A New Plan for Chickens Part II

The current flock - Barred Rocks, Australorps, an elderly Buff Cornish and one Australorp/Delaware cross.

The current flock – Barred Rocks, Australorps, an elderly Buff Cornish and one Australorp/Delaware cross.

Continued from 4/13/15 post:
My chicken-raising goals limit my choices to Australorps, Buckeyes, Delawares, Dominiques, Dorkings, New Hampshire Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds and the Sussex. Although there are individual differences, all are dual-purpose birds with reasonable egg production and big enough to butcher for meat. All have been around at least 70 years (Delawares), and some have been around for many centuries (Dorkings).


• Australorps, as you might guess from the name, were developed in Australia. The original stock came from Black Orpingtons, but they were crossed with Rhode Island Reds, Minorcas, White Leghorns and Langshans. Most of the latter breeds were known for egg production. The breeders’ goal was to develop a chicken that laid well in the hot Australian summers. Although an Australorp laid 364 eggs in one year during the 1920s, most chickens of the breed don’t produce that well, and the breed as a whole is not really outstanding in terms of egg production compared to something like the Leghorn. You can expect that they will lay about 220 to 280 eggs a year if well-fed and cared-for. They’re a reasonable size for butchering, at about six-and-a-half pounds for adult hens. They mature a little earlier than the average. Broodiness varies — the Australorps I had 20 years ago were a lot more inclined to set than the ones I’ve bought or raised in the last five years. They have black rather than yellow skin.


• Buckeyes are an American breed, developed by Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Ohio. They include Buff Cochins, Barred Rocks and game birds in their ancestry. Metcalf sent the Rhode Island Red breeders some of her stock, although the popular misconception is that the RIRs came first. They don’t lay quite as well as the other birds on my list; 200 eggs a year is the exception rather than the norm. They’re so-so in the broody department, according to my research. The bird is a deep mahogany red color with yellow skin. They’re very cold-weather tolerant and hardy. I don’t have any personal experience with this breed, but have talked to some people who do.


• Delawares were also developed in America from crosses of Barred Rocks and New Hampshire Reds. These birds are almost pure white except for a necklace of black feathers and a few black feathers on the wings and in the tail. They have yellow skin. The Delaware was developed as a broiler and became really popular just about the time the Cornish Cross made its debut and took over the broiler/fryer industry. They lay almost as well as Australorps, and in my experience, about half the hens go broody. They also grow quite fast, which is an advantage for raising broilers and fryers.


• Dominques are known as America’s first chicken breed. Also called Pilgrim Fowl, as they were developed in colonial times. No one knows exactly where they came from, although they’re supposed to have both European and Asian breeds in their background, including chickens from the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). They look very much like a Barred Rock, with black and white feathers, and have yellow skin. They don’t lay as well as Australorps, but mature early and are good setters. They’re a little more high-strung than the others on my list, and Dominique roosters can be even more aggressive than Rhode Island Reds, which are known for this problem.


• Dorkings are unusual in that they have five toes instead of four. This breed was apparently known to the ancient Romans, although it was developed in England. Primarily a table fowl, and prized for that feature, they lay moderately well compared to the other breeds on my list. Dorking pullets come into lay later than other breeds but they lay well through the winter. They are much more likely to be broody compared to the others and grow a little more slowly. Dorkings are multi-colored and also come in white; the typical rooster has a base color of black, red or brown but may also have yellow, white, buff or brown feathers. Hens are usually brownish-buff or grey with speckled patches and lighter-colored heads. They have yellow skin. A point against them is that the chicks are not very hardy, although the adults are fine. They fatten well. And I must admit, I like the idea of raising a truly old breed, with genetics that have never been commercialized.



• New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds are marketed as dual-purpose birds, but I would say they’re more on the egg-laying end of the scale. NHRs were developed from RIRs. Frankly, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between them these days, although they may once have been separate breeds. They lay more than Australorps, but don’t generally set well. They mature quickly, which is an advantage in trying to grow broilers and fryers. The biggest problem with these is that the commercial breeders got their hands on them, and it’s very hard to find a true strain of heritage red in either breed. A lot of commercial reds are basically red Leghorns — flighty and aggressive. RIR roosters are notorious for aggressiveness, which is a problem when you have kids around the chicken flock. As you might guess from the names, their feathers are red — from a deep mahogany color to flaming scarlet — and they have yellow skin.


• Orpingtons are an English breed developed primarily by William Cook and his daughter in the 1880s. They were originally bred to be meat birds and are still a good size, about eight pounds for an adult hen. They are on the low end as far as egg-laying, although the original Orpingtons were very good egg-layers; breeders began selecting for looks and egg production dropped. It might be possible to improve this with careful selection. They are generally good setters and mothers. Buff Orpingtons (a sort of light gold color) are the most common, but they come in other colors, including white. Skin is usually yellow to cream. The Buffs I’ve had were friendly and hardy.

