Chicken Breed Basics

By Kelly Klober

Chickens are a small investment, but can be a big headache if your management techniques are not up to date. Learn the basics of the different chicken breeds available.

The first question raised about bantam chickens is, “Of what good is a little chicken?” Certainly they are ornamental and have been taken up by many exhibition breeders for the challenge some of the colors and feathering patterns in bantams represent. And, for some, there is the challenge to produce a perfect large fowl in miniature. For the backyard poultry folks the little birds take up less space, there is a reduced noise level, some of the breeds are exceptionally docile, they are easier to contain, they are bred in great variety, and they eat much less. Three bantam eggs will replace two large fowl eggs in most recipes and as a serving size.

Chicken and baby chicks

Our barn banties would begin taking to the nest in early spring, and we once had one small hen emerge from the hayloft with five little peeps on Christmas Eve. A few times each year we would make a late-night safari to the barn with burlap bag and flashlight in hand. There we would pluck surplus birds—mostly roosters—from rafters, gate tops, stall walls, and other roosting places. My grandparents would then dress the contents of two or three cackling, wriggling, and occasionally even crowing tow sacks. Mostly they went into big pots of winter day vegetable soup or chicken and dumplings. The latter was a favorite of Dad’s and one time, unbeknownst to us, she added a tray of store-bought chicken necks to a couple of the little roosters going into a big pot of dumplings. The second day into that particular pot Dad began his table grace by asking to be spared, in the future, from little banty roosters that were all neck.

In Europe bantam eggs and other exotic eggs such as those of ducks are regularly offered in stores. They obviously appeal to one- and two-person households that do limited cooking at home. And they could be said to be nature’s way of controlling serving sizes.

I once set about the goal of owning a flock of miniature fowl counterparts for every one of the large fowl breeds we owned. In hindsight it was a sort of fool’s errand as the small breeds are not supported by high demand in our area, and good seedstock for them costs every bit as much as good large fowl stock.

Rising grain and other feed costs have certainly sparked new interest in bantams and miniature fowl. However, their smaller size requires that they be given very nutrient-dense rations to maintain condition due to the small amounts of feedstuffs that they are able to consume. Many keeping them have opted to offer the higher protein content and higher priced game bird feeds to them.

There are some miniatures that can have practical applications of a sort. A well-bred Cornish miniature is quite a little chunk of meat in the hand. And some lines of Leghorn miniatures do lay well. And, where it is still desired or needed, miniature fowl are one of the most dependable choices for natural incubation. Cochin and Wyandotte bantams and their crosses have performed especially well in this role.

You can’t turn a broody hen on or off as needed, and the broodiness factor has largely been bred out of the various large fowl breeds. It is an economic fact of life that the broody hen on the nest is not producing eggs. Miniatures and bantams do tend to be more seasonal in both their laying and brooding patterns, however. There are some management practices that are said to foster broodiness in chickens. These include lowering light levels in the housing and decreasing protein levels in daily rations. Nothing is sure, and you cannot force a bird’s nature.

The above two breeds and a few others have a larger mature size and are thus able to successfully cover more eggs during incubation. With the Cochins, however, there is the matter of their feather-booted feet and legs. Such feathering makes it more difficult to keep the nests and eggs clean. The booted hens may even flip eggs out of the nest if their feet are heavily feathered. Such feathering can be trimmed, but many prefer to cross up the little birds to breed away such feathering and produce some larger females. Many purebred flock owners will keep a second flock of crossbred broodies and entrust some of their most valuable eggs to them. Crossing Cochins with Wyandottes or other, larger, clean-legged miniatures will breed out much of the leg feathering.

I suspect that the role and value of bantams and miniatures is only going to grow as more consider adding a few chickens to the backyard and aging baby boomers look for new pursuits in retirement. For many they will be a pleasant hobby, for some—such as color and show breeders—they will be a challenging exercise, and for others they will be a way to gain some control over what is coming into their homes and on their tables.

Many of the bantams and miniatures are quite docile, easily tended by children and older folk. Some are so docile as to not even show a tendency to fly up even to a low roost and thus are termed floor bantams. They bed down at night on coop floors, can be contained with simple fencing, are very quiet in nature, and are not in the least bit flighty.

Some of the very first very well-bred chickens that I owned were Single Combed Rhode Island Red bantams. They came from noted western Missouri poultry breeder, Mr. Morgan Craven, and were a delight to own. I kept several breeding trios in decked coops and would often notice my very practical-minded grandparents just standing, watching the little birds as they strutted and preened. Their little eggs had an almost jewel-like quality. The miniatures were often bred down from their large fowl counterparts or were put together from the miniature counterparts of the breeds that were used to create the large fowl varieties. One account is that along with selecting for smaller specimens the selected large fowl eggs would be set to hatch rather late in the year. With the shorter days, less daylight, and cooler temperatures to contend with, the birds did not develop to such a large size. Gradually, they could be bred down to a size with a mature weight in the bantam fowl range. And while there is only so much that you can put into a smaller package, there are some practical roots that can be drawn upon and cultivated with many of these small birds.

