Chickens have to be one the the easiest and most rewarding animals to start on your homestead. Choosing chickens can be a daunting task, but here are some notes to help you get started.
People have chickens for a number of reasons – eggs, meat and to keep bugs down on the farm. For us, eggs are the biggest bonus. A fresh eggs looks and tastes some much better than any store bought variety – and knowing that your chickens live a happy lifestyle and not in a cage has to be an added bonus. You might even make a dollar or two selling eggs to friends, family and even strangers!
When we started out we read all we could about chickens and found some great websites and forums – www.backyardchickens.com being the best. However, we became overwhelmed with new information – especially about choosing chickens to get us started….the choice was huge and the debates about what types became confusing. So our first flock became a mixture of types of chickens. It was almost ‘one red chicken, one black chicken, on white chicken…’. What it did teach us was which was the best laying hens and how to go about selecting them into the future.
Choosing chickens – how do you get them?
There seem to be three ways to get chicks to start off your flock.
1. Hatching eggs
The first way is to get fertile eggs from a farmer and try to hatch them – and we have had NO success with this at all! It requires some equipment (homemade or bought) and careful monitoring and experience.
2. Mail order chickens
The second way is to order chickens through the mail…and a box arrives chirping. This seems to work great and you can get to pick the breed and sex of the chicks (this is VERY important). There seems to be something agains our nature to have those little chicks go through the tumble and rumble of the mail system – but they arrive intact and no worse for their journey.
3. Farm store chickens
This is the way most people seem to start out. They pick up chicks at the local farm/produce store. It is the way we started, and the way we built our current small flock. However, the farm store only gets tubs of chickens for a few days in early spring….and the tubs can go from full to empty in days. It’s good to ask the store in winter what date there will get chicks…and be there early!
Choosing chickens – What breed?
So you have a load of choices if you order chicks through the mail. Most mail-order-chicken websites – like the ones below – have great selection charts including photos, types of eggs (brown, white, green…yep there are green eggs) and how the chickens cope in different climates. They will also provide information about if the breed are easy to keep, will be broody (sit and try to hatch their own eggs) etc
Those sites are also great to do some research on the chick breeds that you will see at the farm store, as the tubs of chicks you see there will have the breed marked. Choosing chickens will require you to do some research.
Choosing chickens – Hens or roosters
We are not going to do a whole ‘birds and the bees’ lesson – but if you want eggs you need hens. You do NOT need a rooster for your chickens to lay eggs. You only need a rooster if you want fertile eggs that you want to hatch yourself. So for eggs, get a flock of hens alone. At a farm store this might not be an easy option as the chicks will be sold as ‘straight-run‘. This means that the chickens have not been divided up into boys and girls – sexing a very young chicken is a very skilled process – and you take a real gamble when buying them if you just want hens.
What type of chickens do we have?
For us, we love to get large brown eggs…and for that we now get Red sex-linked chickens. (They are a cross between a Leghorn and a Rhode Island Red). They have the reputation for being docile, friendly but a little stupid when it comes to predators. They churn out large eggs every day and take almost no break in laying over winter (most birds stop laying for a while and molt feathers). But here is the NEAT thing. When they hatch the girls will be yellow/orange in color and the boys are white/cream in color – so straight away its easy to tell the sex of the birds even in a tub of straight run chickens. Most farm stores seem to have a tub of sex-linked!
One downside of sex-linked is that they are not very broody. So the chance of a hen hatching eggs and having little chicks running behind her on our farm is pretty slim.
So for us now, choosing chickens is as simple as finding a tub of red sex-linked chicks and picking out the yellow/orange girls.
A little about roosters
We have always had a rooster. This has not been by choice. Our first was in a straight run – and he turned into evil incarnate after being attacked by a neighbors dog as he protected the hens. We nursed him back to health from near death in our bathtub. He repaid this piece of humanity by wanting to kill us on sight. He ended up being isolated for everyones wellbeing.
Our current rooster came about because we had to buy a minimum of of six chicks from our farm store. There were 5 orange feathered sex-linked left in the tub. We knew the white featured ones were going to be roosters, so we selected one cute little chick from the tub of straight-runs thinking we have a 50% chance of getting a hen. The little chick had a lightning bolt shaped pattern on his head so we named him Harry Potter…and as it turns out he was a rooster.
Harry can be a little aggressive to me – but leaves the rest of the family alone. He does watch over the girls..and all our eggs are fertile. Maybe one day we will try to hatch our own eggs 🙂
Good luck with choosing chickens…and let us know how you go in our comments 🙂