Pee-Wee to Jumbo and in colors from white to dark brown to blue and green. Depending on the breed of chicken, its age and size, and health determines the size, shape, color, and amount of eggs you will get. For example, Easter Eggers produce medium eggs of a green or blue color, start laying them around 8 months old, and will produce an average of an egg every other day. Heavy egg producers, such as a Black Sex Link, will produce extra large to jumbo brown eggs, start laying them around 4.5 to 6 months old, and will produce an average of an egg every day.
Some chicken breeds can be housed together, and others cannot. So, if you want a variety of egg colors, make sure you pick breeds that can co-habitat.
Chickens will lay eggs whether or not a Rooster is present. If you want eggs that can be incubated by a broody hen or yourself, you will need a Rooster. Depending on the breed you choose, some Roosters can be aggressive.
Best of Both Worlds
Many heritage breeds of chickens lay 200 to 250 eggs annually and have wonderfully flavored meat. Plus because they mature slower, the butchering process can be a more leisurely endeavor. We plan to get 4 different types of hens and one matching rooster breed. For example:
Our roosters will be Rhode Island Reds.
Hen Types: Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Black Australorps.
All of these are heritages breeds and in the chart below you can see what the crosses with the Roosters will give us. All are very hardy, great meat and egg laying birds.
Offspring of Rhode Island Red and Hen
Rhode Island Red
Pure - Rhode Island Reds
Barred Plymouth Rock
Black Sex Links
Similar to Black Sex Links
Whether you want to fill your freezer with home grown meat in weeks, collect eggs for years to come, or dabble in both, selecting the right chicken for the job is important. Some variety isn't a bad idea either. Just make sure to select either docile breeds or breeds of the same general size to keep fighting and exclusions of birds to a minimum.