There is a tremendous amount of eye appeal with many of the smaller birds, and they do a pretty good job of selling themselves when displayed to the public. A lot of poultry people producing on commercial levels keep one or another of the bantam or miniature breeds for the challenge of producing something elite in type and appearance. The little birds were never kept in huge flocks, but a new role may be emerging for some producers of the more productive lines in modest numbers. The backyard chicken people have a very real need for producers of quality stock—
particularly started birds in which the sexes can be clearly and easily
discerned. Such birds will have substantially greater value than hatchery-run, as-hatched bantam chicks if they can be marketed into areas where there is a demand for them.

Such folks need not just good birds in small numbers but also much in the way of support and information as to how to care for their birds. If they can find people who can answer their questions and provide them with good birds, they will then continue to patronize them. And savvy producers are beginning to market what they know, first in the price of their birds and then in what they can provide in the way of follow-up sales and support. There are chicken varieties that push the production envelope in many different ways and are deserving of consideration by at least modest numbers of producers seeking something beyond the basic egg or broiler. None will, I believe, be growable to major proportions, but they are becoming more identifiable in the marketplace.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book Beyond the Chicken by Kelly Klober. Learn more or buy this book at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

About Kelly Klober

Kelly Klober
Kelly Klober

Kelly Klober was raised on a small, mixed-livestock farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species—including a range of poultry species. His grandparents, real country folk, raised White “English” Leghorns and sold three hundred dozen farm-fresh eggs along their weekly egg route in St. Louis County, Missouri. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a state farmer degree from the Missouri FFA and has long been involved in 4-H Clubs in a leadership role. Klober is the author of hundreds of articles and multiple books on small-scale farming, including Talking Chicken and Dirt Hog. Klober and his wife continue to farm about 20 miles east from where Klober was raised, with much love and attention to their heritage poultry flock.

Chicken Breed Selection

By Kelly Klober

Chicken breed selection can be a confusing prospect for the modern small farm laying flock. Sex-link birds will give you a great many light brown-shelled eggs of fair size right now, but they won’t build a sustainable and enduring flock.

Small producers often need to do a better job of presenting their eggs for sale. Even if a flock is made up of all heirloom breeds, a badly mixed-up flock will not produce uniform eggs for sale, produce predictable replacements or foster a positive image. A friend says such flocks look like “grandma’s chicken yard.”

An egg is an egg once the shell is removed and no one will prosper by fostering and spreading old wives’ tales and misinformation. The white-shelled egg deserves the small-scale producer’s consideration every bit as much as the brown-shelled variety.

A good laying flock with a purebred basis is a long-term pursuit. Don’t take up heirloom birds on a whim and then neglect or let them go after a season or two. Such birds seldom make it to another set of caring hands with any sort  of commitment to their preservation as  a breed.

Heirloom breed producers can and should function in a number of different roles. Yet, even with a single focus, be it meat, eggs or seedstock, each flock and producer will have its own unique nature. A part of the task is to know your breed or breeds fully and even more so the birds that make up the actual flocks. A White Wyandotte and Rosecomb White Leghorn have a great many similarities, but all must admit that they were bred and refined for two rather different tasks in life. If you have a good market for light brown eggs in fair numbers and some demand for broilers or roasters, then the White Wyandotte should be your choice of the two breeds. While Leghorn cockerels were my grandmother’s favorite choice of young birds to fry in her day, the Leghorn must be your breed of choice for eggs in greater numbers.

There is a term some hatcheries use when attempting to market birds to small holders. They have chosen to promote certain breeds a “dual-purpose” fowl. It is a term most heirloom breeders have chosen not to use.

Locate the purest possible sources of a breed’s genetics. The longer a particular flock’s history is, the better.

No breed can lay like a Leghorn and yield poultry meat like a large Rock or Wyandotte. The four breeds most touted now as “dual-purpose” are the Barred and White Rocks, Single Comb Rhode Island Reds and the New Hampshire Red. They are all good breeds and  each was developed for a rather specific farm environment and performance role. Possibly the White and Barred Rocks hew as closely as any to a general-purpose role, although one does dress cleaner than the other. The Barred Rocks of my youth were splendid birds with sparkling barred patterning and clear and vivid yellow feet and  legs. I  haven’t seen their like in a great many years, and I know many who are searching widely for them.

With some breeds such as the Barred Rock you will find producers maintaining separate flocks to produce male and female offspring. While these are now primarily exhibition breeders this is a practice with some long roots.

This is not the way to build and sustain a working fowl breed. The exhibition hall always has and always will have an important role to play with purebred poultry, but the farm flock must hew to certain constraints to assure its survival in simple facilities and under manage- ment for optimal returns. Genotype and phenotype should always be reflective of each other and pursuing too exacting a goal for a single trait like color or pattern can adversely impact other, economically important traits.

