Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing instinct that propels a dog to herd sheep or cattle? The fact is, your furry assistant is a wolf in dog’s clothing. Herding is hunting—without the kill.Continue reading Teaching the Rules of the Hunt
Those who pursue a different path often meet with skepticism in our society. This is perhaps nowhere quite as true as in the area of agriculture.Continue reading The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
Due to its bulldoggish appearance, some fear that the Cornish was originally bred for the cruel sport of fighting. Thankfully, this is not the case. Although descended from fierce birds such as the Asil, the Malay, and the Old English Game Fowl, the Cornish was specifically produced for the tables of Cornwall during its earliest years, hence its squat, broad-breasted physique. During the 1840s, crossing local chickens with gamefowl was a common method of improving the vigor of the former in England.
From its humble beginnings as the Sunday supper of the Cornish mining folk, the Cornish soon spread across England. Subsequent crossbreeding to improve its table qualities involved Dorking, Orpington, and Light Sussex chickens.
By the 1880s, the Cornish was falling out of favor in Great Britain as a meat bird due to its yellow skin. About that time, however, it was introduced to North America, where it enjoyed a considerable degree of popularity.
The original Cornish was the handsome dark variety. Subsequent breeding produced the white-laced red for show and the white for fast-growing broiler production.
Ironically, the development of the growthy White Cornish dealt a severe blow to the breed as a whole, as it was this variety that eventually became the basis of the crossbred broiler industry, reducing the need and demand for pure Cornish chickens for meat. Today, there are relatively few Cornish chickens in the United States.
The Cornish can be divided into three distinct types these days, each with a slightly different genetic background:
- The commercial type, used for breeding crossbred broilers.
- The exhibition type, kept primarily for show.
- The traditional type, still raised as a home meat bird on some small farms and homesteads.
A commonly overlooked use of the Cornish hen is as a pet. These birds are surprisingly affectionate.
The Cornish hen is a delightful bird to have around due to her docility and friendliness. She is easy to tame and will amply reward any attention given to her. Cornish hens usually tend toward the bottom of the pecking order in mixed flocks.
The Cornish rooster is another story. He is rather aggressive and may not be suitable for families with small children.
Keep in mind that all Cornish chickens, male or female, are quite active and need plenty of space to move. This is not a breed that will be happy in confinement.
The Cornish does not do well during times of extreme heat or cold. Hot weather may prompt a heart attack, and the breed’s short, sparse feathering makes keeping warm a challenge in a cold wind. On the whole, however, the Cornish is better suited to cold than heat. Its tiny comb is almost impervious to frostbite. When provided with snug, draft-free housing, it should do well in all but the coldest temperatures.
Also keep in mind that Cornish chickens, due to their heftiness, are prone to reproductive difficulties and heart attacks. They generally have a short lifespan. Restricting their feed intake may help.
- Predator savvy.
- Good winter egg production.
- Large egg size.
- Firm eggshells.
- Large quantities of white meat.
- Excellent meat texture.
- Unsuitability for extreme climates.
- Hefty appetite.
- Slow maturity (especially compared to commercial broilers).
- Short lifespan.
- Inability to breed naturally unless kept on a lean diet.
- Low egg production overall.
- Poor success rate when brooding.
Those who are considering draft animals generally find themselves comparing oxen, horses, and mules. Donkeys do not receive nearly as much attention in the draft world, but that is not to say they can’t pull their own weight around the farm!
The donkey breed best suited to farm work is the American Mammoth Jackstock. Larger burros can do a surprising amount of draft work, as well.
- Low purchase cost. Donkeys are typically very inexpensive, sometimes even free. A trained team may be a little more expensive (when locally available), but not by all that much.
- Hardiness. While perhaps donkeys are not quite as hardy as mules, they are certainly extremely hardy. Parasites should not present any great difficulties, and neither should overeating. Hoof and leg problems are also rare in donkeys.
- Low feed costs. Donkeys can thrive with very little feed (probably less than any other draft animal). They require supplemental feed if working hard on a regular basis, but less than a draft horse would. If they work only sporadically, they may not require any feed at all. Either way, donkeys do not require the same level of pasture quality that horses do.
