RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Maybe you're going to start raising a handful of backyard chickens because you want to know where you food comes from. Maybe you've heard that chickens allowed to forage and live more natural lives on pasture rather than in small cages produce the healthiest eggs, ones rich in beneficial omega-3s. Or maybe you're disgusted after learning that drug-resistant bacteria like MRSA fly off of highway poultry trucks as they ship factory-farmed chickens to slaughter, or that your typical supermarket chicken—even after undergoing chlorine baths—is often contaminated with harmful bacteria. Or maybe you just want a friendly pet who also eats the ticks in your yard and occasionally provides a delicious egg or two.
More about backyard chickens:
Do You Have What It Takes to Raise Chickens?
A Guide to Raising Chickens in Your Small Yard
Whatever the reason, if you're joining the backyard chicken revolution, you'll want to choose a bird that meets your needs. So Rodale.com turned to chicken expert Christine Heinrichs, author of How To Raise Chickens: Everything You Need To Know (Voyageur Press, 2007), spokeswoman for the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, for advice on picking the right chicken breed. The good news? Whatever breed you end up with will probably get along fine with your family. Heinrichs says that early experiences make a big difference in chickens. "Being raised around humans, being gently handled from day one, can make a pet out of nearly any chicken," she says.
The first step, of course, is to figure out if you have what it takes to raise chickens. If you do, and you understand the ins and outs of raising backyard chickens, it's time to figure out which breeds might work best for you. (You can order chickens from your local feed mill, or from MyPetChicken.com, a site with additional information on choosing breeds.) If you can, Heinrichs suggests attending poultry shows to see different breeds, and talking to breeders to make sure the birds you get are from a flock that meets the standards you are looking to enjoy in your flock. But be warned, the decision isn't just a matter of adding up the pros and cons. "Almost certainly, once you have decided that you want chickens, you will see the birds you can’t live without," Heinrichs says. "That’s the breed for you."
If you want no-nonsense, multiuse chickens…
|Black and White Javas. Photo courtesy of Garfield Farm Museum|
Factory-farmed, supermarket chickens are bred for uniformity, but raising backyard chickens gives you the opportunity to help preserve unique and eye-striking heritage breeds. The breeds in the American category of the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection are a good place to start, suggests Heinrichs. "Plymouth Rocks, Dominiques, Wyandottes, Javas, Rhode Island Reds and Whites, Buckeyes, Jersey Giants, and Delawares are renowned for their productivity and adaptability," she says. "They are all dual-purpose breeds, which means they are both good egg producers and good meat birds for the table. Their long history in this country testifies to their beauty and usefulness."
In addition to the American breeds above, traditional English breeds such as Dorkings, RedCaps, Orpingtons, and Sussex are reliable egg and meat birds. French Faverolles were developed as large table birds that lay well and persevere through the winter, too, says Heinrichs.
If you want especially calm chickens…
"Some breeds generally have better dispositions than others," says Heinrichs. "All the aforementioned American breeds are generally even-tempered." Orpingtons, often known as "gentle giants," are popular in the Buff variety, but also come in Black, White, and Blue color varieties, and are indeed considered calm and friendly, she says. The large Asiatics are also calm and stately, especially Brahmas.
If you're short on space…
|White Silkie. Photo courtesy of Corallina Breuer||
"For those who have reservations about getting involved with 12-pound birds, bantams could be a good choice; Nankin bantams are especially admired for their charming and sociable personalities," says Heinrichs. "One costume interpreter at a colonial history museum brings one along to classrooms in his pocket then amazes the children by removing it and letting it visit with them."
Silkies are another very sweet-tempered bantam. Mo, a Silkie raised by Rodale.com's Jean Nick, a.k.a., the Nickel Pincher, is a household pet.
"Their unusual hairlike feathers and black skin also give you something to amaze your neighbors with. Both breeds are excellent brooders and mothers, unlike those flighty Italian girls," says Heinrichs, who advises beginning chicken keepers to avoid game breeds because some are aggressive.
If you want the best-looking chickens in the neighborhood…
|Black Cochin. Photo courtesy of Corallina Breuer|
If you're solely into looks, you might gravitate to heavily feathered giants like Cochins or Langshans for their eye-catching beauty. "The Sultan, with its feathery head, covered with a full crest, muff, and beard, feathery legs, and five toes, was bred entirely as a decorative breed," says Heinrichs, who notes that Sultan hens are often good egg layers, too. Naked Neck chickens have about half the feathers compared to other breeds, with that distinctive naked neck that has made some people think they are related to turkeys. Frizzles, with curly feathers, occur in all breeds, but are most often seen in Cochins, an already soft-feathered breed.
"Crested breeds, the Polish and Houdan, with that audacious mop of feathers on top of the head, always get lots of attention," says Heinrichs. "Both are also good producers."
If it's all about the eggs…
Leghorns and Anconas are known for egg laying. Australorps, an Australian Black Orpington, was developed for egg production. "My friend, Charles Everett, secretary treasurer of the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, calls his Cubalayas egg-laying machines," says Heinrichs. "Another friend advocates for Icelandics, a non-standard breed. Chanteclers were developed for Canada’s cold climate and lay through winter’s short, dark days," she adds. Most chickens slow down, and then stop laying entirely during the winter months.
Also noteworthy: Barnevelders lay dark brown eggs, and Marans' eggs can be very dark, chocolate brown. They don't actually taste like chocolate—unfortunately—but "it makes it easy to find the bits of shell on a hard-boiled egg," says Heinrichs.
If it's all about the meat…
|Light Brahma (left) and Naked Neck (right). Photo courtesy of Corallina Breuer|
Not everyone raises chickens for the eggs or the company. And let's face it, even if they end up on your dinner table, your backyard birds will have much a happier life than the anonymous cluckers that come in a KFC bucket. There are many choices if you're looking for hearty portion sizes. "The Cornish is the basis for the fast-growing industrial chicken, and when you look at them you can see why," says Heinrichs. "They look like the football players of the chicken world, with full breasts and large drumsticks." Jersey Giants were developed as a large meat breed, with adult roosters weighing 13 pounds or more, says Heinrichs, who also notes that Brahmas and Cochins are large meat breeds. Crevecouers and Houdans are old French breeds with good size, eight pounds for a rooster, and renowned for their flavor. "Sussex and Orpingtons have graced many tables," Heinrichs adds.
That said, size isn’t everything. The black skin and black bones of small two-and-a-half pound Silkies make them the breed of choice for Chinese medicinal chicken dishes. (Don't tell Mo!)
If you can't make up your mind…
Go ahead, mix and match. Chicks from different breeds will get along just fine if they grow up together (as you can see on the Rodale.com chicken cam. "Conventional advice suggests that you focus on a single breed, but many fanciers can’t choose a Polish over a Dorking, and get more than one," says Heinrichs. "They are your chickens. Enjoy them."
For more information on raising backyard chickens, and to see beautiful photos of heritage-breed chicks, hens, and roosters, pick up the June/July 2010 issue of Organic Gardening magazine and read the cover story, "Happy Hens." Also from OrganicGardening.com, see: Frequently Raised Objections to Backyard Hens.
Filed Under: BACKYARD CHICKENS
Published on: May 24, 2010