On the subject of seedstock production the difference between “breeders,” “propagators/multipliers” and “commercial” producers should be noted here.

At one time the livestock community was well and fairly illustrated with a pyramid-shaped structure. At the very top, representing no more than three to five percent of the total number of producers were  the “breeder/definers.” They  were an elite of sorts that placed their emphasis on shaping and defining breeds and type trends. Below them in the structure was a bit larger group, the “propagators/multipliers” that took what those above had produced, propagated it in goodly numbers, and then offered it to the large base group of commercial producers.

These groups often blurred together a bit, and over time the concept of such structuring has faded a bit. I believe it still has great validity in that it should give us all pause as to what role we actually wish to undertake.

Due to the presence of hatcheries and show breeders, the structure within poultry production is a bit more complex, and roles now conceded to hatcheries were once held by some quite large purebred operations. Also present in the poultry community are a group of people termed “string men.” These folks may be breeders of some varieties, keepers of others, and dealers in some birds. In an earlier day some string men would hit the show circuit with “strings” of several hundred birds, some homebred and some bought, and they would fill many classes at state fairs and other poultry shows.

They would buy and sell as they went. A most important role that they continue to play is as a source of seedstock and the ability to advise where certain birds might be found. They aren’t exactly “chicken  traders,” but even those souls have a role to play. String men often remove surplus and older birds from the scene, may be a channel to the ethnic trade, and I have bought a fair number  of really good birds from these people over the years.

Step one in making your start with rare and heritage breeds is to clearly define to yourself and to others (primarily your potential customers) just what you are intent upon doing with their help.

What has to happen now for these rare and heritage birds to survive in a meaningful way is to have a group of real, visionary poultry producers gather around them. Not merely handfuls of chickenkeepers but serious producers who will care about genetic purity and type. But they must not produce solely for the dictates of the showroom. These producers  must  respect  the  birds’  history, but be committed to building upon rather than trying to seek control over it. They must recognize that it is not rarity, novelty or even a purple-ribboned grandpa that gives a bird real, long-term value.

Chicken Breed Preservation & Flock Building

While certainly neither commandments nor dictates, the following are some thoughts to help frame a mindset that should be helpful in your efforts at breed preservation and flock building:

  • At this point in time many of these rare and heritage breeds and varieties exist in quite small numbers and often, in quite an imperfect Thus, the first birds acquired may come with a fair set of flaws to be overcome.
  • Some populations are in various states of restoration and may not be exactly 100 percent pure in their breeding. This is not a sin but something that needs to be known and fully disclosed. A full outcross to a completely different breed followed by eight matings back to a pure one will result in pure status again in the offspring.
  • Note that some populations today may not be where they were left 50 to 70 years ago, but may have even regressed further back from there.
  • Some of the very closely bred groups will need special care to overcome a lack of vigor, low libido, low egg output and other reduced performance factors.
  • Try to pick breeds and varieties with your own skill level in mind. Even some fairly common varieties can be a breeding challenge. For example, the Rhode Island Red is readily conceded to be one of the most difficult  breeds  to  breed  true to type and with the correct depth of color. More breeders are needed for Black Wyandottes and White Dorkings, too. As your skills develop then go looking for challenges.

Having lots of birds and lots of breeds won’t make for a better breeder. Some of the very best work takes a lifetime with just one breed or a variety within a breed.

There are hundreds of chicken breeds and varieties that can be termed heirloom or heritage. There is no one “best” among them.

Faverolles or Orloffs can be that choice if you accept their complexities of type and color and potential performance limits. Few, if any, will look like the pictures in the catalogs, but remember — they are just the beginning point. In the mid-60s I saw boxes of 25 baby chicks sent off at consignment auc- tions to sell for whatever they brought, sometimes for as little as 25 cents a box. In the mid-70s that same quarter would buy an adult bird at our local sale barn. By the mid-80s many felt that the chicken had gone away forever, walled away inside high-volume confinement units.

About that time though, chickens were again taken up anew by the back-to-the-land movement of the moment. There were but a handful of breeds to be easily had from a small number of hatcheries and a great many of them didn’t look at all like the catalog pictures when you got them home.

Two-dollar-a-pound range  broilers and $3 a dozen brown eggs got a whole lot of people thinking about chickens again. Those prices were to be had largely near major cities and such demand has probably reached a plateau somewhat of late. At the peak of such demand I had an Old Order Amish friend growing out and selling as many as 10,000 broiler chicks each year. His sales grew through naught but word-of-mouth. He ultimately changed course because the business actually grew to challenge his Amish way of life.

Will we be selling $1, $2 or even $5 a dozen eggs 10 years from now? I cannot say, but it would be wrong to get involved with these birds solely because of reports of relatively high-dollar selling prices.

