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Backyard Chickens, Part 3

I have often been asked what kind of chicken someone should buy.  That question could have a lot of answers depending on your circumstances and goals.

The eggs you most likely buy at your local grocery store come from a flighty breed of chickens raised in very cramped battery cages.  Though this breed holds records for productivity on small amounts of feed, their temperaments make them poor choices for the backyard flock.

Superior Layers

A very close second would be the Rhode Island Red.  They dependably lay nice light brown eggs and are pretty feed efficient.  Another possibility would be one of the egg laying hybrids bred for production, sometimes going by names like Red Stars or Production Reds.  They also often come in black.

While high productivity is important, it is not the only consideration in my mind.  I want birds that are calm, easy to manage, and preferably quiet, too.

Good All-Around Choices

There are several other breeds that will also fill the bill.  My top pick would be the Ameraucana.  There are variations on the spelling of this breed.  They originated from a flock of South American birds that had very unusual characteristics.  They had no long tail feathers, yet had interesting tufts of feathers on the cheeks and under the beaks.  Best of all, they laid eggs that varied from olive green to sky blue to pink. For this reason, they are also frequently called Easter Eggers.  They maintain many of these qualities today.  All of ours have been calm and quiet, though many have been quite personable and interesting.  The birds that have allowed us to pick them up and pet them or willingly eat out of our hands have almost all been Ameraucanas.

Buff Orpingtons are another good choice.  These fluffy yellow chickens are generally calm and lay pretty well.  They are also known for their willingness to set eggs and usually make good mothers, too.

Plymouth Rocks come in several colors- Barred (zebra striped), White, Black, and sometimes Partridge.  The ones we’ve had have been good birds, some more prone to broodiness (the impulse to set and hatch eggs) than others.

Types of Chickens

When you start researching chickens, you start seeing designations like “dual-purpose,” “meat,” or “heirloom breed.”  These categories tell you some about the breeds and their most common use.

Heirloom

Heirloom breeds are purebred and have a long history usually.  Some, like New Hampshires, Buckeyes, and Rhode Island Reds give you an idea where they originated too.

Dual-Purpose

“Dual-purpose” indicates that the bird is often used for both meat and egg production.  You can interpret that to mean that they do a fair job at both, but are neither record-breaking layers nor very meaty birds.

Meat Birds

Most modern days birds designated as “meat birds” are a very carefully engineered breed of chicken that gains weight at a shocking rate- so quickly that their bones often cannot keep up and they can hardly walk or their legs just break.  This allows the big chicken producers to get a product to the grocery store from egg to finished bird weighing several pounds in 8 weeks.

These birds do produce an amazing amount of meat for the feed they consume, and they are some of the easiest to “process,” but they have many problems and raising them is no fun.  They are prone to heart attacks and cannot withstand much temperature variation.  We have gotten several batches of them and have decided we would rather begin raising rabbits for our meat needs than raise these mutants again.  They usually go by the name Cornish Cross.  There are still some older breeds (like New Jersey Giants) that are primarily raised for meat.  They take several weeks longer to get to full size, but they can be raised in much the same way as your laying hens.

Where Do I Get Chicks?

Once you have decided to get a few chickens, I suggest you read the descriptions on hatchery websites and ask questions of the employees who answer the phone.  I have used and been pleased with Murray McMurray in Iowa, Cackle in Missouri, and Ideal in Texas.  There may be other very good hatcheries close to where you live.  Chicks can successfully be shipped immediately after hatching, but the shorter the distance to you, the better they typically fare.  Be aware that for the health of the birds, most hatcheries have a minimum requirement of at least 15 and usually 25 chicks.

If you can’t find others to share a shipment of chicks and can’t house so many, another place to check is at local feed stores in the spring.  They often get shipments from the big hatcheries and then sell them to their patrons along with all the feed and things you’ll need.  I have known Rural Kings, Tractor Supply Company stores, and local Co-ops to carry them.

Craigslist, newspapers, feed store bulletin boards, and word of mouth are also good ways to find locals with chickens to sell.

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