- Minimal hoof care. Out of all the draft animals, donkeys require the least attention to their hooves. As long as they have room to walk around and access to some rougher ground that will wear down their hooves a bit, they should not require trimming. But even if your circumstances make trimming a necessity, shoes are not necessary for donkeys.
- Simple harnesses. Draft harnesses for donkeys and burros are typically quite simple, involving little more than a padded collar. This reduces the amount of time spent getting the donkey ready for work and then maintaining the harness.
- Sure footing. Donkeys are well suited to working on uneven fields or smaller properties with hard-to-reach corners.
- Versatility. A male work donkey could potentially be kept for breeding mules, as well. As an additional bonus, donkeys make good guard animals for sheep and goats. Some bigger donkeys can be ridden, although there aren’t too many donkeys with the size and back strength for this purpose (another point in favor of the American Mammoth Jackstock).
- Small size. Most donkeys are too small for heavy draft work, and even a good-sized donkey cannot pull loads as heavy as an ox or mule can (although it might be able to outperform a horse of the same size). Nearly any donkey can pull a small cart loaded with firewood, but for heavier farm work you will want to consider a large donkey. You may also want to plan on two donkeys for every one horse that the job in question would require due to the donkey’s smaller size.
- Variable availability. While donkeys in general are rather common, draft donkeys are not. Your ability to find a sturdy draft donkey will depend on where you live.
- Independent nature. Donkeys can be difficult to train and work. They are more like cats than dogs when it comes to obedience, and they can be extremely wary, especially when young. Be prepared to earn their trust and to exercise a great deal of patience when dealing with potentially frightening situations. Also keep in mind that they will never allow themselves to be overworked or placed in danger. For most beginners, starting with a trained team is probably the best bet.
Donkeys are well suited to work on smaller farms. Even a miniature donkey can pull a small cart of vegetables or firewood. And donkeys also have the advantages of being versatile and quite economical to keep.
That said, most donkeys are not big or sturdy enough for heavier draft work. For this purpose, you will likely want an American Mammoth Jackstock, which may or may not be readily available in your area. But if you are considering serious logging or other very heavy work, you may be happier with something with more pulling power, such as an ox or a heavy-breed horse.
Also, not everyone gets along well with donkeys. Those who prefer a more docile animal will likely prefer oxen or horses. Donkeys are more focused on self-preservation—like a mule, but ever so much more so. But some people truly appreciate the intelligence of donkeys. It’s largely a matter of personal preference.
The mule has long been used as a draft animal, but it has been particularly associated with the hot climate of the South. It is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
While there aren’t exactly breeds of mule, not all mules are created equal. The build of both the jack and the mare involved are key factors in determining whether their offspring will be big and husky enough for draft work. Many mules are bred for saddle purposes these days, which means that they often have a lighter physique.
When selecting the parents of a future draft mule, you will want to look for sturdy, strong-boned donkeys and horses of the larger breeds. You will also want to select both parents, but particularly the mare, for good disposition. One of the best donkey breeds for draft mule breeding is the American Mammoth Jackstock. The horse can be of just about any desired draft breed.
- Superb heat tolerance. Historically, the mule was typically the draft animal of choice in the Deep South. The reason was its exceptional tolerance of heat and humidity.
- Exceptional health and hardiness. Few domestic animals are as tough as the mule. It rarely gets sick, and it almost never goes lame. It has a high degree of parasite resistance. Its hooves are exceptionally sturdy and generally don’t require shoes unless it is being worked on pavement or very rocky ground.
- Self-preservation instinct. Mules have an unrivaled ability to look out for themselves. They rarely make themselves sick by eating or drinking too much all at once (cases of founder are usually restricted to mules from pony mares). They will not allow themselves to be overworked, either.
- Calmness. Mules are not prone to panic the way horses are. They may bolt out of wilfulness, but rarely out of fear.
- Low maintenance requirements. Even when working, the mule requires very little supplemental feed (albeit more than a donkey). It does not require a pristine pasture or top-quality hay to stay in peak form. A draft mule is estimated to require about a third less feed than a working horse of the same size.