I am sure that if growth continues at any level near current trends we will see as many or more $50 breeding birds sold as we see right now. It will not be because of their scarcity, however, but because of their quality breeding and the improved performance that they can bring to other flocks.

Tips to Secure Quality Heritage Birds

The following are some tips to help with the search for a quality supplier of rare heritage breeds:

  • Locate the purest possible sources of a breed’s genetics. The longer a particular flock’s history is, the better. A few may even have vestiges of a performance background to share with buyers.
  • Become a student of the breed, its history, and the practical uses for which it was initially developed.
  • Acquire the best possible genetic pieces with an eye for their vigor, growth in keeping with breed standards and fertility.
  • Begin breeding toward their traditional type and role. Cull ruthlessly while doing so.

I have recently seen Exchequer Leghorns, exotic-colored Wyandottes, Delawares, and Javas offered by even some of the smallest commercial hatcheries. Some of these might be doing a quite serviceable job with one or another of these breeds, but I have heard some horror stories about what was supposed to be in a chick box in no way matching what actually arrived. And some of those boxes come from individuals, not just hatcheries. My take on things right now is buyer be careful; be very, very careful.

Breed selection must be a very careful, well thought out and executed action. I know the temptation is always present when opening a catalog or brochure to say “I want three of these, two of those, and a couple of the black ones on the next page,” but that works only if you’re stocking a chicken zoo and not building poultry flocks.

Which choice of breed is certainly the question most asked at farm shows, bird meets and markets, and wherever those interested in poultrykeeping are apt to meet. Breed choice could lead to the work of a lifetime — so it remains a very personal, very important long-range commitment.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors . . . Naturally and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A.

This article was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Poultry Breed Classes

By Kelly Klober

Editor’s note: For a complete list of all reported large fowl breeds and varieties, see pages 367 to 376 of Kelly Klober’s Talking Chicken.

Long before the acquisition of even a single bird, flock creation begins with a number of preliminary steps. Each is designed to prepare the producer and his or her facilities for the selection and rearing processes. The first task is, simply, assembling as much information as possible about the breed or breeds of choice and then researching available sources. The American Poultry Association and various breed groups have done quite a good job of documenting the breeds and varieties they sanction or represent.

Large Breed Classification

(as identified by the American Poultry Association)

American Class — Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds & Whites, New Hampshires, Jersey Giants, Dominiques, Wyandottes, Javas, Buckeyes, Chanteclers, Lamonas, Hollands, and Delawares.

Asiatic Class — Brahmas, Cochins, and Lanqshans.

English Class — Dorkings, Red Caps, Cornish, Orpingtons, Sussex, and Australorps.

Mediterranean Class — Leghorns, Minorcas, Spanish, Andalusians, Anconas, Catalanas, and Sicilian Buffercups.

Continental Class — Hamburgs, Campines, Lakenvelders, Barnevelders, Welsummers, Bearded & Non Bearded Polish, Houdans, Faverollis, Crevecoeurs, and La Fleche.

Other Standard Breeds — Modern Game, Old English Games, Sumatras, Malays, Cubalayas, Phoenix, Yokohamas, Aseels, Shomos, Sultans, Frizzles, Naked Necks, Araucanas, and Ameraucanas.

pullet and cockerel dominique
A Dominique pullet and cockerel

Bantams Classification

Single Comb Clean Legged — Anconas, Andalusians, Australorps, Campines, Catalanas, Delawares, Dorkings, Dutch, Frizzles, Hollands, Japanese, Javas, Jersey Giants, Lakenvelders, Lamonas, Leghorns, Monorcas, Naked Necks, New Hampshires, Orpingtons, Phoenix, Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Spanish, and Sussex.

Rosecomb Clean Legged — Anconas, Antwerp Belgians (d’Anvers), Dominiques, Dorkings, Hamburgs, Leghorns, Minorcas, Redcaps, Rhode Island Reds, Rhode Island Whites, Sebrights, and Wyandottes.

All other Clean Legged — Ameraucana, Araucana, Buckeye, Chanteclers, Cornish, Crevecoeurs, Cubalayas, Houdans, La Fleche, Malays, Polish, Shamos, Sicilian Buttercups, Sumatras, and Yokohamas.

Feather Legged — Booted, Brahmas, Cochins, d’Uccle Faveroles, Frizzles, Langshans, Silkies, and Sultans.

Ameraucana cock
A silver Ameraucana cockerel

Poultry Feather Coloration Descriptions

Barred — white feathering with black or a very dark color as “bars”.

Birchen — Silver to white head, white neck and upper breast with a slender black stripe down the middle transitioning to black. Lower body black.

Columbian — white or silver white body with some black feathers with white lacing on the hackle and tail.

Crele — Males have pale straw colored feathers barred orange red and grayish white. Females have pale gold feathers with grayish brown barring. Rest of the body is dark gray with some barring.

