Once prospective chicken owners decide on setting up their own coop, the next question is usually, Which breed should we choose? The variety of chicken breeds offered by hatcheries is dazzling, and it’s often difficult to make a decision. So, which breed?
The answer, like with so many other things, is it depends - on what you want to get out of chicken-keeping, your local climate, how much space you have available, and your budget. The most popular reason for keeping chickens is eggs, but some people raise their own meat birds, and other focus on heritage breeds and hatching chicks for sale.
For eggs, I always recommend sturdy reliable egg-layers such as Rhode Islands, Plymouth Rocks or Sussex. These are actually dual-purpose breeds which won’t put on weight as quickly as commercial-raised meat crosses, or lay eggs as soon as commercial layers, but will have a longer and more productive life on the homestead or small traditional farm where the same flock often provides both eggs for breakfast and chicken for the crockpot.
White Leghorns are generally considered to be the champions of egg-laying, and indeed, they lay remarkably well and their eggs are large – however, one must also take into consideration that they eat a lot. Right now I have two White Leghorns and five other adult chickens (plus a number of younger birds), and the Leghorns, as far as I can estimate, eat (and poop!) as much as all the other chickens combined. I also find their eggs a little bland-tasting, and have observed that they are prone to have thinner, easier to crack shells (even with a calcium-rich diet). However, if you just want to have plenty of eggs and don’t mind chickens that are champions at gobbling up feed, Leghorns might very well be the breed for you.
Climate is yet another important consideration. We adore Brahmas for their docile temper, gorgeous plumage and impressive size, but this cold-hardy breed, unfortunately, doesn’t do very well in our hot climate, and is susceptible to heat stroke, especially in young birds. On the other hand, Brahmas may be the very thing for people who live in cold climates – while Leghorns and other Mediterranean breeds, with their large combs that are prone to frostbite, will probably do better in milder weather.
If you are into heirloom chickens and want to keep several different breeds from which you would raise your own pure-bred chicks for sale, you would need to provide separate living quarters and ranging areas for each breed – otherwise they will mix. I always recommend keeping pure-bred chickens, because this way, if you have extra birds for sale, you can get a better price for them. For many people, however, keeping the breeds apart is too much of a hassle, which is why settling on one breed that does well for you (and perhaps several layers of other, or mixed breeds, for variety) is probably a good choice. We plan to do this ourselves in the near future, and are only going back and forth between Black Orpingtons and Marans.
If you plan on handling your chickens a lot, have young children, or want to keep your chickens together with other birds (ducks, guineas, peafowl) it is a good idea to choose a docile breed such as Orpingtons, Australorps or Wyandottes.
Finally, don’t get a lot of the same breed at once – start on a small scale. Chicken keeping is highly practical, and some things are only learnt by trial and error. It would be frustrating to order, for instance, thirty Marans only to discover, at the end of one season, that this breed isn’t quite the thing for you after all. Better start with 3-4 birds of one or several breeds, and figure out which you like best. You can always expand your flock later.
Whichever breed you choose, make sure you get your stock from a reputable hatchery or private breeder. This is the only way to guarantee you get healthy birds (or fresh, good quality hatching eggs) that come from pure bloodlines. Don’t be tempted by unusually low prices, and shun places where birds are kept in substandard conditions, or are looking sickly.
The world of chicken keeping and chicken breeds is a vast and fascinating one. I invite you to dive into it, learn as much as you can, and choose the breed that works best for you.
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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