Image result for plymouth rock chickens


• Plymouth Rocks, or just Rocks, are another breed that comes in various colors. Black and white Barred Rocks and White Rocks are probably the most common. Developed in the early 1800s, by breeders who used Dominique, black Javas, cochins, Malays and Dorkings. The White Rock supplied half the genetics for the original Cornish Cross. They’re a fair homestead bird, although I don’t find they lay as well as the Australorp. I have not found them to be broody at all, and they tend to be more excitable than the other birds on my list. The hens weigh in at about seven-and-a-half pounds, and they’re solid, as a good meat bird should be. Although the original strains of Rocks were great farm birds, they’ve tended to be bred along divergent lines, with some being better for meat and some better for eggs. There’s really no way of knowing which type you’re going to get.


• The Sussex was famed as a table bird in England, and is another very old breed. Sussex chickens were running around in Great Britain when the Romans showed up there in 43 A.D. The Light Sussex looks a lot like a Delaware, but they come in other colors as well. The Speckled Sussex, which is the most readily available, is usually reddish brown with black and white speckled feathers and yellow skin. Originally bred for meat, they actually lay about as well as Australorps. They don’t grow as fast as Delawares, but they are good setters and mothers. In my experience, they’re friendly birds that forage well.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…
My top contenders are the Delaware and the Sussex. I have personal experience with both. Both come in white. They lay about the same number of eggs (Delaware brown, Sussex creamy to light brown) and both lay well through the winter. Both are hardy breeds that forage well. In my experience, they’re friendly and relatively docile birds, although we did have one Delaware rooster that was a little aggressive, especially as he got older. I never had any trouble with him, but he would regularly attack my husband. I found the Delawares matured more quickly than the Sussex, and although the Sussex is supposed to be more broody, I found them about equal in that respect.
I’ve finally decided to go with the Delawares. My reasons are both practical and emotional, as most decisions are. The Delawares mature more quickly — a plus for meat birds. They’re more readily available (the most common Sussex offered is the speckled version, not the white). Finally, they’re an American breed from the state of Ohio, where my mother was born and raised.
The next step in this process is to build new pens and coops. To be continued next week.

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A New Plan for Chickens

The current flock - Barred Rocks, Australorps, an elderly Buff Cornish and one Australorp/Delaware cross.

The current flock – Barred Rocks, Australorps, an elderly Buff Cornish and one Australorp/Delaware cross.

Chickens are often the first thing people want when they move to the country — fresh eggs, chicken soup and cute baby birds. And chickens do make good sense on even a small operation. They eat food scraps, supply you with breakfast, make compost, help in pest control and offer entertainment. Although I’ve always raised a few of my own birds, I’ve kept a single flock and periodically ordered new birds. The more I look at what I’m doing the more I really want to raise my own. Ordering chicks from a hatchery means the potential for bringing in disease; shipping chicks uses irreplaceable fossil fuels. Like heirloom vegetables and fruits, what you raise can be tailored to your specific needs and preferences if you raise your own chickens. So, I Have A Plan.

Delaware chicks enjoying dinner.

Delaware chicks enjoying dinner.

I have a preference for dual-purpose birds — the sort that lay a reasonable number of eggs but are large enough to make decent meat birds. I would also prefer to breed my own rather than depend on the commercial hatcheries. That preference was strengthened this last year when I ordered some new chickens from a hatchery I’d used before without any problems. I lost 16 of the 25 chicks. Some just keeled over and died for no obvious reason. Several had severe leg deformities and had to be butchered because they couldn’t walk. Others had weak legs, almost all had very crooked toes and one had a badly crossed bill. Chickens of the same age were dramatically different in size, as in twice as large as others in the same group. Those sorts of problems indicate inbreeding — not the kind of thing I want in my chicken flock. I finally gave the surviving chicks away. Although I have and have used an incubator, I would really like to let mama (the avian variety) do the work. So, this year, I’m changing the system so I can raise my own, which means I need to decide on a particular variety of chicken.
Making a statement about the “best” choice for a chicken flock is rather like volunteering to be shot at sunrise — everybody has a strong opinion and the messenger may be the one who winds up receiving most of the bullets. The right answer, of course, is that it depends on what you want out of the deal. There are so many different chicken varieties out there that you can find something to suit.

Former flock of Buff Cornish in the chicken tractor with Foghorn the Delaware rooster.

Former flock of Buff Cornish in the chicken tractor with Foghorn the Delaware rooster.

Choices, choices. What kind of chickens do I want? A dual-purpose chicken won’t lay as many eggs as the Leghorn, which is ultimate laying machine. But with three flocks (I’ll explain why later on), I’ll have enough chickens to supply all of our eggs even in the winter months, and lots of extras in peak periods to sell, freeze, feed to the pigs or hard-cook and feed back to the chickens. A dual-purpose chicken won’t grow as fast or be as meaty as the Cornish Cross, the classic meat-only bird butchered at eight weeks that you’ll find in the grocery (which I think is too delicate and prone to health problems, anyway). Some of the dual-purpose heritage breeds, however, grow to a reasonable size by 12-14 weeks, and they often have more flavor than a Cornish Cross, especially if you age them for a few days after butchering and cook them properly. Finally, I want chickens that will go broody and set their own eggs, which will hopefully allow me to retire the incubator. Broody chickens quit laying while setting and rearing chicks, but again, if I have enough chickens, that shouldn’t be an issue. And none of the dual-purpose heritage breeds are 100 percent broody, so some will keep right on laying while Sister Sue is setting on the nest.

