The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

What should homesteaders look for in a chicken?

Homestead flockAlthough a homesteader can certainly choose Cochins as gentle pets for their preschoolers and Polish to win first prize at the fair, the average farmer will be more interested in making sure her chicken habit pays for itself.  The best farm breeds should produce lots of eggs and/or meat on little store-bought food, but homesteaders should also pay attention to some less obvious chicken traits.

What are the less-than-obvious traits to be on the lookout for?  Prime homesteading birds will usually be good foragers and will stand up well to predators and weather.  They will typically lay in the winter, even when day length drops below the critical 14 hours per day required for peak production (or the homesteader will commit to installing supplemental light in the coop or to doing without omelets during cold weather).  In addition, the best breed for your farm might make good mother hens...or you might prefer a non-broody breed if you're going to use an incubator and want to maximize egg production.  Even if you don't have nearby neighbors, I recommend choosing birds that only make a racket when predators are sniffing around since you'll soon tune out the cackling of loud breeds like Anconas, Leghorns, Old English Game hens, and White Faced Spanish, which means you might lose some free-rangers to hawks as a result.  If you garden (and what homesteader doesn't?), you'll also want to select a breed that's less likely to fly fences and scratch up your lettuce bed—heavier breeds are better in this respect, and the worst fliers (to be avoided) include Hamburgs, Leghorns, Old English Game hens, and all types of bantams.

Salmon Faverolles chickenBeginning homesteaders might choose from among the most productive egg-layers for their first couple of years, but chances are you'll slowly gravitate toward dual-purpose birds that also produce a worthwhile amount of meat (dressing out to at least two pounds at twelve weeks).  From an economic standpoint, it simply doesn't make sense to keep hens around after they've been laying more than one to three years (depending on the breed and on your level of sentimentality).  So if you don't want to be feeding unproductive pets, you'll end up butchering your layers frequently, meaning those stewing hens will need a use in the kitchen.  In addition, once you start hatching your own eggs (a big savings over buying hatchery chicks every spring), you'll notice that fifty percent of your flock is male...and most farms only need one rooster.  All of the excess cockerels will join the spent layers in the self-sufficient homesteader's belly.  Since the most productive egg-laying breeds simply aren't worth your while to butcher and dress out as meat birds, I focus on dual-purpose breeds through most of Thrifty Chicken Breeds.

What shouldn't the self-sufficient homesteader care about?  Eggshell color only matters for aesthetic reasons, as does color of a meat bird's skin.  In both cases, the taste and nutritional quality of the eggs and meat are due to what the chicken in question ate (which generally equates to how much non-store-bought feed it consumed).  In addition, I recommend that you don't pay too much attention to the actual breed name or to whether or not your chickens are listed as heritage breeds.  While threatened heritage varieties sound good on paper, it's worth asking yourself—why do so few people raise that type of chicken any more?  Perhaps the breed was particularly suited to only a very specific climate or type of homestead, or maybe (as has happened with many breeds in the last century) breeders began selecting for exhibition-quality looks rather than for productivity and efficiency.  While Thrifty Chicken Breeds does list variety names to give you a place to start, I believe the best chicken for most homesteaders is a mutt specifically bred to match your farm and needs.  So take everything I say with a grain of salt—if your Australorps don't live up to my high praise, seek out another dual-purpose variety that is being raised by homesteaders like you who are interested in productivity over prestige.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  If so, why not read the whole thing for only 99 cents?  Or stay tuned for another excerpt here on the blog tomorrow.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Anna Hess's books
Want more in-depth information? Browse through our books.

Or explore more posts by date or by subject.

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.

Want to be notified when new comments are posted on this page? Click on the RSS button after you add a comment to subscribe to the comment feed, or simply check the box beside "email replies to me" while writing your comment.

profile counter myspace

Powered by Branchable Wiki Hosting.

Required disclosures:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a few pennies every time you buy something using one of my affiliate links. Don't worry, though --- I only recommend products I thoroughly stand behind!

Also, this site has Google ads on it. Third party vendors, including Google, use cookies to serve ads based on a user's prior visits to a website. Google's use of advertising cookies enables it and its partners to serve ads to users based on their visit to various sites. You can opt out of personalized advertising by visiting this site.