Chicken Breeds: Choosing Your Backyard Flock

Select the best chicken breed for your needs.
By G.T. Klein
March/April 1976
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Choosing the perfect fit from the many chicken breeds is an important first step when starting a flock.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff


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One of my greatest inspirations for MOTHER goes back to about 1943 , when I started seeing those great ads for the HAVE-MORE Plan ("A Little Land, A Lot of Living") which used to run in the mechanics magazines. The actual H-M Plan, of course, turned people on to more specialized books that taught neophytes how to raise cows, goats, rabbits, geese, and other homestead livestock. Here's a selection from one of those books, StartingRight With Poultry. — JS

The chicken breed that you select for your backyard flock should be the one that has the very best qualifications that you can find for producing eggs and poultry meat.

The dual purpose breeds seem to be the most popular among homesteaders, and the productive type Rhode Island Reds appear to be the first choice. The Red is followed by the Barred Plymouth Rock. These certainly are two of the most practical breeds that could be selected. There are, of course, others that are quite well suited. The White Plymouth Rock has many good qualifications, and the New Hampshire is an excellent breed, though many people think of the Rhode Island Red and New Hampshire as being the same. The White Leghorn is a most efficient layer and a good choice, though nervous and admittedly not as good for meat production. The eggs are white.

The crosses of the Rhode Island Red and the Barred Plymouth Rock must not be omitted from the preferred list. When Barred Rock females are crossed with Rhode Island Red males, the pullets will be largely black in color with some red or brown feathers on the neck and perhaps on the body.

In the cross made using the Rhode Island Red female and the Barred Rock male, both pullets and cockerels would be barred very much like Barred Plymouth Rocks. These pullets would also make good layers and would be a good choice. The cockerels from this cross grow exceedingly well and are a favorite of the broiler growers.

There is a definite reason why the improved breeds recommended here will produce more efficiently than many others that might be selected. High egg production is an inherited characteristic. Just like eye color or baldness in humans, the ability to lay large numbers of eggs is transmitted from one generation to another. Just as in your garden, you do not expect a highly improved variety of vegetables when you plant seed of unimproved varieties. Inheritance is inescapable.

The Rhode Island Red pullet will weigh about 4 1/2 to 5 pounds when she comes into laying at about 5 1/2 months of age. She will gain a pound or more and will weigh 6 pounds or more when a year of age. The Barred Plymouth Rock is slightly larger. Both lay a large brown egg.

Much experimental work is being done to develop new breeds which will be good meat producers and good layers of white eggs. If you would like to try these, you will find them advertised in the poultry journals.

There are much larger breeds than the Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks, but none is better suited for meat production. The larger breeds will not lay as many eggs. The broilers from these recommended breeds will reach the 2 1/2- to 3-pound weight in ten to twelve weeks, and they will have plump breasts and their carcasses will be well covered with meat. Most of the larger breeds are slow growing during this early period and at twelve weeks are big frame, bony birds not so well suited for broilers. They eventually make large birds, but this is of little importance to the average family.

When To Hatch

"April chicks-September eggs" is a very good rule to remember. April is late enough so that even in northern states, cold weather is not a serious problem in raising the chicks. On the other hand, it is early enough to have the pullets laying in the early fall.

Pullets well fed will come into laying at five to six months of age. The calendar tells you that "April chicks-September eggs" is correct figuring. This brings them into laying for the high-priced eggs. If chicks are hatched in February or March, they will be laying in July or August, and that is all right, but they may not hold up well in their laying throughout the winter. They would be likely to neck-molt. Commercial poultrymen hatch any month of the year, but with homesteaders, March through May is best, with April as first choice.

The Blood Test for Pullorum Disease

One of the most deadly diseases of baby chicks is pullorum disease. It is one of those diseases that is passed from the hen to her chick through the hatching egg. It is a bacterial infection which a hen carries in her ovary. Unfortunately, it spreads very easily in an incubator at the time the baby chicks are hatching. Instead of affecting only the one chick which would hatch from an infected egg, the germs are blown about the incubator and they infect many chicks. It is a fatal disease and may kill from one-half to three-fourths of the chicks in a hatch.

Fortunately, a blood test for pullorum disease has been developed. By using it, the infected hens can be identified and removed from the flock before they have a chance to lay eggs that transmit pullorum disease. The United States Department of Agriculture sponsors a nationwide blood testing program to control this infection through the National Poultry Improvement Plan. This operates in practically every state. Flocks are blood tested and graded according to the amount of infection found to be present. These grades are as follows:

U.S. Pullorum Clean—100 per cent freedom of the disease on two consecutive tests at least six months apart.

