Chickens are the perfect starter livestock for your homestead — whether you have a small backyard in an urban area or 20 acres in the boondocks. Chickens provide eggs, meat and fertilizer, plus they’re small and easy to manage. Several chicken breed charts are available online and in books, but their information is often based on old data. So, to get current information on the best chicken breeds, we developed a survey of our readers who have lots of experience with various breeds. (Many thanks to more than 1,000 readers who participated in the survey.) The summaries below include only results from people who have more than three years’ experience raising chickens. And we only included breeds or hybrids if at least three people responded to questions about them.
Our survey didn’t ask which chicken breeds are prettiest. That’s important, too, but it’s subjective. If you’d like to see what each breed looks like, check out Feathersite.com or get a copy of Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius. It’s an excellent book with outstanding photos.
Pick Your Chicks
Choosing the best chicken breeds to raise begins with deciding which attributes are most important to you: egg production, meat production, temperament or other qualities. If you try a breed for a year or two and decide it isn’t quite what you were looking for, try another — or try two or three breeds each year to find out which one best suits your needs. Breeders and hatcheries select for different traits. For example, some breeders may select Orpingtons for egg production; others, to meet a certain “type” described in a standard for shows. All birds of a certain breed won’t have identical characteristics. Some people who took our survey said Javas lay dark brown eggs; others said Javas lay tinted eggs. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone is wrong — certain flocks may have been bred to produce darker eggs than others.
Egg Size and Productivity
Most people who keep chickens want eggs. Based on our survey results, the most productive egg layers are hybrids, including the Hy-line Brown, California White, Golden Comet, Cherry Egger and Indian River. If you prefer heritage breeds, Leghorns, White-faced Black Spanish, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Rhode Island Whites and Plymouth Rocks are good choices for producing lots of eggs.
Hy-line Browns, Golden Comets, ISA Browns, Cinnamon Queens and Brown Sex Links (all hybrids) lay mostly extra-large eggs. From heritage breeds, you can expect the largest eggs from Jersey Giants, Australorps, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds.
Some hybrid pullets (young hens) start laying eggs when they’re only 17 weeks old, but pullets of some breeds take more than 26 weeks to mature and start laying. If you’re in a hurry to get fresh eggs on your table, consider Cherry Eggers, Indian Rivers, ISA Browns, Pearl Leghorns and Golden Comets. Almost all Leghorns and Leghorn hybrids are quick to mature, but if you’re looking for other heritage breeds, check out Red Caps, Whitefaced Black Spanish, Anconas and Minorcas. Hens of these breeds can start laying at as early as 21 weeks.
Egg Color Spectrum
If one of your selection criteria is eggshell color, Marans, Barnevelders and Welsummers lay the darkest brown eggs. (We didn’t include Penedesenca in our survey because they’re rare, but they usually lay even darker eggs.) Ameraucanas and Araucanas (rumpless) lay greenish or bluish eggs.
Pest Control and Free-Range
If you want low-maintenance chickens to clean up ticks and insect pests, most breeds are good choices. (See Poultry Pest Patrol.) Cubalayas and Jungle Fowl rated best for hustling much of their own food, but they’re not especially productive layers or meat birds.
Free-range chickens (chickens allowed to range on pasture) produce the most nutritious and flavorful eggs. Other breeds suited to this environment are the Catalana, Old English Game, Hamburg, Minorca and Malay. But if you have limited space, you might consider Houdans, Pearl Leghorns, Langshans, Cornish and Polish — all of which ranked highly as living equally well in confinement or on free range.
Least Likely to Get Their Hackles Up
Some breeds, such as Leghorns, are productive egg layers, but they’re also nervous (or “flighty”). Especially if you’re just starting to raise chickens, you might want birds that are calm and easy to manage, such as Silkies, Cochins, Faverolles, Orpingtons or Brahmas.
When you’re selecting chicks in spring as the weather is warming, the following winter may be the last thing on your mind, but planning early will make your flock healthier and daily maintenance easier. Breeds that tolerate cold weather best are Chanteclers, Buckeyes, Brahmas and Javas. In some locations, heat is a bigger concern than cold. Breeds best suited to hot environments are Jungle Fowl, Malays, Sumatras, Javas and Cubalayas.
Best for Natural Incubation
If you want hens that are naturally adept at hatching and raising chicks, top choices include Silkies, Aseels, Modern Games, Old English Games and Cochins. Most hens with an inclination to hatch eggs make excellent foster mothers, too: They’ll hatch eggs from other breeds you raise. The tendency to “go broody” (decide to hatch eggs) has been bred out of many breeds because hens stop laying eggs for an extended period of time when they’re broody — even if they’re not hatching eggs.
We asked two questions about meat production: “How useful is each breed as a meat bird (mature size, growth rate, feed efficiency)?” and “How would you rate the flavor of meat of each breed (compared to supermarket chicken)?” Cornish, Buckeyes, Rhode Island Whites, Orpingtons and Plymouth Rocks were rated most useful as meat birds. All hybrid meat chickens should grow quickly and convert feed efficiently, but they develop so quickly that they often suffer health problems.
The chickens with the best flavor are La Fleche, Buckeyes, Dorkings and Cornish. All people who rated La Fleche said it has “very good flavor” (the highest rating). No breeds or hybrids were consistently rated as having “poor” flavor.
I Want It All!
The breeds with the highest overall scores (including temperament, maturity, cold and heat tolerance, egg production, egg size, meat utility and meat flavor) are Rhode Island Whites, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Australorps and New Hampshires — all dual-purpose, brown-egg-laying breeds.
The Price of Farm-Fresh Eggs And Meat
More than 50 percent of 1,000-plus respondents to our survey use eggs and meat for themselves or give them to friends and neighbors. About 47 percent sell eggs; less than 10 percent sell meat. Many people sell eggs for $2 or less per dozen, especially if they’re only “farm fresh.” But more than 13 percent of those who sell eggs that are both free-range and organic charge $5 or more per dozen.
More than a quarter of those who sell pasture-raised meat charge between $2 and $3 per pound; another quarter charge between $3 and $4 per pound. About 15 percent of those selling organic chicken charge $4 to $5 per pound, and 16 percent of those selling heritage chicken charge more than $5 per pound.
We’re planning more surveys about poultry, so if you’re an experienced poultry producer, join our Poultry Advisory Group. If you have experience raising chickens, we’d like you to take the Survey of Chicken Breeds and Hybrids. Depending on your experience, it may take 15 or 20 minutes to complete. You can see all the results of the survey, too.