Cuckoo — Bluish white feathers with irregular light and dark bars.

Exchequer — white and black colors mostly evenly distributed.

Henny — males lacking sickle feathers that look similar to females.

Laced (single or double) — single ring color around the outer edge of the feather with a different color filling the interior. Double has two rows of a color with another between.

Mille-Fleur (Millies) — A French word meaning a thousand flowers, a background made up of many small flowers or plants. In poultry, the background color is usually mahogany or orange with white or greenish black accents.

Mottled (Splash) — black with white v-shaped splashes on every two up to every five feathers.

Penciled — narrow bands of a different color across the width of the feather.

Porcelain — a background color of straw with blue barring with a white spangle highlights.

Pyle — Solid colors of orange, gold, salmon, white and red shading.

Spangled — silver color with sharply contrasting black at the end of each feather.

barred hens
Barred Plymouth Rock hens. Photo courtesy of Steph Merkle

Critical And Threatened Breeds

(as listed in the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Priority Watch List)

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy issues an undated Priority Watch List for large fowl breeds in the United States. This list includes breeds that have had an established and continuously breeding population in the United States since 1925 or have been imported or developed since that year. The breed must also be currently held by at least five different breeders in different locations throughout the nation.

Critical breeds are globally threatened and exist in the United States in known populations of five hundred or fewer birds. Five or fewer primary breeding flocks of fifty or more birds are known to exist in the country.

Critical — Andalusian, Aseel, Buckeye, Buttercup, Campine, Catalana, Chantecler, Crevecouer, Delaware, Faverolle, Holland, Houdan, La Fleche, Malay, Redcap, Spanish, Nankin, Russian Orloff, and Sumatra.

pullet and cockerel
A Delaware cockerel and pullet

Threatened breeds are also globally at peril and exist in America in a known population of one thousand breeding birds are less. They are being held in no more than ten primary breeding flocks of fifty birds or more.

Threatened — Ancona, Cubalaya, Dorking, Java, Lakenvelder, Langshan, and Sussex.

ancona chickens
An Ancona cockerel and hens

Birds in the “Watch” grouping have rather limited geographic distribution and have a breeding population of five thousand or fewer birds in this county. They are backed by ten or fewer primary breeding flocks.

Watch — Brahma, Cochin, Cornish (non-industrial), Dominique, Hamburg, Jersey Giant, Minorca, New Hampshire, Polish, and Rhode Island White.

brahma chickens
A Brahma cockerel and hens

Recovering breeds have exceeded the numbers for inclusion in the Watch category, but still merit close monitoring and increased support.

Recovering — Australorp, Leghorn (non-industrial), Orpington, Plymouth Rock (non-industrial), Rhode Island Red, and Wyandotte.

wyandotte hen
A Wyandotte hen

Abroad there are available even more varieties of some of these breeds. Outside of North America some of these breeds may even be known by different names. In England the Cornish is called the Jubilee and is bred in a near score of colors and patterns. I have recently seen photos of Wyandottes in a great many more colors and patterns than we have here including one or two with blue points and a Buff Columbian variety. A Partridge Wyandotte variety is even beginning to be seen here now.

Source: Talking Chicken

Learn more about heritage breed chickens.

Learn about the best breeds for producing brown eggs.

Learn about the best breeds for producing white eggs.

Learn about the best breeds for brooding.

Chicken Breeds for Producing White Eggs

By Kelly Klober

For most Americans the white-shelled egg is their traditional egg. It is virtually the only kind of egg that has been available in the retail trade for at least the last three generations of consumers. The white-shelled egg is nutritionally the same as the brown-shelled version and everything done to add value to the brown-shelled egg can be done with the white-shelled one, too.

The white-shelled eggs can be produced organically, cage free, and on range. With the breeds as they are currently available, it may actually be possible to produce more large and extra-large eggs from the white egg layers than the brown. The large, chalk white egg was the business card of the Leghorn breed and has been one of its selling points for decades.

At this time, I would not include the White Leghorn on a list of recommended heritage white egg layers. With only a handful of exceptions, the presently available laying lines have been bred for generations for a life in cages. I can’t recommend this breed at present, even though this is the bird that shaped and defined modern poultry production. The thinking and planning behind this breeds early development went on to shape the management and care given to a great many other livestock species. But the role of trailbreaker has not been very kind to the White Leghorn breed.

My list would, though, include the Light Brown Leghorn, Ancona, Black Minorca, Buff Minorca, and then a possible selection from among one of the many colored Leghorn varieties.

The Light Brown Leghorn

Light Brown Leghorns bred exclusively for exhibition will have sacrificed at least some productivity for the sake of size and intensity of color. The producer seeking to build a flock with this breed may have to shop widely and trial a number of lines to find the one that best fits his or her needs or they may have to build by combining birds from two or more different lines.

