When one dives into the exciting world of chicken breeds, the variety is amazing and, sometimes, dazzling. In this post, I bring you the champions of the chicken world in their various capacities:
Top Egg Layers – White Leghorns are without a doubt the world egg-laying champions, producing up to 300 eggs in their first year. To fuel this little egg factory, a lot of food is needed – White Leghorns aren’t just champion layers, they are champion eaters, too. The drawback, of course, is that after the first year their production declines, as the number of eggs a chicken can lay over a lifetime is limited. For myself, personally, I prefer more balanced producers, who lay less prolifically but more evenly over a longer time, and can go broody and be good mothers as well. Which brings me to the next award:
Champion Broodies – Silkies are notorious for their strong broody tendencies and good mothering skills, and have been used for a long time as excellent surrogate mothers for just about any egg you might like to put under them. Given the chance, many Silkies will be broody throughout most of the year. Cochins come at a close second, and are also a very good choice if you want a reliable broody or two in your flock. Having said that, I’ve had hens from a variety of breeds, including Rhode Island Red crosses, that were very good, consistent broodies, but if you’re getting chicks or young pullets for this purpose, you cannot go wrong with Silkies or Cochins.
Sweetest, Most Docile Breed – Here, too, the golden cup goes to the Silkie. Beautiful and quirky-looking, with their down-like feathering and prolific crests, Silkies are like sweet docile puff balls that are perfect to be held and handled, and make wonderful pets. Other very docile breeds are Cochins, Brahmas, Orpingtons and Faverolles. Disclaimer: this also depends on the upbringing. If you want to have sweet, docile pet chickens, handle them a lot from a young age and hand-feed treats daily.
The Biggest Chicken in the world is the Black Jersey Giant, with 13 lb being the standard weight for males. They were developed primarily as a meat breed. The smallest chicken is probably the beautiful little Sebright, which is mostly ornamental.
The Best Meat Chicken, per growth rate and economical investment, is the Cornish Cross, which makes it the standard choice of the meat industry. Cornish Crosses, however, are hardly a viable breed for the small flock owner – they are not raised to be hardy or, indeed, to survive beyond seven weeks, and if not slaughtered, will probably die soon after, as their skeleton and heart are just not meant to sustain their disproportional growth. Backyard chicken owners who opt for Cornish Crosses to grace their table would be dependent on large hatcheries for fresh batches of chicks every time. For a self-sustaining flock, I would recommend the heavier heritage breeds such as Brahmas, Dorkings, Orpingtons or Jersey Giants. These birds are slower growers and won’t give you as much meat as fast as Cornish Crosses can, but they are actually dual-purpose and will also provide eggs, breed true (that is, the chicks will have the same qualities as the parents), and lead long and productive outdoor lives.
Rarest Chicken Breed – unfortunately, with the industrialization of eggs and meat production, many beautiful local heritage chicken breeds were wiped out. Thanks to the efforts of chicken enthusiasts, many other rare breeds were saved from extinction, but some are still hovering on the brink. One of the most exotic and rarest chicken breeds is the Indonesian Ayam Cemani, black from crest to toe and from feathers to meat.
Best Homestead Chicken Breed – this brings us to the big question: which breed is the very best choice for the small homesteader? There is no clear-cut answer, and it really depends on what your primary purpose is, as well as your budget and your local climate. The homesteader will probably do wisely to choose a breed that is tough, resilient, active, a good forager, and adapted to the local weather conditions. Do your research. Brahmas, for instance, are a wonderful breed, but they just don’t thrive in our Mediterranean climate, panting and puffing and nearly fainting on the hottest days. We are better off with lighter-weight breeds that don’t have such profuse feathering.
Many breeds traditionally chosen by homesteaders are actually dual-purpose, such as Rhode Islands, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons and Wyandottes. These breeds are fairly large, hardy, decent to good layers, and will supply you with both eggs and meat, though not as efficiently as industrial single-purpose lines. They will roam your land, getting much of their food on their own if you let them free range, and provide organic pest control. They will naturally go broody, and renew your flock year after year by hatching and bringing up chicks, so that you need not be dependent on hatcheries after you purchase your starting stock.
You can, of course, also opt to have a mixed flock combined of chickens with various characteristics, with a few hens thrown in specifically for their excellent mothering qualities or their interesting looks to satisfy your aesthetic preferences. You may also run your chickens with other birds, such as guineas, peafowl, and waterfowl of all kinds, if you set up a pond for the latter. The homestead flock is usually colorful and varied, rather than uniform and predictable, and I like it that way.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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