The number of breeds available to the homesteader or chicken enthusiast can be astounding. Just flip through a hatchery catalog. Who would have thought there were so many different kinds of chickens?
To whittle down the options and select a breed or breeds you are going to be satisfied with, you need to have at least a general idea of what you expect from your flock. Here are some things to consider.
Why are you buying chickens? Do you want eggs, meat, pets, or maybe some of each? If eggs are your goal, you aren’t likely to be satisfied with ornamental breeds such as Cochins. If you are raising chickens primarily for meat, a flock of Leghorns may not be the best choice. If your chickens are mostly pets, appearance and personality are going to be key factors in your selection.
However, some breeds do fit fairly well into more than one category. These are the dual-purpose breeds, and if you’re just looking for an all-around good chicken, they can’t be beat. True, they’ll never become either egg-laying or meat-producing factories like some of the commercial breeds, but there’s a reason why early Americans kept mostly dual-purpose chickens, such as Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. They can perform well in either arena. Some dual-purpose breeds will also brood their own eggs, which may be a plus if you’d like to raise your own chicks.
But if you plan to specialize, you’ll need to know precisely what you want and then choose your breed accordingly. Light breeds, such as Leghorns, are generally better layers, and heavy breeds, such as Cornish crosses, are generally better meat birds.
Your chickens will be more likely to meet your expectations if you take climate into consideration. As a general rule, light breeds prefer warm temperatures, and heavy breeds prefer cool temperatures.
It can sometimes be difficult to decide how to choose breeds adapted to the climate of Kansas. The summers can be scorching, and the winters can be bitingly cold. How do you select a breed suitable for the climate of a state where variability is the norm?
Bear in mind that just about any breed can adapt to a wide variety of conditions if sheltered from the summer sun and winter winds. You will also need to provide your flock with plenty of cool water in hot weather, and plenty to eat in cold weather.
If these requirements are met, most breeds seem to be able to adapt readily to Kansas conditions, particularly the light breeds. Many heavy breeds will also do well, although some of the larger and more densely feathered chickens may have a hard time in the summer. Breeds with enormous combs will be prone to frostbite in the winter. A few breeds, such as Silkies, cannot tolerate any temperature extremes. Unless you are prepared to provide special housing that will meet their needs, it is best to avoid these altogether.
Temperament is generally more of a concern with roosters than with hens. Unfortunately, there seems to be no hard and fast rule to determine which breeds are docile and which breeds are aggressive when it comes to the males. Any rooster of any breed may attack if provoked, and no rooster can be completely trusted around very small children.
Hens are a little easier to predict. In general, light breeds tend to be flighty. It can be rather difficult to make friends with them, so they may not be the best choice if your hens are also your children’s companions. Heavy breeds are typically calm and docile…unless they go broody. Broody hens are often a little on the grumpy side.
Keep in mind, however, that there is more variation within breeds than between breeds when it comes to temperament. This applies to both roosters and hens. Roosters of docile breeds can be bad-tempered, and light-breed hens can be quite tame. Still, breeds have a way of earning their reputations for being calm, nervous, or aggressive, and you will do well to take this into consideration when making your choice. Just remember that every individual chicken will have its own personality.
A Few Final Thoughts
In the end, you must choose a breed that appeals strongly to you. It will have to meet your performance requirements, whatever they may be. If top-notch egg production is your goal, you will want to choose a laying breed, or you will not be satisfied. If meat is your aim, you will need to select a breed designed for that purpose. If you want both meat and eggs, you will probably be happier with a dual-purpose breed. If you just want a family flock for fun and maybe a little food into the bargain, aesthetic appeal is going to be a key factor.
Temperament and adaptation to climate aren’t really things you are going to know for sure until you try the breed. For that reason, be prepared to experiment a little. Buy more than one breed the first time around; a mixed flock is more interesting, anyway. Some hatcheries offer assortments of ornamentals, outstanding layers, crested breeds, dual-purpose hens, or just a little bit of everything. If you can’t decide, this may be the best way to get a feel for which breeds you prefer.
Our own online guide to chickens for all purposes, covering the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of each breed.
Handy way to sort through the options from Murray McMurray Hatchery. Choose the right breed for you based on size, egg production, meat production, and more.
Useful and very accurate comparison of key characteristics of a wide range of heritage chicken breeds, including purpose, temperament, recommended experience level, climate preference, and considerably more.