Saturday, May 2, 2009

Selecting Chicken Breeds

This weekend, I had a conversation with a friend who is getting ready to select her first batch of chicks and she had some typical questions that most newbies have regarding what kind of chicks to raise and as we talked it occurred to me that these were exactly my thoughts three years ago. Keeping animals is partly science and partly art because every one you talk to has a bit of facts and lots of opinions. It's kind of like raising children. There are things you must do, like feed them and give them clothing to wear,  but their are many ways to do this based on your own ideas and convictions, like feeding organic food versus non-organic or wearing designer labels versus hand-me-downs. As for me, I take three factors into consideration when selecting poultry.

One factor is the climate. I live where winters are cold and long (as opposed to the south where winters are mild, but not so cold as places such as North Dakota!). So selecting a breed that is hardy in cold weather is wise.  Some of these include (but not limited to) Americans, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Reds, or Wyandottes. Obviously, if you live where summers are very hot, you need to consider breeds that are well adapted to your climate.

Another consideration is temperament. Because I have children, I selected breeds that were a bit calmer and wouldn't be so aggressive when the girls went out to feed them. Leghorns are prolific layers, but can be a bit nasty (okay, perhaps aggressive is a better word). After having several breeds, Rhode Island Reds are my favorite. If there was ever a "smart" chicken, it would be a RIR. They are perky without being overly aggressive and often Henny and Penny (our RIR's) would follow us around the yard and just "hang out" with whoever would have them. (Henny has since passed on, the victim of a bobcat).  Buff Orpington's are also calm and docile. 

Last, but not least, is the breed's propensity for laying. Since you're paying for the feed, your "girls" need to produce something. You don't want to pay for a lot of feed for a hen that is only going to lay every third day if she's in the mood. You want a consistent, reliable, layer that only misses a day on occasions. (Let's face it, around here, everybody needs to earn their keep!) If you live in a colder climate or one with a long winter, choose breeds that are good winter layers as well.

Free digital Photos

I recommend using Henderson's Chicken Breed Chart to quickly access and compare all the information you need to consider before purchasing chicks. It will give you all the information that I mentioned above and then some!

Over the years I've read books and websites on chickens. Some have said things like 'don't mix breeds together because they don't get along' or perhaps comments such as 'you can't mix older chickens with younger chickens'. Now while there may be some truth in each of these statements, it's not the whole story. There is a way to mix breeds and chickens of various ages if you use a little common sense and make a strategy to implement  your plan. 

The first year, chickens do not molt and will continue to lay throughout the first year once egg production has begun. However, on the second year, hens will go through a molting process, usually when the days are shorter and there is fewer hours of sunlight. They can look downright pitiful and naked! I feel so sorry for them. They will stop laying during this period in order to use their energy producing new feathers. I have not had my whole flock do this at once because I stagger the age of my hens. 

Therefore, if you want to keep your egg production up each winter, you must raise new chicks each spring and keep them separate from hens because they will peck the chicks to death. You can put a screen wall in your hen house or raise them in a separate area. Some people say not to allow the chicks near your hens because of the possibility of disease. I take this risk because they will be together eventually and I try to keep my flock healthy at all times. If you put a door in your screen wall, you can eventually open it up and allow the two to co-mingle. However, I usually do this after I have "introduced" the new chicks one or two at a time. I accomplish this by going out at night and place one of the new chicks (now a pullet) on the roost alongside the older layers. When they wake up in the morning, things seem to go on as normal. If you notice that they are pecking her, separate  her again for a few weeks and try again.

As far as mixing breeds... well, I'm not sure what the fuss is about that. If you are mixing breeds of very different temperaments I could see where this might be an issue. But I suspect that it has more to do with raising too many chickens in a space that is not adequate in size. I'm not one to put animals on the same level with humans, however, the Bible says in Proverbs 12:10 "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animals". Let's at least be merciful and give them enough room! Anyway, I usually get at least two of each breed. Don't really know why, I just think they look cute out there in pairs! 

I could watch them all day long... just scratching, pecking, and taking dirt baths! So relaxing, but I have other work that needs to be done! Ah, well...


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