There is a huge choice of breeds to choose from and the one you select will largely depend upon your reasons for wanting to keep chickens. You should consider whether you want to keep them for eggs and meat, as a family pet or for showing and exhibiting.
If you are considering which is the best breed of chicken for meat, eggs or both, you basically have three choices.
Laying breeds are the best choice if you want to have eggs above all else. A typical egg laying breed chicken can produce between 180-240 eggs a year per hen. If you keep three hens then you can expect them to produce up to 720 eggs a year, that is an average of just under 2 eggs a day.
Your laying hen should start laying eggs at around 5-6 months old and will continue to lay at a steady rate for several years. As your hen ages, egg production will slow, as the hen becomes older and ‘spent’. Laying breeds expend most of their energy during their lives producing eggs, therefore afterwards ’spent’ hens are usually skinny with little real meat on their bones.
Meat breed chickens are bred for their suitability for the table. If you buy these breeds of chickens, be prepared for the fact that they grow very fast, as the faster they grow, the more tender their meat is. Certain meat breed chickens can reach eating weight within just 6 or 7 weeks.
There are two main types of chickens you can raise for meat, these are:
- Broilers- Fryers - butchered at between 3-5lbs in weight.
- Roasters – butchered at between 6-8lbs in weight.
Baisically a Broiler-fryer is a chicken suitable for the BBQ or grill,whereas the roaster is as it indicates is more suitable for roasting. Broiling differs from roasting and baking in that the meat is turned during the process so as to cook one side at a time. Broilers are likley to be younger and therefore more tender.
Dual Purpose Breeds
However if you wish to have both eggs and meat from your chickens, dual purpose chicken breeds are a great choice for the home chicken owner. Dual purpose breed chickens lay a steady supply of eggs whilst building a decent amount of meat on their bones. As you might expect, there is some variations between breeds, with some producing more meat than eggs and others the reverse. So it is a case of choosing the best breed for your family’s needs.
Here are some more terms that you should be aware of when deciding upon which breed to choose:
Chickens come in two main types, bantams and large breed. Bantams are on average, 20-25% smaller than large breeds. It should however be noted that many breeds are actually available in both sizes.
You will find that Bantams are divided into classes according to their distinctive features, such as whether they have leg feathers or not. Being smaller than large chickens, they are particularly suitable for keeping in your back garden and they also make great pets for young children. The downside is that their eggs are smaller, but on the plus side they scratch about less than their bigger cousins, so you will have more of your flower beds and lawn left.
Large breed chickens tend to be classed according to their original place of origin, such as English, American, Asiatic or Oriental. Within these classes, chicken varieties are defined by other distinctive features, such as feather colouring or comb style and a lot more besides which you will need to know if you want to show chickens or become a chicken breeder.
Within these two categories you have pure breeds and hybrid breeds.
Pure Breed Chickens
These are the pedigree chicken breeds, they often have flamboyant feathers, striking good looks and an attitude to match. Their breed standards are written down and approved by national organizations, just like pedigree dogs or cats. Pure breed chickens usually don’t lay as many eggs as hybrid breeds and are generally less docile so are not as practical to keep. As a result, some older, traditional breeds have fallen out of favour and have become quite rare.
As the names suggests, hybrid breeds have been developed by crossing two or more pure breeds to create a chicken that fulfils a particular function, such as providing more eggs, or more breast meat. They may not be as good-looking as the pure breeds, but are often more suitable for the first-time chicken keeper. Generally, hybrid chickens are hardy and disease-resistant as they have been vaccinated against common illnesses, unlike pure breed chickens.
You will also find that breeds are also defined by certain characteristics, here are some of them:
This does not just relate to how well a chicken is suited to cold weather but it also refers to the breed’s ability to sustain itself through tougher times in general, any genetic weaknesses and its tendency to forage versus eating feed, often called ‘thriftiness’. Some of the older, less heavily factory farmed breeds like the heritage or heirloom breeds still retain many of the qualities that chickens needed when they were living in backyards all across the country. In contrast, production breeds have sometimes lost the ability to forage for bugs and weeds in the fields and woods.
Heavy breeds have thicker bodies and denser feathers and are therefore happier in the cold than non-heavy breeds. They are also more likely to continue laying eggs through the winter.
Breeds are described as docile or aggressive depending on the traits they display. However among any given flock, temperament will be influenced more by the pecking order than by genetic tendency. Those higher in the pecking order are the more aggressive birds and those lower in the order are more submissive and docile. If you have small children, picking a more docile breed might be a good idea. Some breeds are more flighty and highly strung than others as well.
Breeds of chickens are usually defined by how broody they are. Hens will have various degrees of broodiness, that is where they settle on the eggs, only leaving the nest once per day to eat and drink. If you’re trying to hatch eggs naturally, this can be a good quality in a hen. But otherwise this can be pretty annoying as not only is the broody hen not producing eggs, but she’s making the eggs under her age faster due to warmth.
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A to Z of Chicken Breeds A look at some of the most popular breeds kept by backyard chicken keepers.
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