Brief History of
Chickens are the best animal in the world! Ok, as a self-proclaimed “crazy chicken lady” I MAY be a bit biased. Don’t get me wrong, I love all animals but chickens? Chickens are the only pet that lays breakfast! They’re also one of the closest living relatives to a T-Rex. How cool is that? If you are just beginning your homesteading endeavor, then I highly suggest you start with chickens. Unlike cats, which treat you like you’re their slave (I should know because I have 4 cats and they all dictate with a simple meow), domesticated chickens are pets with a purpose! In 2004, an international team of geneticists produced a complete map of the chicken genome. Michael Zody, a computational biologist and his colleagues have been researching the differences between the red jungle fowl and its barnyard descendants, including “layers” (breeds raised to produce amazing amounts of eggs) and “broilers” (breeds that are plump and meaty). These researchers discovered that over time multiple genetic mutations occurred which led to positive results for chickens both in size of bird and capability of year-round egg laying. What does all that technical mumbo jumbo mean? Well for broilers (I refer to these as meaties – because…well…they are) it means that they are more plump than wild chickens which means as a “meat” bird you get more bang for your buck. For egg layers it means if you’d like to become more self-sustaining, their ability to lay all year long is very beneficial. After all, no one wants to feed chickens all year and only get eggs half the time. I don’t know about you, but our family eats eggs all year and I love being able to walk out to the coop and collect eggs. It’s my happy time! So, which chicken type will you choose?
Which Chicken is Right for You?
LAYERSA comparison of a medium egg to a large egg.
So, you’ve decided to start homesteading with chickens. Awesome choice! So, what now? Well first you need to figure out whether the chickens will be for egg laying, meat or both. Egg layers are just that, they lay eggs. That is their purpose – for you anyway. Depending on the breed they can start laying as early as about 18-20 weeks and will produce eggs with or without a rooster. Yes, you read that right. Hens do NOT need a rooster in order to lay eggs. The reason a rooster is necessary is to produce eggs that are fertilized and are able to be hatched. If you’d like to hatch your own chicks, then by all means get a rooster. However, if you don’t like early morning crowing or maybe you live in the city and they’re prohibited, you can still enjoy eggs without one. In fact, most people are eating unfertilized eggs because the eggs you get from the grocery store are not fertilized as it serves no purpose in their production. Plus, it wouldn’t really even be possible when you find out how grocery store egg layers live. It’s truly sad but that’s a topic for another day. One important thing to note, not all chickens are created equal when it comes to egg laying so first, you’ll need to decide how many eggs you’ll need or want a week. Some, like the Leghorn, lay 5-6 large eggs a week while others like the Golden Laced Polish lay only 2-3 small to medium sized eggs a week.
Therefore, one Leghorn will lay twice as much and produce a larger egg than the Golden Laced Polish giving you more return on your investment. These are important factors when deciding which breeds you’ll want to add to your flock. Of course, if you’re like me…the more the merrier! I mean I don’t have a “Crazy Chicken Lady” decal on my truck for nothing. I earned that title! However, if you live in the city or suburbs and want chickens you will be limited in how many you can have so you will most likely want to stick to the good production layers over the breeds that lay smaller eggs less often. This is yet another reason to move out to the country and buy land….UNLIMITED CHICKENS!! Stop letting the man (aka your HOA) tell you how many chickens you can have. Plus, we could be neighbors, wouldn’t you just love that? Of course you would. I’m super awesome and I always have eggs! Just kidding, wherever you live is fine because these days most cities and suburbs allow at least a few chickens. Yay!
So what if you’re not interested in eggs as much as wanting chickens for meat? Meaties a.k.a. broilers are chickens that are raised for meat. Most often they are Cornish Cross which grow at exponential rates. These birds, however, have greatly changed in the last 50 years from how they used to look. They used to look more like a normal chicken, however now they’ve been bred to plump up to be slaughtered by 8 weeks…yes 8 weeks. That’s a pretty quick turnaround from hatching to slaughter. Having had some meaties myself (on accident – thank you Tractor Supply for not labeling your chicks correctly), I’ve seen firsthand how quickly they grow. Thinking they were white leghorns I quickly felt something was wrong when their legs were larger than my other chicks and they were hot to the touch. After consulting with some of my chicken peeps, I found out what I had were not leghorns but were actually meaties. As they get older you can definitely tell they’re different especially when you see them waddling…oops I meant “walking” around. They’re so big they kinda reminded me of myself when I was 9 months pregnant with my son. Swollen legs & feet? Check! Hot all the time? Check! Eating all the time? Check! It’s a good thing they don’t have to bend down to tie their shoes. Most meaties are placed in front of a feeder so they eat non-stop and fatten up quickly and boy do they ever. The bigger the bird the more meat for your money so to speak so most owners feed and feed and feed. Personally, I couldn’t do that to my chickens, so we free ranged ours and limited their feed. We didn’t plan to process them for meat because I wanted them to have a better life since we hadn’t purchased them for the purpose of processing. Unfortunately, though, we had a tragedy befall us on the farm when a neighbor’s dogs came onto our property and killed 40 of our beloved birds. The meaties were among them and proved to be easy targets due to their size making them slow moving and easy prey. Although I wouldn’t have wished this upon them, I am relieved we didn’t have to witness what can happen when they continue to get larger. I’ve heard that sometimes they become larger than their bodies can handle, leading to heart attacks or their legs breaking due to the weight. Yes, seriously! You can see in the picture the difference in their growth rate in the last 60 years. It’s really not natural how they’ve been bred to grow like this. That being said, they do provide a lot of meat for one bird. I’d say that raising Cornish Crosses for meat is not a bad idea but treat them humanely – let them free range if possible. They deserve to do their chicken thing too. For us as a family, we have decided that in the future when we do raise chickens for meat they will not be these meaties, they will more than likely be a dual purpose breed that doesn’t have the same genetic problems as the Cornish Cross.