With the single comb Leghorns come concerns for comb and wattle damage in cold weather. Such injury is very seldom fatal, but it can disfigure birds and leave them infertile during the early part of the breeding season. Until the freeze damage heals, the bird may run a low-grade fever and the elevated body temperatures often kill sperm. To maintain good breed character you must select for a well-formed comb of good size in both males and females. Some old hands believe that a wide, well developed base to the single comb can better sustain the comb in very cold weather.

Exchequer hen

The Exchequer was sometimes called the “Scottish Leghorn” and was known as perhaps the largest of the Leghorn varieties. They have become more common in recent days, but color and size could be better and there is some real concern with leg color with this variety. Others exist in perhaps even smaller numbers and even mere mention of Black Tailed Red birds has been known to spark some real debate in some circles. I have owned Dark Brown, Buff and Black Leghorn birds in the Single Comb variety and would like to have seen them all a bit bigger, but none lay on a par with the White and Light Brown varieties. Still, I think that all of the colors and patterns present in this breed offer elements of challenge and distinctiveness that should have more producers taking them up. They are birds that could do much to give white-shelled eggs a bit more pizzazz and an added hook with consumers.

The Black Minorca

The Black Minorca is perhaps the largest of the readily available white egg breeds and is certainly the largest of the Minorcas. This is a bird most striking in appearance and has been a favorite with both backyard breeders and exhibition breeders. It too is bred in both the single and rose comb types.

With the Black Minorca, bird size and egg productivity must be kept in balance while building a flock true to the breed and its history of productivity. Producers should select birds not just for height, but real substance throughout the body. These birds are showy, but not avian wimps and some veteran showmen raise them using techniques that were once common in developing birds for the pit including penning males in individual, all-wire cages to develop.

The Minorca is also bred in buff and white varieties with the Buff Single Comb being the most commonly found after the black variety. The White Minorca is very rare. The buff variety will be smaller than the Black and a bit finer made as well.

The challenge with the Minorcas will be to find good birds with which to build a line. Good Buff Minorcas will have a strong undercolor right down to the skin and I have been a part of discussions on this color that have literally gone on for an hour or more as producers share their thoughts on how to manage this color.

The Ancona

ancona chickens
Ancona rooster and hens

The Ancona is a mottled, largely black with white tipping evenly distributed on the feathers that is also bred in single and rosecomb varieties. The rosecomb variety is not widely available. However there have been some small size issues with this breed. This was once a good sized, hard ranging breed that would forage well and had the mottled camouflage needed for additional predator protection.

Ancona have a reputation for producing proportionally large, chalk white eggs in relation to hen size, but this breed has languished for a great many years. I acquired a few not long ago and while the single comb gene pool for this breed is of some size — the birds had size, coloring and laying issues. Flock builders need to do some basic selection for size and vigor, beginning from the instant the chicks are removed from the hatcher tray.

Other Breeds

There are a number of other white egg producers including the Buttercups, Campines, Catalanas, Egyptian Fayoumis, Hamburgs, Barred Hollands, La Fleche, Lakenvelders, Redcaps, Norwegian Jaerhons, Appenzeller Spitzhaubens, and White Faced Black Spanish.

The Barred Holland were developed to be both a good layer of white eggs and to be a bird of some size. The Fayoumis may be the youngest to lay of all of the purebreds, although they produce rather small eggs throughout the whole of their lives. The Hamburgs were once termed “everyday layers” although they, too, produce a smaller egg. In Europe there has been some interest in the marketing of a smaller egg and there might be some market for it here in the United States among consumers concerned with portion control for health or diet reasons.

Source: Talking Chicken

Chicken Breeds for Producing Brown Eggs

By Kelly Klober

For large brown egg production, my list of breeds and varieties would have to include; White Plymouth Rocks, Black Australorps, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Single Comb Rhode Island Whites, Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, Welsummers, and Buff Orpingtons. Not every line within each of these breeds will suit the modern brown egg producer and you might have to work through several lines to find the one that actually works on your farm or in your poultry yard. You may even have to begin with but a few good specimens and launch a breeding up program.

About the White-Feathered Breeds

While many consider them just a tad too “plain vanilla,” I have always been most partial to the white-feathered chicken breeds. The White Leghorn, White Plymouth Rock, and White Wyandotte formed an economic troika that drove much of the development of modern poultry production.

Some may question just how many white-feathered chicken breeds are actually needed — most of them produced their bonafides back when the modest sized, working flock was the economic backbone of a great many American small farms and the families they supported. The Rosecomb Rhode Island White, the breed variety currently sanctioned by the American Poultry Association would be a good choice for those needing a moderate egg layer to produce in cold and harsh climates. The Single Comb variety was discussed in some detail previously and is a most utilitarian layer.

