Fabulous Fowl: Choosing the Right Breed for Your Small Farm

So you want chickens. Visions of fluffy babies peck around in your minds eye and you can almost taste those home grown omelets. There’s one dilemma though, what breed do you want? Ask any person who’s raised chickens and they’ll tell you their favorite breed, each one will be different. The American Poultry Association (APA) recognizes over 120 bantam and standard sized breeds in various colors and patterns, not to mention the experimental and regional breeds not recognized by the APA. With this in mind trying to chose a particular breed is daunting. Some solve this problem by ordering a hatchery special with a mix of as many types as possible, others do some research and only order one, still others just end up getting what the local feed-store offers. I’ve done all three routes and all three have their merits, but it still comes down to what you want in the first place.

Brown Egg Layers Assortment from Murray McMurray Hatchery (Pic from Their Site)

There are 4 basic breed types: Egg Production, Meat Production, Dual Purpose, and Show. Egg production breeds are skinny, high energy, nervous birds. The main breed used is the White Leghorn, they put all their energy into eggs and are not good for eating. They only come in white so their rather boring to look at and due to temperament are hard to work with.


White Leghorn (Courtesy of  California Hatchery)

Meat production breeds are big on muscle and short on brains. They are laid back birds that love to eat as much as possible and grow very quickly. The main breed used in commercial Broiler production is the Cornish x Rock Hybrid. They are also white (most production breeds are white).


Cornish x Rock (Courtesy of Gail Damerow)

Dual purpose breeds are what I mainly keep. These include the Rhode Island Red, Black Austrolorp, Buff Orpington, and Ameraucana to name a few. They don’t produce as many eggs as a production layer and aren’t as fat as a Broiler breed but are a good mix of the two. They are usually hardier than a production breed and will go forage for themselves if you let them. They come in many colors and personalities.


My Ameraucana hen (she lays green eggs)

Show breeds are mainly fancy chickens. These are your Polish, Game Bantams, Silkies, Sultans, d’Uccle and many others. These breeds are mainly to look at. A lot of them are Bantam breeds and are not good for meat or eggs. They are flighty and nervous but wonderful setters and mothers (Silkies are especially famous for their ability to brood just about any type of egg)

My sister’s crazy Black Laced Polish Roo

As always research the breed before you buy. If you don’t you may end up with something you don’t like. For example, if you don’t like a lot of crowing you probably don’t want to end up with a Tomaru rooster (They’re famous for their long and constant crowing). The Backyard Chickens website has a rating system for users to rate and leave comments about about breeds that the posters own. Have fun, if you have trouble choosing get an assortment. It may take a while but sooner or later you’ll find a breed just right for you.



Caring for Chicks

Spring is an interesting time for me. Between juggling youth softball, the spring hatch of assorted eggs, 4-H, and lastly and most importantly college finals, life can be hectic to say the least. But amidst the chaos there are reasons spring is my favorite season. My favorite part of spring (besides fresh veggies from the garden) are the barnyard babies.

My favorite animal, Geese! 

The ducks are laying almost too many eggs to count. Unfortunately they’re lousy setters and I’m going to have to incubate if I want ducklings. My Turkin hen has been disappearing for days at a time lately and I suspect she’s setting eggs somewhere. Knowing she’s a bantam I won’t be surprised if she shows up one day with a brood of new arrivals. On top of all this (as my family well knows) I shouldn’t be allowed near a feed-store this time of year unsupervised. All this means in late spring my house is full of cheeping, chirping biddies.

These guys are Cochin chicks that hatched in my incubator a few days ago.

My younger sisters are participating in the 4-H laying hen project this year, which involves (surprise, surprise) day-old chicks. I’m rather excited (more than my sisters) because this year they’re doing Buff Orpingtons, which we haven’t had before. Here’s a short walkthrough of our preparation for, and care of those little balls of fluff.

Brooder set up
Before you get chicks it’s best to have a place to put them ready. This doesn’t always happen at my house because we don’t always know we’re coming home with chicks at the end of the day. But we’ve done it so many years that all that’s usually required is to grab a bag of feed on the way out of the store. Here’s a list of go to items in our chick starter kit.

-Feeder: either the tray style feeder or the kind that screws onto a mason jar. The style depends on how many chicks you have. The mason jar is best for a small amount of chicks, usually 5 or 6, any more and not everybody is going to be able to get food. The tray style is best for large amounts of chicks.

Feeder styles

-Waterer: Again the kind that screws onto a mason jar. Try not to use an open container, chicks can very easily fall in and drown. If you have a large amount of chicks multiple waterers are needed. Sometimes feed-stores will stock the gallon plastic waterers, but these usually become brittle and need to be replaced every few years.

Waterer styles

– Brooder Light: Feed-stores usually stock these at a pretty high price. These are official chick lights but you can also get almost the same thing at the home improvement store for much less. For a bulb, get a red colored one or a heat bulb. For a smaller light you can also use an old fashioned filament bulb. Don’t use the new halogen bulbs or LEDs, they don’t give off enough heat. Adjust the light as needed in the brooder. If the chicks are huddled under it, they’re cold and you need to lower the light. If they’re at the far corners avoiding the light and panting, it means they’re too hot and you need to move the light up some. A well placed brooder light will have equal amounts of chicks under it and chicks not under it. As the chicks grow, raise the light a little each week until they’re ready to go outside at about 6 weeks.

-Brooder box: Although official brooder boxes are available they’re usually quite expensive and you really don’t need one unless you raise a ton of chicks each year. That being said if you find one cheap used go ahead and get it, it’s nice to have a brooder that was made to be a brooder. I usually use a Rubbermaid container or a cardboard box lined with newspaper to brood chicks in. The down side to this is that you have to change the newspaper frequently or things get smelly.


Typical Brooder Setup

-Feed: There are hundreds of feed choices out there but it all boils down to two types: medicated and non-medicated. Which you choose depends on your preference and how you feel about havering medication in your future layers and broilers. The medication is usually out of their systems by laying time and it prevents coccidiosis and other nasties that chicks can succumb to, but the choice is yours.


Contrasting Feed Labels

That’s about it. We make a point to check on the chicks at least twice a day if not more. This allows use to get a jump on any problems and to establish a baseline of normal behavior so we’ll know if something is wrong. Remember that the little peeps are newborns and need a lot of attention. This is not a start it and leave it project. Keep an eye on them, treat them well and they’ll be chasing bugs around your yard in no time.

Good Luck!