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Breeds for Backyard Chickens

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What are the best chicken breeds for a backyard chicken enterprise?

There is no specific answer to this question as there are numerous deciding factors including personal preference.  Most people raise chickens to provide fresh home grown eggs.  Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds and single comb White Leghorns are good choices for egg production but there is a non ending choice of breeds and breed combinations from which to choose.

Origin of Today's Chickens

The scientific consensus is that all the different breeds of chickens around today are descendants from the Red Jungle Fowl of Southeast Asia.  Generations of genetic selection and breeding have developed breeds that specialize in specific characteristics for different purposes.

Bantam Breeds versus Standard Breeds

Most chicken raisers choose standard breeds for egg layers as opposed to bantam breeds.  Bantam breeds or "Banties" are about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of standard breeds.  Bantam eggs are much smaller and thus not preferred for egg production.  However, Bantie breeds are easy to handle and make a great choice for showing at fairs and for 4-H projects.  Cochins, Plymouth Rocks, Old English and Wyandottes are some of the more popular Bantam breeds found in shows.  The most popular standard breeds found in showrooms include Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds.

Chicken Classes

Chicken Class as defined by the American Poultry Association (APA) indicates place of origin.  Chicken breeds for standard birds are grouped by class based upon their geographical origin and according to the APA Class definition.  However, Bantam birds tend to be classified by their characteristics.  Chickens are also divided into categories based upon their production characteristics. The primary categories for chickens are egg producers, meat producers or dual purpose birds.  Egg producers are those breeds that have been bred for and are principally used for egg production.  Meat producers are those breeds that have been bred for and are used for primarily meat (broiler/fryer) production.  Dual purpose breeds are those breeds where the hens are reasonably good egg layers and the males are large enough for meat production. Today, most of these dual purpose breeds are only found in backyard chicken enterprises and small farms operations.

  • American - generally developed for dual purpose (meat and eggs); New Hampshire, Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds (brown eggs)
  • English - generally developed for dual purpose (meat and eggs); Orpington (brown eggs)
  • Mediterranean - generally developed for laying white eggs; Leghorns

There are two additional classes (Asiatic and Continental) but birds in these classes are primarily ornamental birds.

Breeds are distinguished within a class by differences in body type (shape), size (height and weight) and skin color.

Purebred versus Crossbred

Purebred birds are chickens that are produced from parents of the same breed.   Crossbred birds are chickens that are produced from parents of different breeds, classes and or varieties.  These animals are also referred to a hybrids and the added production benefit from the cross is referred to as "Hybrid Vigor".  Since commercial crossbred birds bred for eggs or meat are hybrids, they will not breed true on your backyard enterprise or small flock operation. In other words, the offspring will not resemble their parents.  All layer hens used in commercial egg layer operations are crossbred hens, and all birds grown for commercial broiler/fryer (meat) production are crossbred birds.

Strain/Variety

For chickens, the terms strain and variety are used interchangeably. There are strains/varieties that exist within the different breeds.  The number of strain/varieties within a breed can be relatively large or small depending on the popularity of the breed.  A Strain/Variety within a breed is distinguished by physical features such as comb type, and both feather color and feather pattern.  A Strain/Variety is produced by inbreeding a specific breed through at least 5 generations so that the resulting offspring has the same appearance and characteristics, and can be identified as a member of the strain.

As stated above, there is a non ending choice of breeds and breed combinations from which to choose.  However the selection process will not be hard if you stick to these basic breeds or varieties within these breeds, and these basic fundamentals:

  • White Leghorns and Leghorn crosses are efficient layers of white eggs and the basic breed used in commercial crossbred birds used for commercial egg production.  These can be easily obtained from any hatchery!
  • Rhode Island Reds are great brown egg layers, are attractive birds and have a good temperament.  Rhode Island Reds and Rhode Island Red crosses can usually be found quite easily.  They are also a very good choice for harsh winter environments.
  • Buff Orpington are large yellow birds and good brown egg layers.  They have a propensity to get fat which depresses egg production. These birds are usually very docile.  If you can control their feeding and weight, they make a great choice where children are involved and where brown eggs are acceptable!
  • Plymouth Rock is another good choice where children are involved and where brown eggs are acceptable.  Keep in mind that Plymouth Rocks are dual purpose birds but have better meat characteristics than egg laying characteristics.  They are often used in crossbreeding programs to produce quality meat birds. 
  • The White Leghorn is a prolific white egg layer.  They are the most efficient bird to feed but are typically more nervous. These birds were specifically bred for eggs and as such are smaller birds that require less space.