- Longevity. Draft mules have long working lifespans, up to nearly 20 years with proper care.
- A balance of speed and stamina. Speed and stamina are typically mutually exclusive, but the mule provides a very reasonable compromise. On a continuum with horses representing the most speed but least stamina and oxen representing the most stamina but least speed, a mule would be right about at the balance point.
- Sure-footedness. Out of all the draft animals, mules are among the most sure of their footing, which is a plus on uneven ground or when working in tight quarters as when cultivating. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the mule has a narrower body and smaller hooves than a horse of the same size. The second is that it is always on the alert and acting as circumstances require.
- Versatility. Your draft mule can also perform other work around the farm! It can be broken to ride just a like a horse, and when it is not otherwise employed, keep it in the pasture as a guardian for sheep and goats.
- Prevalence of low-quality mules. Too many people try to make a fast buck by breeding a cull jack to an inferior mare. While miracles do happen, in everyday life any mule that results from such a breeding is highly unlikely to exceed its parents in quality. Purchasing a mule takes some research to avoid picking up somebody else’s nightmare. A docile mare and positive human interaction from birth are two ingredients necessary to make a good mule.
- Expense. If you are starting out with a trained draft team (and you should give it some serious consideration if you are thinking about buying mules), a good mule team can be rather pricey.
- Noise. This should not be much of an issue for anyone who has enough land to be considering draft mules. That said, those of you who are considering a mule for tilling the garden in a more populated area may want to factor in your neighbors’ feelings on the subject.
- Training challenges. Mules aren’t exactly stubborn—they’re just super independent, and they have an exceptional ability to spot a person who isn’t really in control of a situation. But this independence, admirable though it may be in many situations, is not something most beginners want to deal with. Training mules for draft work is extremely challenging, and it requires a fair but firm hand, not to mention a considerable amount of time. Mistakes have long-term ramifications, and bad habits are extraordinarily difficult to weed out. (This is exactly why trained mules are so expensive.)
- Complex harness. Although there are differences, the harness used for mules is much like that used for horses with respect to complexity. It takes time to get it on the animals, and it requires a good degree of maintenance.
- Intelligent disobedience. Even a well-trained mule will disobey if it feels the need, and it will insist on taking time to look over any and all dubious situations before proceeding. This is precisely due to its beneficial self-preservation instinct. That said, not everyone can handle the independence of mules. Horses are more like dogs, mules are more like cats (although not quite to the same degree as donkeys). There is a reason why many people would rather train dogs than cats!
- Sterility. The mule is the only draft animal that cannot replicate itself (with the caveat that most oxen are steers). Granted, your mule team should last for many years. But if you ever need to replace or expand it, you must purchase new animals or keep both horses and donkeys on hand to raise more yourself.
Mules can make a superb team for use in challenging conditions, and they are the epitome of low-maintenance draft animals. Add to that their nice balance between speed and stamina, and you have an excellent choice for serious farm work.
However, there is probably a good reason that draft mules are not more common than they are, and that is their temperament. Not everyone is going to enjoy working with mules. Beginners in particular may find mules to be too much of a challenge when learning the ropes, even when dealing with a trained team. (And an untrained team can be a nightmare for all but the most dedicated and experienced teamsters.)
When it comes to mules, there is no question that they are superb in low-input farm situations. The question is whether or not you are one of those special people who can get along with a mule.
Next week: Donkeys
The horse has always been and still remains a great favorite with some who work with draft animals. It is widely in use among the Amish, and it has enjoyed the attentions of homesteaders and small farmers of all stripes in recent years.
While heavy horses are the ones commonly thought of as draft horses, these breeds are not the only option. A good, sturdy pony can be a suitable draft animal for a truly small farm.
Common horse breeds that can perform some type of farm draft work include:
- American Cream Draft.
- Cleveland Bay.
- Icelandic Horse.
- Suffolk Punch.