Here are my criteria for the new chickens:
• I want chickens that will lay at least 200 eggs a year per hen.
• I would prefer white chickens, as they have light pinfeathers. White-feathered birds are an advantage for butchering, because their pinfeathers don’t show up black against the pale skin. Most people don’t like the look of a black-speckled fryer, which means cleaning the dark-feathered chickens is a much more labor-intensive process. But this is a trait that takes a back seat to the other qualities I’m looking for.
• Yellow skin is an advantage in a laying flock. A chicken bleaches out as she lays, because she deposits skin pigment in her egg yolks. It’s much easier to see bleaching in a yellow-skinned hen.
• Chickens that mature early will lay sooner and grow better for butchering, so I want fast growers.
• I want a breed in which at least half the hens will set.
• Since the kids are involved in the chicken-keeping, I don’t want birds that are highly aggressive; an attacking rooster can cause considerable damage to a child.
• I know that hatchery catalogs, like seed catalogs, tend to go for salesmanship rather than truth; I’m inclined to go with chickens I either have personal experience with or know from discussions with those I considered to be reputable breeders.
By the way, if you’re looking for a quick reference in choosing a chicken breed or breeds, do an Internet search for Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart. It’s available in a variety of places on the web. John Henderson is the social sciences librarian at Ithaca College in New York. He’s also a chicken person who has raised many of the heritage breeds. The college used to maintain a copy of the chart, but I couldn’t find one when I searched the website. It’s available from other sources, though. Henderson did a good job researching most of the heritage breeds and can comment on many from personal experience. To be continued next week…

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Games Animals Play


When I tell people that I get all the entertainment I need from my critters, they look at me as though I’m a little strange. I may very well be a little strange, but if you haven’t watched animals at play, you’re culturally deprived. Here are some of my animals’ favorite games:
Chicken Keep-Away
The game is initiated by tossing a few tasty tidbits into the coop. A hen will immediately pounce on one and run like mad. When she stops to try and eat her bounty, anywhere from one to six other hens will try to take it away. Hen #1 promptly takes off at a run, followed by the other birds. Since you’ve tossed more than one tidbit, however, the running hens are frequently distracted by the tidbit another hen has, and will make a sharp right/left. Hens carom off the sides of the pen, running into each other, dodging and cackling. Just about the time everybody settles down, a hen will discover a bite someone else missed and the mayhem starts up again.

Bowling for Buzzards
This game is a variation on the one from The Lion King, in which Timon (the meerkat) rides Pumba (the warthog) through the flock of buzzards that are about to dine upon Simba (the lion cub). At our house, there are no riders. The game is typically played by the yearling and the heifer calf. The unhappy recipients of their attentions are the geese or wild turkeys, who have been placidly enjoying a little fresh green grass with the odd bug or two, only to be scattered in all directions by a hard-running quadruped. The birds usually take to the air, squawking imprecations in Goose or Turkey. The geese are smart enough to head for the pond, but the turkeys (not the brightest bulbs in the box) usually land within range and have to endure at least one more assault.
This one is played exclusively by Ruby, the Angus heifer. Our sheep tend to regard fences as momentary distractions rather than barriers. As they move across the middle field where Ruby makes her lair, she will stalk them. Sheep are relatively easy to herd if you can keep them in a group, as any sheepdog knows. Ruby makes ever decreasing circles, until she has the flock well bunched. At that point, she switches games to Bowling for Sheep, charges through the band at full tilt and sends them baaing in panic. Then she goes off and eats grass for a while until they settle down, at which point she starts stalking them again.

Drive Your Siblings Crazy
All of the animals play this one, but it reaches its highest form between the yearling colt and his three-year-old sister. Just like kids on a long car trip, he nudges, nips, shoves and generally hassles her until she pins her ears back and chases him around the pasture. Meanwhile, his mother, who would otherwise be the recipient of his high spirits, manages to get some eating done.

Fall Down Dead
Baby pigs play this game for hours. It begins with one pig running in circles. Another joins in, then a third. For several minutes they run around like demons, swapping ends and leaping in the air. Then one leaps, falls over and lies still, followed by the rest of the gang. After a quick rest, they’re up and running again.

The sheep are the only ones who play this game. It consists of two sheep squaring off face-to-face, backing up a few feet and then running at each other until they smack their foreheads together. Eventually one of them apparently reaches the limits of her pain tolerance, and goes off shaking her head to rattle what little brain she has left.


I don’t need movies or TV; I have animals.

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