1. What kind of chicken should I buy?Chickens are divided into two groups: standard breeds, which you could enter in a poultry show, and utility breeds, which are kept for practical purposes. The two groups have become almost entirely separate. If you wish to make money from your poultry, you should stick to utility breeds. If you wish to enter your poultry in poultry show, you must stick to standard breeds. If you don't fall into either category, you can do as you like.
When in doubt, buy a utility strain of Barred Rocks. For generations, Barred Rocks were the most popular farm bird in the U.S., combining a calm disposition, attractive coloration, high production of brown eggs, and good meat qualities. (If you aren't in the U.S., the old-time production breed of your area might work better: Black Australorps if you are in Australia, Buff Orpingtons in Britain, etc.) If you don't want Barred Rocks, other birds with similar characteristics are Rock of other colors (White Rocks, Buff Rocks, etc.), Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, and the hybrids called Black Sex-Links. Barred Rock roosters have a reputation for viciousness, though.
If you are raising broilers commercially, you should use commercial hybrid broilers unless you have a specific reason not to. They grow faster than other breeds and provide the kind of broiler carcass that customers are used to.
2. Should I have a rooster?Some roosters are aggressive and attack strangers or children without provocation. If you're the sort of person who will side with the rooster after it attacks a small child, you're not qualified to keep a rooster.
Hens will lay the same number of eggs whether there is a rooster in the flock or not. Roosters serve no practical purpose unless you are going to hatch eggs. Realistically, though, you are going to get roosters whether you want them or not, even if you order only female chicks. The hatcheries only guarantee 90% sexing accuracy, and you can pretty much count on having unwanted male chicks in every order.
3. What are pullets? Cockerels? Straight-run chicks? Cornish Cross chicks?Pullets are young female chickens. When they're older, they're called hens. Cockerels are young male chicks who eventually become roosters. Straight-run chicks are chicks that are not sorted by sex. An order of straight-run chicks probably contains about half pullets and half cockerels. Cornish Cross or Rock-Cornish chicks are hybrid meat chickens, which are only distantly related to the Barred Rock or the White Cornish breeds originally used to create broad-breasted meat chickens.
4. Should I buy straight-run chicks?Probably not, unless you're buying Cornish Cross broiler chicks, in which case you won't have any choice (you get straight-run chicks whether you want them or not). The reason you don't want straight-run is shown by this example: If you eat a dozen eggs a week and one chicken a week, you're consuming the eggs produced by 2-3 hens but the meat of 52 broilers. If you buy straight-run chicks, you'll get about half males and half females, both from the same breed. If you want to raise both eggs and meat chickens, you'd be better off ordering a small number of egg-type pullet chicks and a large number of either dual-purpose cockerels or Cornish Cross broiler chicks.
5. Should I raise Cornish Cross or dual-purpose chicks for meat?Cornish Cross chicks grow very quickly but lack energy and personality. They'll eat sitting down if they can. They also tend to have health problems related to fast growth, especially if you keep them past eight weeks. But you can easily raise a six-pound bird in eight weeks. A dual-purpose chick will weigh, at best, only half as much at the same age (both are live weights). Most dual-purpose birds will never weigh more than six pounds no matter how long you keep them.
Cornish cross birds are broad-breasted while practically all other breeds are narrow-breasted, with a jutting keel bone. When plucked, a dual-purpose chicken looks just like a rubber chicken, which many people find unattractive. On the other hand, many people dislike raising Cornish Cross chickens.
Most hatcheries offer “red broilers” and “black broilers” which are compromises between Cornish Cross broilers and dual-purpose birds. Privett Hatchery has a slow-growing white broiler that can be treated just like a dual-purpose chicken.
So-called "meat breeds" like the Cochin and Brahma are not meat birds at all. They're show breeds, pure and simple.
6. What about commercial hybrid layers?The commercial hybrid birds vary quite a bit. Most of the breeds used by the commercial egg industry are quite small, but their eggs are full-sized. Many of the brown-egg strains are docile toward humans, but have a pronounced tendency toward feather-picking and cannibalism among themselves. Others have a tendency to lay enormous eggs as they get older, which is a nuisance if you want the eggs to fit into a carton.
Some commercial hybrids are more suited to farm use than others. I'm fond of the black sex-link, which is a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Barred Rock. They resemble a Barred Rock in size and temperament -- they're big but gentle.
As with other breeds, you should ask the hatchery to recommend a breed that is docile, non-cannibalistic, and highly productive.
7. What about Leghorns?White Leghorns are the mainstay of the U.S. egg industry. They are hardy, mature quickly, and lay enormous numbers of white eggs, but they are panicky. This makes them annoying to work with, as you end up doing everything in slow motion to avoid panicking the flock. This is less of a nuisance on free range, where they have room to run around squawking. In confinement you will literally have them bouncing off the walls.
The California Gray, available from Privett Hatchery and Hoover’s Hatchery, is a fascinating white-egg bird that is much more docile than the Leghorn. It is also auto-sexing, which means that you can tell the sex of a California Gray at any age, and non-cannibalistic. The California White is not quite as good, being a cross between a White Leghorn and a California Gray. It is flighty and panicky like a Leghorn, but it lays better than the Gray.
8. What about Araucanas/Americaunas/Easter Egg chickens/green-egg chickens?Some chickens lay blue or green eggs. Most of these birds are descended from a South American chicken, the Araucana, with various admixtures of other breeds. The Ameraucana is a recognized show breed. Most hatcheries sell something else, “Easter Egg chickens.” These don't meet the show standard and you will probably find that not all of the hens lay blue or green eggs.
9. How do I learn about breeding chickens?You're in luck. The best book on chicken breeding is F. B. Hutt's Genetics of the Fowl. This book has been out of print for decades. Because it is prized by breeders, it took patient searching and over $100 to buy a copy. I have brought it back into print, under my Norton Creek Press label, so you can buy a copy whenever you like. Click here for more information.
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