- Low cost of good animals. Compared to some of the other draft animal options, horses are relatively easy to come by, which makes them less expensive. If you are looking at starting with a team that is already trained, you will particularly notice the price difference between horses and mules.
- Relative ease of finding supplies and information. Likewise, because horses are still comparatively commonly used for draft purposes, finding resources should be quite doable. Even if you live in an area where equipment and expertise are not locally common, the Internet has made draft horse resources widely available.
- Sized for all purposes. Whatever you want to pull, there is likely a horse of the right size to tackle the job. For a very small farm that produces nothing but vegetables and firewood, a pony may be all you need. For field work and logging, there are the tried-and-true draft horses. And then there’s just about everything in between.
- Docile temperament. Although not as easy to train as oxen, compared to mules and donkeys, horses are far more amenable and less independent-minded. This is particularly true of the large draft breeds. The horse can also tolerate more beginner mistakes than a mule can. A good draft horse may not be the fastest-learning animal on the planet, but it more than makes up for this in willingness.
- Moderate heat tolerance. While the horse cannot match the heat tolerance of the mule (can anything?), it is far more suitable for summer work than oxen. Horses are a good fit for all but the hottest climates.
- Speed. The horse is the fastest draft animal. If you are farmer who likes to hustle, this may be the best bet for you.
- Dual-purpose transportation. Of course, this depends on the size of the horse and the size of the rider, but many draft horses can make surprisingly good saddle horses due to their kind, gentle dispositions.
- Spookiness. Out of all the draft animal options, horses are the most prone to panic. Needless to say, this can present some very dangerous situations for both team and teamster. Breed choice (heavy breeds are the least skittish), careful selection of your new team, and proper training will all go a long way toward preventing mishaps.
- Health issues. Ideally, you will evaluate the soundness of any draft animal you are considering purchasing before bringing it home. That said, there are problems that can turn up after years of work, and injuries do occur. Horses are probably the most delicate of all the draft animals. Lameness and hoof problems are things to watch out for. There are also a number of genetic defects rampant in heavy breeds that, while not necessarily always fatal, may have a negative effect on their working ability.
- Short working lifespan. In keeping with their more delicate physique, horses often have shorter working lifespans than either mules or oxen.
- Complex harness. If you are interested in horses, you will need quite a bit of gear to make it all work. This means a greater up-front cost to get started, and a longer time spent harnessing in the morning before you can actually start work. The harness will also require considerably more maintenance than an ox yoke.
- Feed needs. Compared to the other draft animal species, horses require the most inputs to perform draft work. This means high-quality pasture for certain. Most working horses need supplemental feed, too (although not as much as you would expect given their size, and they can provide the power to grow their own grain).
- Shoeing needs. Fortunately, many draft horses do not require shoes to work. Unfortunately, many do, primarily owing to soundness issues that have resulted from a heavy emphasis on breeding heavy horses for looks in recent years. If you happen to have a team that needs shoes to avoid hoof problems, be prepared for hefty farrier bills—shoeing such large horses costs considerably more than shoeing mules or even saddle horses due to the large, specialized shoes that have to be made for them. For safety, some farriers also insist that draft horses be shod in stocks, a special restraint system something like a milking stanchion.
- Less stamina. Horses get tired more quickly than mules or oxen. If you expect to put in long, grueling days of work, you may want to consider another option.
- Poor self-preservation instincts. Donkeys and mules are pretty good at looking out for themselves and will simply refuse to be overworked. Those who choose to keep draft horses must do the monitoring. Keep an eye out for exhaustion, overheating, colic, and founder from drinking too much water too quickly.
First off, it should be noted that some people keep draft horses because they love them. No mule, donkey, or ox will suffice in this case. This is not entirely due to the beauty of horses, but often largely due to their personality. The difference between a horse and a mule in loyalty, obedience, and trainability has been likened to the difference between a dog and a cat. Many people find the former of each pair easier to work with.
Second, there is a great deal to be said for horses if you have no prior experience with draft animals. There is the temperament factor as already mentioned, but there are many other considerations. Horses are often the easiest of the draft animals to come by, and there are more people out there who have experience with them who can mentor you. Harnesses for horses are also relatively easy to find.