U.S. Pullorum Passed—100 per cent freedom of the disease on one test made during the year immediately preceding the sale of stock.

U.S. Pullorum Controlled—Fewer than 2 per cent reactors.

U.S. Pullorum Tested—Fewer than 7 per cent reactors.

It is quite obvious that the higher one goes on this list, the more certain he can be of getting chicks that are free of this disease. Pullorum Clean and Pullorum Passed are better grades than those in which infection has been found, even though the reacting birds have been removed. There is always the chance that some infection has been missed if the test indicates that it is present to a considerable extent. There is a great thrill in being able to raise practically all of the chicks that one purchases.

A homesteader, on the other hand, is not doomed if a few chicks die and if some that had the infection recover. They will likely be reasonably good layers, and they will not carry a disease that is transmissible to humans. They are not dangerous birds so far as food production is concerned.

National Poultry Breeding Grades

The National Poultry Improvement Plan also sets up other grades which are nationally recognized. These grades with a description of each follow:

U.S. Record of Performance Chicks —These chicks come from a line of ancestry known to have been better than average in ability to produce eggs. The mother must have laid at least 200 eggs in a trapnest, and father's mother must have been at least a 200-egg producer.

U.S. Certified Chicks —A good line of selected hens mated to males whose dams produced 200 eggs or more.

U.S. Verified —Similar to the U.S. Certified grade, and for all practical purposes, they are equal to it.

U.S. Approved Chicks —Both the mother and father, or in poultry terms the hens and the roosters, are selected for production ability as determined by their appearance. They are not trapnested. They are selected for health, vitality, good body-type and color.

To one not accustomed to these terms, they must be very confusing. The chicks they represent, however, give the public the best assurance of getting what is paid for. The higher up the line that one can go in his purchases, the better he is assured that the chicks have the inheritance to lay many eggs.

The better the breeding back of the stock, the easier it will be to manage and the better it will lay in cold winter weather. The better the stock, the better it will perform in the hands of a beginner. It is a good investment to buy a high quality chick.

Sources of Stock and Information

Because the number of chicks required for the average backyard flock is rather small, it is best to get the chicks as close to home as possible. Moreover, most hatchery-men do not like to bother with shipping small orders. But if you cannot find a suitable local source of chicks, you may have to get your chicks by mail order.

There are a number of places where you can get information as to sources of chicks and pullets, as well as information on the many problems which confront the average backyard-flock owner. One important source of this information is the county agent and his coworkers. In some states the county agent is known as the farm advisor. His office is likely to be located at the county seat. He will have lists of chick producers, and he is likely to have some information on pullorum disease and breeding qualifications.

The state college can furnish information on sources of chicks and often can supply booklets on backyard poultry raising. Publications can also be obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The state departments of agriculture can supply lists of breeders and their standing, but the state departments are more likely to be concerned with regulatory matters rather than with distributing educational material. Poultry magazines and farm papers carry information that will interest homesteaders.

Many high schools have departments of vocational agriculture. The instructors are in close touch with poultry work in the community and can assist in obtaining chicks or started pullets. These can also give information on poultry problems. Sometimes they conduct night courses in poultry raising. These courses are not only instructive, but they afford a chance to talk with other poultry raisers.

Feed companies often have service departments and experimental farms, and some of them have men who will assist with problems. These men are usually well qualified to help with almost any of the problems in connection with the flock. Hatcheries also have service men who are glad to aid the purchasers of chicks. Your local feed dealer may be able to advise you and if he cannot, he may be able to get assistance from the feed company he represents.

The poultry industry is well supplied with experienced service men who can help beginners with their poultry problems. There is no need to make serious mistakes in getting started.

Starting Your Flock

Day-Old Chicks — Starting with day-old chicks is the cheapest way of raising a backyard flock. If you start with 50 to 75 chicks, they can be easily brooded with a homemade brooder. The chicks could be kept in the basement near the furnace or in a room where there is heat enough to hold the temperature to about 55 to 65 degrees unless a type of brooder is used that will give enough heat in the poultry house without the room temperature. The price of the baby chicks will depend upon the quality and will range from about 30 to about 60 cents each.

