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.
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.
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…