But working horses require maintenance. They need high-quality pasture to carry out the demands of farm work, and they may require supplemental feed at least seasonally. Shoeing them, while not always necessary, is also quite expensive. Care must be taken to prevent them from being overworked or going lame. And they have less stamina and shorter working lifespans than other draft animals. All this adds up to make the horse a less-than-ideal fit into a truly low-input operation.
However, this is one of those cases where each individual teamster will have to weigh the pros and cons for himself. Are horses readily available to you? Are there the necessary resources, equipment, and knowledge in your area to make the project feasible? Would you benefit from working with a less independent-minded animal? Do you just love horses? Depending on your answers to these questions, the benefits of horses may more than compensate for the negatives.
Next week: Mules
Horse & Donkey Breeds
If you have decided that horses are right for you, it’s time to choose a breed! Our guide covers the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of America’s favorite horses.
Considering adding animal power to your farm? Many who seek sustainability in their fields love the idea of working with a living team that is not dependent on fuel and that can contribute to the fertility of the soil. Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of draft animals in general, you are ready to consider what type of draft team will be most suited to your farm—oxen, horses, mules, or those all-too-often-overlooked donkeys. Over the next few weeks, we’ll delve into the pros and cons of each option.
An ox is a steer that has been specially trained for draft work. Oxen have been used as draft animals since the most ancient times, but they fell out of favor with the rise of mechanized agriculture. Fortunately, they have been enjoying renewed interest among small-scale farmers.
Most cattle breeds ideal for training as oxen fall into the dual-purpose category, although there are beef and dairy steers that are quite suitable. Examples of breeds that can be used as oxen include:
- Brown Swiss.
- Devon (American Milking type).
- Dutch Belted.
- English Longhorn.
- Hereford (horned).
- Shorthorn (Milking and Heritage types).
- Texas Longhorn.
Crosses of many of these breeds can also be used for draft work.
- Dependable temperament. In general (because individual animals vary widely), oxen are less flighty than horses and less willful than mules. Good oxen are calm, docile, and very trainable.
- Power. Oxen can pull some amazing loads! A well-conditioned team can pull up to 2-1/2 times its own weight for a short distance. Oxen tend to have a strong advantage when it comes to really heavy-duty work, such as clearing land.
- Stamina. Oxen are known for their ability to work all day.
- Low feed requirements. While oxen may face some stiff competition from donkeys in this regard, they definitely require less feed to work well than horses. They are far more forgiving when it comes to pasture quality, as well.
- Robust health. Oxen are far less prone to some of the ailments that can force a draft team to take some sick leave. When genetically sound and properly cared for, oxen are much less likely to go lame than horses and also are not prone to colic.
- Simple harnessing systems. Oxen typically require relatively simple yokes, rather than the elaborate harnesses used on horses. This is due to the structural differences between the two animals—an ox’s strength is in his head and neck, while a horse is stronger through the chest. A well-made neck yoke is quite comfortable for an ox, while it would tend to choke a horse. This translates to less expense, less confusion, less maintenance, and less time spent getting ready for work in the morning.
- Associated enterprises. If you decide to raise your own oxen, you can easily complement the draft team with other enterprises. For instance, the mothers of your draft steers could be milked, and any surplus calves could be finished for beef.
- Susceptibility to heat. In general, oxen like cooler climates than horses do. Working an ox team in very hot summer conditions can be detrimental to the health of the animals. (Using a Brahma or another zebu-influenced animal helps.)
- Susceptibility to ice injuries. The hoof structure of oxen is very different from that of horses. Oxen are more prone to ugly cuts when walking on icy surfaces.
- Horns. Most oxen have horns because horns can be necessary for holding a yoke in place, depending on the yoke design. However, horns can be dangerous to humans.
- Slow pace. Slow and steady describes the ox. While he may be able to outlast the horse, he will certainly move at a much slower pace. Besides the fact that fieldwork will take longer with oxen, some implements, such as no-till seed drills, may not operate properly at such low speeds.