One can obtain both straight-run (both sexes) or sexed pullets or cockerels. This sexing is done when the chicks are newly hatched. The accuracy of the sexing runs about 90 to 95 per cent. It requires training and skill to do the work, but it is not a military secret, as I have often been asked, though it is a Japanese method that is usually followed.

It is best for the homesteader to buy the straight-run chicks. They are cheaper than sexed pullets, and the cockerels will be needed for poultry meat. The first of the cockerels could be eaten when they weigh about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds at ten to twelve weeks. The last of them should be disposed of by the time they are five to six months old, or they will be crowing and disturbing the neighbors. A homesteader might consider having some of the cockerels caponized. If you have a home freezer or a commercial locker you will certainly want to dress and freeze some cockerels at 3 to 4 pounds.

Started Pullets —While more expensive, it is less trouble to buy "started pullets" that have been begun by a commercial poultryman who has good equipment than to buy chicks. At six or eight weeks of age, these pullets would not require heat, and that would save the purchase or construction of the equipment. The cost of pullets usually increases a certain amount each week that the pullets are held.

Broiler Pullets —In many communities, there are broiler raisers who are willing to sell the pullet broilers to poultry keepers who want a few for layers. Though they may be cross-bred poultry with special broiler qualities, they will usually be quite well suited for layers. This is a source of layers that should not be overlooked.

Ready-to-Lay Pullets—In some communities, it is possible to buy a limited number of ready-to-lay pullets. These birds would be about five months old and, of course, would cost higher prices. In recent years, many have depended on this source.

The pullets should be moved before they come into laying, as moving is very likely to upset them. You can seldom expect to buy laying pullets and move them without some drop in production. If they go into a neck molt, it may be from four to six weeks before they come back into laying. As in buying baby chicks, it is good sense to deal with a reliable poultryman who will sell only good, sound, healthy stock.

Hatching Chicks With Hens

Hatching and raising chicks with hens is troublesome, but it is another way of raising backyard poultry. There are many people who like to do it this way, and it can be done successfully. It hardly seems economical to have a hen waste her time with a brood of chicks when eggs are needed so badly and the job can be done so much better with incubators and brooders. This method is not recommended.

Rhode Island Red or Barred Rock hens make good mothers. If the hen has indicated by her clucking that she wants to set, she should be given a box about 18 inches square with straw in it for nesting material. This nest would have to be in a place where she would not be disturbed and preferably on the ground so that the hen would not have to fly to it. She could incubate 15 eggs easily in spring weather.

The hen might have lice, and if she did, these would probably kill or injure the chicks that hatched. Louse powder can be obtained at a drug store or supply dealer, and a few pinches of this worked into the various parts of the plumage before she was set would soon kill the lice. She should be moved to her nest at night and given 2 or 3 eggs. If she seemed satisfied with these, then she could be entrusted with the 15 eggs obtained from a good source.

The hen would have to be fed grain and mash, water and grit. These feeds should be kept in feeders or cans for her so that she could have them when she came from the nest. Unless there were several hens setting on eggs, it would not be necessary to confine the hen to her nest. Where there are several setting hens, it is often well to let them leave the nest twice a day for feed and water, confining them again after feeding time.

The first of the chicks will probably hatch on the twentieth day. It would be well to put slats over the front of the nest then to keep the hen from leaving the nest with the first few chicks that hatch. The hatch should be completed by the end of the twenty-first day or possibly early on the twenty-second day. She should stay on the nest for a few hours after it is completed.

Brooding Chicks With Hens

The chicks and the hens should be taken from the hatching nest within twenty-four hours after the hatching is completed. They will be moving about by that time, and the hen will be restless.

If the weather is fairly warm, the hen and her chicks can be kept on the ground. A coop for a hen would have to be about 2-by-3 feet. It could be a rectangular coop as shown in the main drawing or an A-shape shelter. The chicks should be fed chick-size grain and grit for three days and should then have starter mash as recommended for chicks raised with brooders. Keep water and feed before the mother hen.

The hen is confined to the coop for the first couple of weeks; otherwise she will wander off with her chicks and scratch in the garden and flowers. The chicks will not go far away alone. After about two weeks both hen and chicks ought to be in a pen where they can exercise and scratch. They will need their small coop for protection. The hen will probably leave her chicks at eight to ten weeks.

From Starting Right With Poultry by G. T. Klein.  Reprinted by permission of Garden Way Publishing, Rt. F-5, Charlotte, Vt. 05445. 


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