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The best chicken breeds for homesteaders

Black AustralorpAre you thinking of getting started with chickens this year, but don't know which breeds to consider?  Mark and I have experimented with a heaping handful of chicken varieties and have heard reports from our readers on many others.  In the process, we've decided that certain varieties are better than others for homesteaders.

Why did we choose the chickens below from the long list of varieties out there?  I'm assuming that if you're a homesteader, you value productivity, meaning that your chickens should you plenty of eggs and/or meat for the amount of feed you buy.  You'll likely want your chickens to forage so their eggs have rich orange yolks, and you'll want them to survive the predators that inevitably pop up in a homestead situation.  In other words, you're looking for one tough chicken.

In contrast, non-homesteaders often have different criteria for choosing hens.  They might want a really cool-looking bird, especially one who will win first prize at the fair.  Non-homesteaders may be more interested in a chicken's cuddle potential than in its livestock status, and they may also be interested in preserving an heirloom breed even if that bird isn't a prime forager in their region.  If any of those options sound like you, you might still enjoy some of the chickens on this list, but will also want to do more research before choosing the members of your flock.  To get you started, here's a list of the top 10 breeds by popularity, here are Murray McMurray Hatchery's recommendations, and here are Jenna Woginrich's recommendations.

Red star chickOkay, let's get down to brass tacks!  If I was going to tell a homesteader to buy three chicken varieties, they would be:

Red Star/Golden Comet/other red hybrid egg-layers.  Different hatcheries have their own proprietary "formula" for optimal egg-layers, but the red hybrids we've tried have all been excellent producers and calm birds that forage pretty well.  These are top choices for chicken tractors, especially if you're not going to be eating any of your birds, but they might be a hair too friendly for optimal free ranging without ending up pooping on your porch.

Black Australorps.  These are our favorite all-around homestead birds, which we use for eggs and meat.  (The carcass won't look like a store-bought chicken.)  Australorps are extremely hardy and are great foragers, but they don't lay quite as well as the hybrids mentioned above, nor do they lay much in the winter.  On the other hand, the Australorps are meatier birds, so they make better broilers --- a jack of all trades, but master of none.

Cornish Cross.  If you're simply interested in a meaty chicken that will give you a carcass that looks like the ones in the grocery store with the least feed consumption, this is the bird for you.  I'll admit we've never actually raised Cornish Cross, but that's because we like to hatch our own chicks and to keep one flock for eggs and meat instead of two separate flocks.  If we were going to buy 25 chicks planning to put the adults in the freezer, we'd go straight for Cornish Cross.

Buff Orpington

Other breeds to consider.  Rhode Island Reds will be midway between hybrid egg-layers and Black Australorps in their traits and Plymouth Rocks will be midway between Black Australorps and Cornish Cross.  If you lean more toward eggs or meat rather than having tastes that run right down the middle like ours do, you might want to try one of these alternatives.  Buff Orpingtons and Wyandottes also come highly recommended, but I haven't tried either one yet, and there are also laying ducks to consider.

Finally, don't forget to get all of your gear together while you're in the planning stages.  Check out these automatic feeder ideas, invest in a quality brooder, and get the chicks off to a good start with clean water.  Good luck and enjoy your chicken adventure!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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All of the red sex-link type birds we have had are terrific egg layers and foragers. We also like the black sex-link hybrids and are trying Blue Andalusians now since they are supposed to be a decent dual purpose bird.

Although we still have a few "pets", we have finally figured out that small feather-footed breeds, Silkies, Polish, are not useful as anything other than pets. And even though we love the colored eggs, Auracana/Americanas are not very good layers.

Trying Golden laced Wyandottes next.

Comment by Rick Mon Feb 24 09:51:05 2014

I would second comments regarding the Australorps as the best all-around breed for the backyard flock. They have a calm temperament but are active enough to forage for additional food sources when it is available. Black sex-linked or Golden sex-linked (probably similar to golden comets) are close behind the Australorps. The only challenge I have had with Australorps was when I had too many roosters for the number of hens that I had and they started getting aggressive with the hens. When we culled the most aggressive roosters, our flock turned out amazing. I didn't mention that the Australorps come as a straight-run so you can't pick only hens, but if you are incubating your own eggs you get both genders anyway.