So what is a dual purpose breed? These are the breeds that are good egg layers that are also a good size to raise for meat. All hens lay eggs even the meaties (they usually just don’t live long enough to get to laying age). Many people decide to have these dual purpose breeds so that they get the best of both worlds. They also won’t have the same health issues that you’ll see in the Cornish Cross. And a word of advice: Don’t name the chickens you plan to process. It’s not easy to butcher Henrietta when the time comes. I’m sure that’s how many people have ended up with extra chickens – they couldn’t bring themselves to eat her once they named her. A few good dual purpose breeds would be the Australorp, Rhode Island Red, Black Star & Orpington. They are all great layers and have a lot of junk in the trunk when it comes to processing for meat. The Australorp lays 300+ eggs a year and the hens weigh about 8lbs while the roosters weigh closer to 10lbs. They have calm personalities and are both cold and heat hardy. The Rhode Island Red lays about 200-300 eggs a year with the hens reaching about 6.5lbs and the roosters weighing about 8.5lbs. They have friendly personalities and do well if most climates. The Black Star & Orpington tend to lay around the same amount of eggs a year, typically between 200-300 a year. The Black Star hens are about 6lbs and the roosters weigh about 8lbs. With calm, friendly personalities and suitable for cold or hot climates they are a great choice. The Orpingtons tend to be a bit meatier with the hens reaching about 8lbs and the roosters about 10lbs. They are very friendly but due to their size they are more cold hardy than heat, though we do have several ourselves and we’re in Texas. They do fine but we always give them access to full shade and cold water.
Breeds by Climate
Chickens come in all shapes and sizes but where you live should be a deciding factor when choosing breeds for your homestead. Some do better in warmer climates while others do well in colder areas. Several breeds will also do well in both which helps if you live in areas that are hot during the day and cold at night.
If you plan to raise meaties then they will do better in a moderate climate. Since they’ve been bred to grow so large in only a matter of weeks their body temperature is higher than that of the average chicken. Their size makes it hard for them to regulate their temperature. Due to these factors, they can’t handle temperatures over 85º or temperatures below freezing very well. Meaties also don’t survive well at higher elevations above 3,000 ft. Available oxygen is lower at higher elevations and for birds prone to respiratory problems already, thinner air is very difficult for them. All of these factors must be considered before purchasing or you could end up with consistent death among your flock.
COLD WEATHER BREEDS
So, you live in a colder climate and you want chickens? You can get any breed of chicken you want but, if you’d prefer not to have to crochet chicken sweaters during the winter, there are certain breeds you’ll want to stick with. The best cold hardy breeds are ones that have less exposed skin, these tend to be the chickens with smaller combs and wattles with a lot of junk in the trunk. Sir Mix-a-Lot said it best “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, he was clearly singing about cold weather chicken breeds…duh. The following breeds are great cold weather resilient chickens:
- Brahma (these chickens even have feathers on their feet!)
HOT WEATHER BREEDS
We live in Texas and let me tell you it gets really hot here! How hot? Well during the summer it was 108º and we all melted. All of us except for the chickens. Crazy how they were out and about. We provided them with plenty of shade and ok ok because my chickens are spoiled they may or may not have had a coop with an air conditioner so they could sleep in comfort at night. Told you I was a crazy chicken lady. During the day though our chickens free range all day with plenty of access to fresh cold water. So how do they stay cool in the torturous heat? Remember how the small combs and wattles helped the chickens stay warmer in the cold climate? Well the opposite is true in the hotter climates. A larger comb and wattle have a higher concentration of capillaries which helps to circulate blood and body heat close to the skin’s surface. Smaller body types will help keep them cooler as well. So which breeds should you be looking for? Below are a few that will be great heat tolerant chickens:
- White Leghorn
- Easter Egger
- Welsummer – duh it’s in the name!
Keep in mind though chickens that are resilient in cold and hot climates will still need extra care. Shelters with good ventilation for hotter areas and coops that don’t allow a draft to penetrate in cold climates are important for the health and well-being of your flock. Crochet sweaters are always a good idea…just kidding…sorta. During the hottest part of the day here we like to turn our hose on the mist setting and just give our chicks a nice mist to help cool them off. They love it so much! It’s so cute to watch them fluff up and shake their feathers.