- Lack of precision. Unlike draft horses, which are guided with bits and reins somewhat like saddle horses, oxen are trained to voice commands, and possibly to taps on the sides. Tight control cannot be attained with this system unless the teamster is on his toes and the team is very obedient. While this lack of precision won’t matter in many applications, such as pulling up stumps, it can be a problem when working in tight spaces, as when cultivating.
For truly heavy farm work, such as clearing land, the patient, hard-working ox is difficult to beat due to his impressive strength and great stamina. Keeping oxen is also a relatively low-cost way to enter the world of draft animals compared to some of the other options. Furthermore, if you are already keeping a family milk cow, you may be able to raise your own draft team!
However, not everyone will enjoy working with oxen. Some people simply prefer the speed and mettle of a good horse team, and they will likely be very dissatisfied with the plodding pace of oxen. Also, oxen can be cumbersome to handle in very small spaces or precise applications.
But for truly low-input systems, oxen are often a good fit.
Next week: Horses
Have you decided that oxen are right for you? Now it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of the different breeds!
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Includes considerable information on making sure your breed of choice will meet your needs, along with profiles of most of the ox breeds listed above. Preview free sample pages.
If the American poultry keepers of today were to see the Cochin of the mid-1800s, they would hardly recognize the breed! The old Cochin was a tall, rangy bird with relatively sparse feathering on its gangling shanks. However, it had a beautiful ginger color that, combined with its impressive size and considerable laying ability, attracted considerable attention when it arrived in the United States and Great Britain in the 1840s.
There is a notion that the Cochin hails from Vietnam, where a French colony named Cochin-China boasted a breed of feather-footed fowl. Actually, the ancestor of the modern Cochin came from China proper, where it was known as the Shanghai (as was the fledgling Brahma, just to keep it confusing). Queen Victoria is credited with calling the chickens Cochin-China, evidently misguided by the fact that the breed was large, Asian, and feather-footed to some degree.
In any case, the royal approval combined with the striking looks of the Cochin guaranteed it a loyal following among the poultry-show crowd. Chickens were bought and sold for hundreds of dollars, while poultrymen devoted their careers to selecting and crossbreeding for more and more feathers. The Cochin slowly lost its usefulness as a layer, and its meat quality gradually declined, but it unquestionably became a lovable, fluffy fowl.
Today, the Cochin breed as a whole is extremely popular in America, although some of its many color varieties are rather rare, most notably blue and silver-laced.
The bantam Cochin is worth a separate mention, as it has a distinct geographical origin from the standard-sized type. The bantam hails from Peking rather than Shanghai, and is indeed still called the Pekin Bantam in England today. This little chicken is one of the most popular feather-footed bantam breeds.
The Cochin is considered an ornamental chicken and is largely kept for show or as a pet.
In small backyard flocks, however, the Cochin can play an extremely valuable role as a broody hen. Few other breeds even approach the considerable persistence of the Cochin when it comes to brooding. This hen will even sit on the eggs of other species of poultry!
Finally, the Cochin has some potential as a meat breed due to its large size.
Few chickens are as calm and unruffled as the Cochin. It is amiable enough to put up with any amount of handling and attention, even from small children. It is submissive enough to tolerate the most domineering of flockmates. Even the roosters are mellow. In fact, if the Cochin has a vice, it is likely either laziness or gluttony. (All that said, note that the broody hen does have a well-developed protective instinct.)
The bantam variety has a little more spunk, although still being gentle on the whole. It loves people and if tame will often demand attention. The bantam rooster can be somewhat aggressive and territorial.
There are several potential problems to watch out for in the Cochin breed. The first set of problems relates to its dense feathering. While being a decided advantage in cold weather (although you should keep an eye out for frostbitten combs in roosters), the thick insulation that the Cochin sports will be very detrimental in the summer, making this breed a less-than-ideal choice in warm climates. Also watch out for external parasites—lice and mites love to hide under all those feathers.
Next, be aware of the potential shortcomings of feathered feet. Cochins do best on well-drained soils with short grass. Coarse ground covers will damage the feathers on the legs, while mud balls can cause toe injuries and snow buildup can cause frostbite. When necessary, use warm water to loosen up mud for removal (always let the feathers dry completely before turning the chicken back out).