White Plymouth Rocks

A White Plymouth Rock Hen
A White Plymouth Rock Hen

White Plymouth Rock genetics remain perhaps the most accessible of all purebred poultry genetics, but time will still be needed to find the best fit for a particular farm. Breeding flocks and hatcheries based in northern climes sometimes offer more hardy birds due to the environments they face there. Smaller hatcheries with modest breed lists are good sources as they often offer top breeding from owned and controlled flocks of just those few breeds.

Barred Plymouth Rocks

barred hen
A Barred Plymouth Rock hen. Photo credit: Steph Merkle

The Barred Plymouth Rock was an avian first love of mine and the quest for the clean, bright barred and clean yellow shanked and beaked birds I remember from my youth continues for many of my generation. The Barred Rock — not Dominecker — is a farm fowl deluxe from well back in the nineteenth century.

The Barred was the Rock breed for a great many people. Some truly legendary Barred Plymouth Rock flocks were developed and maintained well into the latter half of the twentieth century. They were a plain, tough chicken (in the good sense) and the breed has produced some of the most durable hens that I have ever seen. The vigor is still largely there and while some hatcheries are promoting their Barred Rocks on past glories, this breed has much to offer to those willing to put the time into them.

Black Australorps

Black Australorp
A Black Australorp Hen

The Black Australorp was a bird selectively bred out of the Black Orpington breed specifically for exceptional egg laying performance. They were developed in Australia and hence the name Australorp. Many old timers believe that dark feathered, particularly black birds, will fare better and produce more than the lighter colored breeds in cold weather.

Be very mindful of size and type potential for egg laying when selecting Black Australorps. They aren’t giants and taking them to excessively large size can be at odds with their role as egg producers. Good, black feathered birds have an appeal all of their own and this is one breed that also fits quite nicely in the multiuse category.

Rhode Island Reds and Others

The Rhode Island Red and the New Hampshire are the classic, American red hen breeds although they do vary markedly in shading and color intensity. The Rhode Island Red came first in development and the New Hampshire then came about due to a desire for a red feathered bird with a bit more size for meat production and a durable nature to suit the family farms of that rugged New England state. The Rhode Island Reds by far have the broader gene pool, but neither should be confused with the hybridized “Production” or “Performance Reds.”

Two Rhode Island Red hens

A great deal has already been said here about the Buff Orpington, but for many, the Welsummer is a new name, although it is a quite venerable breed with some deep roots here and even more so abroad. The Welsummer is rather similar to the Light Brown Leghorn in coloring although with perhaps a bit more of a golden cast to the lighter colored areas. Some have encountered size issues with certain lines within the breed and for the past few years these birds have ridden along primarily on the demand for birds capable of laying distinctly colored eggs.

wellsummer hen
A Wellsummer hen

They need to be continuously selectively bred for the darkest eggshell color possible and this certainly is a factor in their choice and propagation. However, this is not a factor that should prove detrimental in developing good, egg-laying flocks of this breed. Fortunately, many egg laying traits have a very high degree of genetic inheritability and by acquiring good foundation stock, selecting for size and vigor, and keeping replacement males from only the largest, most well shaped, and darkest brown egg produced flock, building this still relatively rare breed can continue apace.

All large chicken breeds, of course, lay eggs and differences in performance among birds and lines within a breed can often be even greater than the laying performance between some breeds. A line of Black Cochins, a breed not noted for its laying ability, could be developed that lays modestly well or even much above average for the breed. It will take much time and perhaps several false starts but it is possible. This line, however, could never be expected to lay as well as birds of even median performance for a breed like the White Leghorn or even some lines of White Rock.

A good producing, well-documented laying line of Cochins (of any of the very large breeds actually), of any color would have substantial value as long as they were of a good breed type. To a few this would be a challenge well worth undertaking, but for most, if the need is for brown eggs in goodly numbers then it is best to begin with a breed already proven and strong in that area.

Sex-Link Varieties

Many who are now producing brown table eggs are doing so with one of the sex-link varieties with names like Comets or Cinnamon Queens. These are crossbreds and the crosses are made to produce baby chicks that can be sexed on sight at the time of hatching. Their strengths as egg layers come not from the cross, but the merits of their purebred parents. Heritage breeds may have been used in making these sex-linked crosses, but the birds cannot be considered as heritage material as they will not reproduce in kind.

Sex-link birds are a shortcut taken for economic ends and the crosses that produce them will never be exactly repeated. Many producers, who year-after-year purchase the same sex-link cross from the same hatchery, will undoubtedly relate how each new flock performs so differently from the others before. They are often rather high strung birds, have limited salvage value, and often produce eggs excessively large for their reduced body size. Many report losing large numbers of these birds to simple prolapse as they begin to lay.

Those needing the greatest number of eggs possible from a modest size area or to produce the most feed efficient egg-laying birds will best be served by the selection of birds from one of the white egg-laying breeds. This is the role for which they were developed and at which they excel!