I love chickens, did I tell you that? Well, one of the biggest reasons is because of the eggs they provide. BUT not all chickens are created equal when it comes to eggs. Some lay larger eggs than others and many are prolific layers. So, what does that mean to you? It means more bang for your buck. I personally choose to have 100 chickens so I don’t need to rely on just one or two chickens to lay, but many homesteaders aren’t as crazy as me and choose to have less than triple digits…or even double digits.
If you are just wanting enough for your family and maybe some friends, then you’ll prefer to have breeds that lay more frequently and preferably larger eggs. There are several options for that. Ever wonder why here in the U.S. the majority of the eggs you see in the grocery store are white? The simple answer is because the breed that the commercial egg producers use are typically White Leghorns and they lay white eggs. See? Told you it was simple. White Leghorns lay approximately 280-320 eggs a year. That’s almost an egg every day! Their lifespan is typically shorter, only about 4-6 years, than other chickens due to them being such productive layers. Sidenote: Our White Leghorn, Cuckoo, lived to be over 7 years old and I believe it was because she was able to live out her life a big open space just doing her chicken thing.
White Leghorns also lay large eggs, we even got a double yolk once (that egg was enormous – poor Cuckoo!). So, if you don’t have a color preference of eggs then Leghorns are a good choice for your homestead. I also just love how pretty they are with their tails that stick almost straight up. Heads up though, Leghorns tend to fly more than any of our other breeds from what we’ve experienced. It’s not uncommon to see them perched up on top of our coop. When we lived in a suburban neighborhood Cuckoo used to constantly fly into our neighbor’s yard. Grass is always greener, right? That can also mean that your chickens aren’t necessarily laying where they should. We’ve found many random nests around because our chickens found a spot they preferred over their nesting box. When they lay such large eggs you want to make sure you’re able to find and enjoy them! Another great option for an egg layer, if you don’t mind brown eggs, is the ISA Brown which is a hybrid that can lay 300-350 eggs a year. Keep in mind what that may mean for their lifespan though. They tend to live 2-3 years on average (though there are always exceptions). I don’t mind hybrids personally but I don’t really agree with ones whose sole purpose is to lay a ton of eggs thus shortening their lifespan, but to each their own. Rhode Island Reds are great brown-egg layers and they live 4x as long as the ISA Browns. For our family we love our feathered babies and want them to live long healthy lives and so many of our brown egg layers in the past have been Rhode Island Reds. In their prime, Rhode Island Reds lay about 200-300 eggs a year, however, egg laying production will start to decline as the chicken grows older. This is why having at least a few chickens around should still provide enough eggs for a small family.
Green Eggs and Ham
Dr. Suess wrote a whole book about green eggs and ham so I’m inclined to think maybe he had some chickens of his own. We all know about white eggs and brown eggs, but what about green eggs or blue eggs? No, I’m not talking about dyed eggs. These are real eggs laid by real chickens.
Just to clarify though, these colored eggs only apply to the shell! The yolks are still the same color – usually a deep orange for backyard chickens. The commercial eggs from the grocery store have a neon yellow yolk – THIS IS NOT NORMAL! Once you start raising your own chickens and feed a higher quality feed you’ll notice the color of the yolk and the taste are far superior than anything you buy in the store. So how do you get colored eggs? It’s simple. Different breeds of chickens lay different colored eggs. You’ll need to decide what color you’d like and then set about getting those from a local farm or hatchery. Below I’ve broken down a few breeds for each egg color.
White Egg Layers – Leghorn, Minorca, Polish, Hamburg & Andalusian
Brown Egg Layers – Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, Dominique & Cochin
Light Tan Egg Layers – Orpington, Wyandotte & Speckled Sussex
Dark Brown Egg Layers – Copper Marans, Barnvelder & Penedesenca
Speckled Egg Layers – Cuckoo Marans and Welsummers
Green Egg Layers – Olive Eggers, Easter Eggers and Isbars
Blue Egg Layers – Ameracauna, Aruacana, Cream Legbar & Easter Eggers
On Your Mark, Get Set, Buy Chickens!
Now that you have a good foundation for getting started with your own flock of chickens all that’s left is to get to buying! Ok actually not so fast…sorry I’m always so quick to push people to buy chickens (mostly myself). You’re set with a good knowledge of chickens and what kind would make the best additions for your flock. Do you want egg layers or meaties? Do you need chickens that will be ok in cold temperatures? Do you want a basket with an array of various colored eggs? Once you’ve made all those decisions the next decision will be to decide how many chickens to get and if I may make a suggestion – buy a lot of chickens! Sorry there I go again pushing chickens. I’ve recently started attending Chicken Buyers Anonymous to help with my problem – just kidding it’s not a problem because everyone knows there’s no such thing as too many chickens! So now you’ve decided what you want, what next? In my next post, I’ll be talking about how to actually go about buying chickens, setting up their coop, what to feed and much more!
Thanks for reading and please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you! Oh, and if you haven’t joined the Cuckoo Family you can join here because we’d love to have you.
Happy Homesteading & Stay Cuckoo!