Also watch out for obesity. As previously mentioned, the vices of the Cochin are laziness and gluttony, which can cause heart ailments and metabolic problems, besides making the bird slow of movement and thus more vulnerable to predators. When possible, ration out the feed to prevent excess weight gain (this may be hard to do if you keep other breeds in the same flock).
The size and weight of the Cochin can cause leg injuries when the chicken is trying to jump up to or down from a perch. Keep the perches low to avoid accidents.
And then there are a few things that may look like health problems but are actually normal in the Cochin. Be aware that Cochin chicks often take 22 days to hatch rather than 21—there is no cause for alarm with this breed, as they usually make it out without difficulty and start thriving in short order. Also note that delayed feathering is common in young Cochins, but should cause only cosmetic woes.
- Excellent disposition.
- Low space requirements of bantams.
- Tendency not to fly over fences.
- Suitability for confinement-based production systems.
- Excellent cold tolerance.
- Good winter egg-laying ability.
- Large eggs.
- Exceptional mothering abilities.
- Carcass size.
- Considerable space requirements of standard-sized Cochins.
- Vulnerability to predators.
- Low heat tolerance.
- Hefty appetite.
- Poor foraging instincts.
- Short lifespan.
- Low egg production, especially in summer.
- Slow growth.
- Excessively dark meat.
- Coarse meat texture.
The Brahma is often considered to be an ancient breed, hailing from the Brahmaputra River of India. It is true that its ancestors did come from that vicinity, and also probably from China via the clipper ships of yore. However, the Brahma as we know it today is an American creation, developed by crossing several of the old Asian chicken breeds, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
While it was the Americans who developed the Brahma, it was the British who made it wildly popular. In 1852, a Mr. Burnham presented Queen Victoria with a small flock of Brahmas, which by all accounts she promptly fell in love with. And when Queen Victoria approved of an animal of any sort, the people on both sides of the Atlantic promptly followed suit. Brahma chickens quickly boomed in both popularity and price, a good breeding pair fetching as much as $150.
It is hard to imagine, but both the original Light Brahma of the United States and the Dark Brahma created in those early days by British fanciers were even larger and taller then than they are today. While the breed was exceedingly popular for exhibition, it also had a steady following among those bringing meat birds to market, and indeed was considered the finest breed for the table for decades. This changed, however, with the industrial chicken-breeding revolution of the 1930s, when hefty, fast-growing broilers became popular.
But these days the Brahma has little to fear, as it is quickly regaining its popularity. Its beauty and dignity won it favor among many hobby farmers and backyard chicken keepers looking for something a little different. The Internet has fostered this trend—a video of a particularly large Brahma rooster recently went viral and prompted many to add the breed to their flocks.
The primary purpose of the Brahma is still exhibition, although it does have modest potential as a dual-purpose breed for homestead-scale meat and egg production. Probably its greatest strengths in the world of homesteading are the capabilities of the female as a superb broody hen and the male as a guardian of the flock.
Another interesting contribution the Brahma has made to the poultry realm is a genetic one. The Brahma has been used to develop many new chicken breeds, and with judicious crossbreeding it can be used to establish new color varieties within existing breeds.
Few breeds are as docile as the Brahma. They are extremely easy to handle and tame, and they quickly warm up to human interaction. In fact, they may demand attention from their people friends (particularly if treats are involved).
The large size of the Brahma seems to encourage respect from the other chickens in a mixed flock. However, they never abuse their position by bullying the other chickens. Brahma hens do sometimes receive excessive attention from roosters, so care may be needed to prevent injuries.
The Brahma hen, while not usually considered overly broody, has strong instincts to hatch eggs. She also makes an excellent mother to the chicks.
The Brahma rooster is a strong favorite among all who have known him. He is too dignified to be as outgoing as the hens, but he is nevertheless extremely docile and remarkably calm. Bad actors can be found among roosters of any breed, but the typical Brahma male is well-mannered. While he does have strong protective instincts, he is highly unlikely to attack without provocation.