Source: Talking Chicken

Heritage Breed Chickens

By Kelly Klober

Finding the Best Fit for Your Farm

There are numerous breeds of chickens available to the modern day homestead. Of course what you ultimately choose will depend on many different factors! It seems a simple thing, to choose a chicken breed to raise but there is so much difference in breeds, quality, purpose, and location that it is not as cut and dried as it would seem. Within the various breeds are areas like egg production, egg color, temperament, meat production, broodiness, and survival skills in various situations, as well as personal preference for a certain coloring or pattern. So, then, the first thing is to identify why you are buying the poultry in the first place. Will you use them primarily as bug control, egg production, meat, or show? Do you want chickens that are more aggressive, say, if a coyote comes into the yard? Or, would you prefer a breed that is more gentle around children and needs more protection?

Does the look of the chicken make a difference to you? Do you have a lot of hawks? Traditional white chickens will get picked off much quicker by a hawk than will a dark patterned bird. Docile hens, like Buff Orpington, will cower down when a predator stalks them rather than try to seek shelter. A more aggressive breed, like a Dutch, might fare better with a dog but also chase your children pecking at their legs!

femail buff orpington

What is a “Heritage Breed”?

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy recently sought to set down a most exacting definition for “heritage” breed chickens. By their definition a “heritage chicken” is one “hatched from a heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated and with a long productive outdoor life.”

A “heritage egg” can then only be produced from one of the pure breeds meeting the above definition.

There is much merit in this definition although it does not include breeds like the Maran that meet the timeline and are recognized by poultry groups abroad, but not currently by the American Poultry Association (APA). Nor a breed like the Ameraucauna that did not receive its APA sanction until the 1970s. It may also raise questions about new colors or patterns to be added to existing breeds.

Ameraucauna hens

The American Poultry Association itself has very exacting criteria for recognizing new colors and varieties of large fowl breeds. And a part of poultry breed preservation work is restoring old colors, patterns, and breeds that have fallen by the way. I do feel confident that should any issues arise along these lines they will be resolved for the good of the breeds in question.

Two points in the extended definition that I view as very important are that the breeds must be “reproduced and genetically maintained” through natural mating and to reach a market weight at no less than 16 weeks of age. The natural matings must include both parent and grandparental generations, thus enforcing the value and predictability of purebred matings.

broiler hen
A Broiler chicken

There are many classic crossbreds that were developed from matings of purebred heritage birds and that were used widely on American farms. They were the product of fairly simple first generation crosses and easily repeatable in the countryside. The Indian River cross, made with the Delaware and New Hampshire breeds, pioneered the modern broiler trade.

The slow growth rate guideline recognizes not any particular shortcoming of the “heritage” breeds, but rather a long established truth that today’s “fast broilers” do not look, cook or taste like the meat birds of an earlier day.
The 16 weeks of growth assure adequate frame growth, the time to allow a natural pattern of muscle development, the size and age to range and forage more efficiently, and these few extra weeks produce poultry meat of better flavor and texture. Whether New Hampshire, Delaware, Rock or Wyandotte, purebred birds can fairly and efficiently compete with non-purebreds under these parameters.

Heritage Breeds Are Dual-Purpose Breeds

Birds that are good egg layers are often not good meat producers! However, heritage breeds are not genetically engineered to be specialized and so lay eggs as well are produce tender, delicious meat.

Leghorns are kept for egg production. They lay white eggs. They are able to forage for themselves and so are good for free range situations, although they do not go broody as well as some of the other breeds. Basically this means that they are not good about hatching their eggs if you want to raise chicks on your homestead. They also don’t produce a lot of meat.

Plymouth Rock is a heritage breed. As with most heritage breeds you will find that it is multipurpose. It is a good egg layer, a good brood hen, and produces a fair amount of meat. It is a docile breed.

Bantams lay tiny eggs that are the delight of my smaller children. Two of these minuscule eggs fried and on a plate with a toast triangle is a magical breakfast. The eggs are often colorful pastels. These birds are small and make good pets or show birds for children.

Holland is another breed on the critical list. This is currently one of the rarest of the heritage breeds and one of the few that lays white eggs.

Rhode Island Red is another heritage breed that is dual purpose and lays abundant numbers of eggs and is probably one of the best dual purpose breeds for a small homestead.

Wyandottes are not particularly rare, however they are a heritage breed. I add these because the last chickens we raised (we now have Barred Rocks) were Golden Laced Wyandottes and they were beautiful!

Young Delaware Pullet

Delawares are excellent egg layers, a good dual-purpose breed. They are listed as critical on the American Livestock Conservancy list.

There is, of course, nothing in the world like the taste of your own farm fresh, organic eggs and meat. Chickens are an easy way to begin food production on the homestead and work a little closer to self-sufficiency. Be sure, when you are ordering your chicks, to have the vaccinated and then use nonmedicated feed. In this way you will not have to worry about residual medications in the eggs or meat. It is very relaxing to sit and watch chickens and for me, they are what puts the home in homestead!

Source: Talking Chicken