Picking The Proper Chicken For A Backyard Coop
A drive through the rolling hills and verdant pastures of rural Wisconsin reveals a mainstay source of income for many residents: the roadside stand, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, bundles of firewood and farm fresh eggs. For people who raise chickens for themselves, the taste and texture of a recently collected egg is one of the perks. But even city and suburb dwellers with sufficient outdoor space can get a taste of farm life, as municipalities all over the state have passed rules that allow backyard chickens.
Not all chickens are the same, said Twain Lockheart, a poultry consultant with Nutrena Animal Feeds, during a Feb. 11, 2017 presentation at the Wisconsin Garden Expo. In the talk, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, he explained that chickens breeds vary depending on whether they are raised for meat, eggs or show.
"Saying that all chickens are the same is kind of like saying all dogs are the same," Lockhart said. "We all know dogs have different characteristics. Chickens all have different characteristics."
For a first foray into raising chickens, Lockhart suggested aspiring poulterers start with egg laying breeds like Rhode Island Red and Barred (or Plymouth) Rock. These birds tend to have a friendly temperament and relatively high intelligence, making them easy to handle and often suitable as family pets. They typically begin to produce eggs at around six months of age, and depending on breed, can produce between 100 and 300 eggs a year.
Many show chickens are bantam breeds like Sebright or Pekin, or smaller versions of their egg-laying counterparts, sometimes with unique plumage. While these birds are generally not useful in an agricultural sense, they are popular among young 4-H participants. According to Lockhart, poultry showing is the fastest growing livestock segment in 4-H.
"The kids love to show bantams, but they're not real practical," Lockhart said.
For owners with the fortitude to avoid naming and growing attached to their chickens, breeds like Cornish Cross or Red Rangers can provide a fresh alternative to grocery store meat.
“They do taste a lot better, don't they, when you raise them yourself," Lockhart said. "For one thing, you're not pumping them full of saline and stuff when you process them like they do commercially, so they just taste a lot better."
Chickens bred for meat differ from egg laying breeds in several ways. They tend to reach full size quickly, and many do not self-regulate their diets, meaning they will eat themselves to death if given unrestricted access to food. Meat chickens are generally too docile to be kept with show or egg laying chickens, and their intelligence level is lower. The health of these birds often deteriorates after they reach full size, so Lockhart suggested staggering the acquisition of chicks to avoid the need to slaughter, process and store many chickens at one time.
Many egg laying breeds are dual purpose, meaning they can be eaten once they have aged beyond their reproductive years. But this advantage is not without drawbacks.
"When they hit what we call henopause… you can throw them in the Crock-Pot. Notice I say Crock-Pot, and I said it twice; you try to eat these chickens after they've gotten over about six months old, and you have a rubber chicken," Lockhart said. "If you name your chickens, pretty good chance they'll never see a Crock-Pot. They'll probably get a funeral, and that's okay."
- Most chicken breeds fall into one of three categories: eggs, meat or show. People who want to get started with raising chickens are advised to consider their goals in rearing the birds and select breeds with appropriate attributes and temperaments for those purposes. Many breeds can succeed in more than once capacity, but will generally have a primary purpose for which they are best suited.
- Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom popularized chicken breeding after one of her ship captains brought her several Cochin chickens obtained on a voyage. She subsequently banned cockfighting, spurring the gentry who previously bred chickens for sport to begin breeding for show and egg production.
- Newcomers to raising chickens may want to select breeds that have reliably good temperament. Varieties like the Leghorn, immortalized by the Looney Tunes character, are voracious egg layers but highly wary of humans, a trait that can make daily feeding and egg collection stressful and challenging.
- Sexlink chickens are a cross between two breeds that are so called because roosters are one color and hens another, making it easier to sort chicks at hatching. These hybrids tend to be smarter and hardier than line bred chickens. They also often lay more eggs, but are barred from many competitions and shows because they are crossbreeds.
- Most bantams are miniature versions of full-sized poultry breeds, but some types are naturally small and do not have a larger counterpart. Bantams are popular for shows and as pets, but are typically too small to be raised for meat, and produce correspondingly small eggs. They are often not as cold hardy as larger birds.
- A given breed's tendency towards broodiness can introduce complications. Broody hens have a strong desire to produce offspring. If they have access to a rooster, owners might find their hens vanish and reappear with a string of chicks in tow. Without a suitable suitor, the hens might otherwise disappear, only to be found insistently mothering a pile of rotten eggs.
- On trying new breeds of chicken: "When you get started with chickens, and… you start getting the hatchery catalogs in the mail. This is a very terrifying time of year for me, when my wife is on the couch thumbing through these, and you think, you know what, these are really cool. Let's get some of these."
- On raising a variety of chickens: "If you get them all at the same time as baby chicks, they can all be raised as sisters. They grow up, they get along. You're going to have your alpha hen and everything, but they get along. You don't have to just stick with one breed."
- On line breeding: "When you inbreed chickens, one of the things that goes is the brains and then the disposition and the immune system, so you end up with this stupid, mean chicken that's sick all the time. Not that great a combination."
- On the taste of store-bought versus home-grown chicken meat: "Last year, at CLUCK the Chicken Store [in Belleville], we did a taste test… I had some friends raise [20 chickens] and then we bought 10 store-bought chickens…. We had a local chef who prepared them, and he went to great pains of cooking them all exactly the same way… Then we did a blind taste test… The striking thing for me is that nobody picked the store-bought chickens, none, not even one person."
- On remaining attached to chickens after they've stopped laying eggs: "My wife names her chickens. Those are her girls. Those are her babies. If she catches one eating an egg, it's over. That's a Crock-Pot offense right on the spot. If they don't do that, they get to die of old age. And my lovely wife claims that they're mentors to the other chickens. I don't know that I buy that. They're really mean to the rooster. They have no use for him anymore, and they're kind of grumpy, but they're out there. I mean, they eat ticks and stuff."