I have tried to stick with good egg layers. I have tried a variety of breeds to understand how each breed's temperament may differ. Most of the breeds that are sold at our local feed store in the Spring are good egg layers but some have personality challenges. Rhode Island Red hens have often been aggressive with other birds and are sometimes difficult to handle. Barred Rock (like Plymouth Rock?) hens are also a bit more aggressive than the Australorps and are not as good at foraging. Buff Orpington on the other hand lay well, are extremely calm, are pretty good meat birds, but don't forage much at all. I have had a couple of Silver Laced Wyandotte hens who laid moderately well but are also aggressive with the other birds, especially any younger ones that I tried to introduce to the flock.

I raised Cornish Cross for a few years, but became frustrated with them. They grow so much faster than the other birds that you can harvest them fairly quickly, but it comes at a cost. They are lazy and sit around the feeder all day waiting for more food. They won't forage for other food, especially when they get older and start having difficulty walking because of their weight. Also because of their weight, they generally stay on the ground rather than roost. If you wait too long to harvest them, the largest ones start dropping off like flies because of health reasons.

I have a neighbor that raises Cornish Cross every year but he has a system where he only leaves the feeder in the coop for part of the day and harvests them at a scheduled day (maybe a bit early to be safe). This gets them to eat a bit more moderately rather than gorging themselves every waking moment. Doing this they gain weight a bit slower but also don't die off from health problems.

Comment by David Tue Feb 25 15:52:29 2014

You know me, I also recommend Australorps :-).

Australorps hold several records for the most eggs layed in a year, yet I hear a lot of people saying they aren't particularly good layers in practice.

I think the problem is that hatcheries today are only growing them for the "bird fancier" crowd, not for commercial use. So they're breeding for conformance characteristics, but not production performance.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery contains a lot of great info on flock improvement and breeding for production characteristics. I'm currently starting to use his approach on my flock, but I expect it'll be a few years (i.e. several generations) before I see any real results.

I guess the message here to homesteaders is that yes, different breeds are associated with different characteristics, but there is a lot of variability in individuals (and between breeders). If particular traits matter to you, you need to know who's breeding your chickens and what traits they're breeding for.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Tue Mar 4 19:07:32 2014

A couple of things to consider when choosing a breed- do you want eggs when everyone else is short on eggs? If so-what breeds are best for that, when should you start pullets so that they begin laying in winter and hopefully continue laying through the winter?
do you want to buy laying chicks every spring or do you want to be able to perpetuate your own flock with laying eggs from your own stock? If that is so then I couldn't recommend hybrids like sex-links-that is sorta like saving seed from hybrid plants.
do you want to leave the incubating and mothering (keeping warm) to the flock themselves or do you want to have control over it? You might want to consider a breed(s) that are known for having some broodiness in the breed.
What I see from breeders/showers they consider hatcheries as not breeding for show qualities at all and truthfully I would have to agree with that logic. I can't picture hatcheries doing the deep culling that would be necessary to obtain good show stock...I would have to theorize that they would be more inclined to breeding for the numbers game-that would be egg production. I have gotten very good results in egg laying from birds purchased from hatcheries. On the other hand many breeders breed for show quality at the expense of production.
Everyone has different qualities that they need-my chickens are visible to traffic and I ALWAYS get inquiries as to started pullets for sale and have pretty good luck with them. For that the sex-links are great. Also anything black and white speckled-doesn't matter what breed they are-they're all domineckers to the neighbors...and in very high demand. If you want to sell a few eggs (or barter) then winter production is very important. Selling a few birds or eggs is a great way to recoop? some of your expenses. all-around I read that Buckeyes are very good-good table quality, great foraging, ok (but getting better) egg production and natural mothering. Also the coloring is important if you want to forage-partridge, brown, red, and speckledy are the best colors for not being spotted by predators. If you love chickens then you could compare breeds til the cows come home (I know I do) but you just gotta bite the bullet and place that order. Theres nothing wrong with trying to mix your breeds to try to get the best of both worlds, or 3 or 4 worlds-just do your homework on breeding and genetics, make sure you know which - the male or the female pass on certain characteristics that you are looking for-it might surprise you.

Comment by Barbara Mon Apr 21 15:37:27 2014

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