Overall, the Brahma is a hardy, healthy breed that should present no difficulties to the attentive chicken-keeper. It tends to thrive from day one and typically hatches quickly with few problems.
This said, the Brahma does have a few special requirements, although they are relatively modest. First, be aware that it is a large breed that needs a lot of feed when it is growing. Hungry chickens may resort to picking and cannibalism if their nutritional needs are not being met, so make sure young Brahmas have access to all the feed they want. They are not at all prone to obesity at this early stage, so rationing out the feed will likely do more harm than good.
Second, the Brahma does not particularly enjoy hot weather. However, it can easily make it through the summer without too much discomfort if provided with access to shade and fresh, cool water all day. (Note that chickens of all breeds really should be provided with this level of care.)
Finally, several health problems can arise from the feathered feet of this breed:
- Toe injuries caused by mud balls.
- Frostbite caused by a buildup of snow.
- Scaly leg mites and other external parasites.
- Profuse bleeding from broken feather quills.
Keeping the chickens in clean, dry quarters with access to a place to dust bathe will prevent most foot problems. During wet weather, periodic foot examinations can be beneficial. Balls of snow and mud should be removed as necessary. If a mud ball is particularly firmly fixed, try softening it in warm water before removal. Mites can be treated with diatomaceous earth. Bleeding quills can be stopped up with a pinch of corn starch and the application of pressure.
- Excellent disposition.
- Adaptability to both cold and hot climates with proper care.
- Adaptability to both confinement and free-range systems.
- Tendency not to fly over fences.
- Good winter egg production.
- Large eggs.
- Excellent brooding and mothering instincts.
- Large carcass.
- Unsuitability for poorly drained soils.
- Large space requirements in both coops and runs.
- Need for sturdy perches and large nesting boxes.
- Hearty appetite.
- Slow maturity.
- Below-average egg production.
The Black Star goes by a number of names, including Black Sex Link and Black Beauty, depending on the hatchery. It is not a pure breed, but rather a crossbred chicken produced by mating a Barred Plymouth Rock hen to a Rhode Island Red (or occasionally New Hampshire Red) rooster. The name “Sex Link” refers to the fact the gender of the resulting chicks can be identified with complete accuracy at hatching, the females being black and the males being black with a white spot on the head. (Note that, if Black Star chickens are bred, the subsequent generations will not share this trait because the genes involved will re-pair into new combinations.)
While it is likely that a Barred Plymouth Rock/Rhode Island Red cross has been made frequently since the two breeds originated, the Black Star rose to fame shortly after World War II. Food rations, returning troops, the arrival of refugees, and a flourishing U.S. population led to some concerns about the nation’s food supply. Poultry scientists in quest of a truly exceptional laying hen experimented with many different breed combinations and hit upon the Black Star as a top solution.
Throughout the 1950s, the Black Star was among the most popular types of chicken used for commercial egg production. These days, other hybrids have largely taken its place in the brown egg market. But the Black Star still has a loyal following—it has earned its place as a good all-around homestead bird.
The Black Star is a superb choice for a dual-purpose chicken for homesteads of all sizes and aspirations. The hens are good producers (good enough to support a small business direct marketing eggs!) and the roosters are hefty enough to make satisfactory fryers for home use. The Black Star can also fit into the family as a very amiable pet.
This breed is calm and docile, making it very easy to handle and get along with. However, it also has a good dose of personality. It will probably tend toward the top of the pecking order.
The Black Star has an excellent immune system and appears to be less prone to external parasites than other chicken breeds. The only difficulty likely to be found in this breed is an occasional reproductive malfunction.
- Certainty of getting hens or roosters exactly as ordered due to sex-linked color trait.
- Excellent disposition.
- Suitability for nearly all climates and weather conditions (particularly cold winters).
- Adaptability to nearly any type of production system.
- Excellent foraging instincts.
- Feed efficiency.
- Excellent egg production, particularly for the first two years.
- Loss of sex-linked color trait in future generations.
- Lack of brooding instinct.