  • Dual purpose breeds, such as the Plymouth Rock, Orpington, Rhode Island Red, and Wyandotte, were bred for both egg and meat production and will lay fewer eggs than Leghorns.  Also, they have a propensity to get fat which further depresses their egg production.

  • Chicken type is important when figuring space requirements.  In general, white egg layers (most popular) are smaller and more efficient than brown egg layers and require less space.

  • Birds bred for egg laying, as opposed to meat, are typically more docile and better for backyard chicken enterprises where the entire family is involved.
  • Climate is definetely a consideration when selecting your birds.  Breeds with lighter feathers and large combs are not as well suited to cold climates.  Dual purpose or heavier birds do not do as well in warmer climates.  If you want a flock that will withstand cold northern temperatures, than choose from full feathered American and English Class breeds where small comb varieties have been produced that are resistant to freezing.
  • Harsh winter choices would also include the New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock. These are common dual-purpose chickens that exist on farms in the United States and are readily available.  However, a better choice is the Rhode Island Red (see Rhode Island Red above).
  • If you want maximum egg production, it is best to find and purchase commercial egg layer stock used by the large layer operations that produce eggs for commercial distribution. These layers are bred by crossing two or more White leghorn lines to produce layer hens that are prolific egg layers, lay large high quality eggs, are resistant to disease, and have a small body size which means they consume less feed and take up less space in the facility.  The standard today for producing commercial white table eggs is the White Single Comb (variety) Leghorn (breed).  These birds are active, lively and high strung, and are not broody.  Most hatcheries in the United States have one or more crosses available that are easier to manage in Backyard Chicken Enterprises or Small Flock Operations.
  • For those that want serious brown egg layers, you can also find and purchase commercial crosses that produce brown eggs. Although very popular in the northeast, the commercial brown egg market is just a small fraction of the commercial white egg market.  None the less, commercial brown egg layer crosses do exist. These crosses are usually the product of breeding two or more breeds and/or varieties from Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and/or New Hampshire Reds.  Again, these birds are active, lively and high strung, and are not broody.  Most hatcheries in the United States have one or more crosses available that are easier to manage in Backyard Chicken Enterprises or Small Flock Operations.
  • In general, hens with white ear lobes lay white-shelled eggs and those with red ear lobes lay brown-shelled eggs.

Looking for a Novelty

If you want a novelty, the Mediterranean Aracucana and Ameraucana lay blue eggs!  The Americauna is a large fuzzy faced bird that has a good temperament but may be difficult to find!

Raising Birds for Meat

Similar to the commercial egg business, chickens used by commercial broiler operations have been selected and bred for favorable meat characteristics.  These are primarily rapid growth of lean muscle, large breast, and efficient feed utilization.  They are also selected and bred to produce the white feathers.  White feathers are highly preferred by poultry processors primarily because they are highly preferred by consumers.  The commercial industry standard as crosses between selected strains of White Plymouth Rock hens and large breasted White Cornish males. 

If you have an interest in raising broilers (fryers) for meat in your Backyard Chicken Enterprise or Small Flock Operation, stick to the Rock-Cornish Commercial broiler.  They can reach 4 to 5 lbs in six weeks and 10 lbs in twelve weeks, depending on the facilities,

The New Hampshire Red and White Plymouth Rock are also good choices.  Their growth rate is slower but will also be easier to manage for those without a lot of experience.

REMEMBER!  If your primary interest is eggs, stay away from these meat type birds as they will not be good egg layers.  They will not produce many eggs, will tend to consume a lot of feed, and will tend to get fat when they mature.

Reference for Chicken Breeds

A good reference for chicken breeds is "The American Standard of Perfection published by the American Poultry Association.  The publication is well illustrated and provides a nice description (breed type, color weight, appearance etc.) of all recognized breeds and varieties of domestic poultry.

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