There are very few questions you can ask that will invoke as much personal passion as, “what’s the best breed of chicken to raise?”
Chickens provide their owners with soo much and the selection that is available today is absolutely mind-blowing. Spend anytime browsing an online hatchery and you will quickly realize that there is a ‘perfect chicken’ for almost everyone.
But, a shopper must understand that each breed of chicken has its own unique characteristics. From personality to plumage to size and purpose, these wide-ranging variables provide something specific to the flock owner – as well as, require something specific in return.
For this reason, it’s extremely critical that you first, ‘know what you want’ and secondly, ‘understand your environment’.
When it comes to homesteading, flock owners are generally looking for a hardy, dual-purpose bird with an approachable behavior. And no breed does this better than the Barred Plymouth Rock.
We have been raising ‘Barred Rocks’ at our off-grid home for some time now and I can tell you, they are a class above the rest.
As chicks, they are generally the first to learn our treat call, which makes managing free-range birds a LOT easier. Egg production is excellent and they have proven to be tolerant to both high heat and below freezing temperatures – all while being a happy and talkative shadow as we go about our day outdoors.
I can easily recommend this breed of chicken to not only homesteaders, but to anyone starting their first flock. Barred Rocks have proven to be a robust breed that offers the best combination of everything.
### Honorable Mention ###
There is one other breed of chicken that should be mentioned with regards to homestead flocks. This is the Black Australorp.
A Black Australorp hen is roughly the same size as their Barred Rock counterparts. They are also fairly well behaved with an approachable demeanor. Point of fact, one of our favorite birds of all time was a hen we named ‘Bitch’n Betty’ as she was always with us, offering her opinion on whatever we were doing.
This breed of chicken actually has a step up on the Barred Rocks on both egg size and production. It’s not a big difference, but it is worth noting, as the Australorp’s eggs are generally slightly bigger and more numerous.
However, extra care must be given to this breed of chicken as they can overheat. Their black plumage, while having a definite appeal with its greenish sheen, absorbs a lot of heat. Consequently, they are always the first to show signs of heat stress.
For this reason, I selected the Barred Rock as being the best breed for homesteaders, as it has proven to be more ‘maintenance free’ than the Australorp.
What Breed Of Chicken Is Best For Free-Range?
There is something deeply satisfying about letting your flock of chickens have the freedom to come and go as they please. You know that they are living the best of existences when they are given loads of opportunity to scratch and peck at something new, every single day.
But with this freedom, comes risk. Predators of all shapes and sizes can decimate your flock very quickly. For this reason, chicken breeds that are naturally ‘flighty’, tend to survive longer in a free-range environment, than breeds where ‘everyone is my friend’.
The breed of chicken on our homestead that has proven to be the most skittish and most wary of potential predators is the Buckeye.
This less common breed of chicken, is pretty much a nervous wreck. Despite long and persistent efforts on my part, I’ve only ever had one Buckeye hen that didn’t immediately flee at my presence. Personality wise, they are polar opposite to the Barred Rock that actually runs towards you every time they see you.
This is not to say that I don’t recommend the Buckeye. As each chicken is different, there are certain to be those ‘wild cards’ amongst the breed that are very affectionate. But I wouldn’t recommend purchasing this breed if friendly and engaging is what you are looking for.
Where the Buckeye most shines, would be for flocks that are full time free-range and get very little supervision. However, I do not recommend that your flock be entirely of the Buckeye breed.
Our first foray into this breed, consisted of a single flock of six. In the first five months of having them, they never once left the run – despite the gate always being open. They would spend their entire day, hiding under the same tree and only come out a little before dark to scratch in front of the coop.
However, when a new batch of chickens were introduced, and the two flocks joined, the Buckeye soon lost their fearful demeanor and started following the new birds around – despite the Buckeye being twice the size of the younger birds.
In short, your best bet for a free-range flock would be to have a mixture of breeds with attributes that can compliment each other. Pairing a Buckeye with a Barred Rock or Australorp is a great combination that could extend the lives of every bird in your flock.
What Is The Best Dual Purpose Chicken Breed?
Dual purpose refers to a chicken that can be harvested for meat, as well as, providing eggs for you to consume. And if you are looking for absolute ‘bang for buck’ and have the time to spend on raising them, there is one breed of chicken that really performs.
The Jersey Giant is a breed of chicken that grows to ‘giant’ sizes while still maintaining excellent egg production. On average, this breed can be 40 to 50 percent larger than the typical backyard chicken. That means a lot more meat for the freezer!
One might think that with this enormous size advantage, that everyone would be raising Jersey Giants. However, this is not the case.
Jersey Giants take considerably longer to reach their full maturity – up to 18 months. Consequently, people rarely use them as a dual purpose bird, choosing instead for smaller breeds that take less time to mature while still producing more eggs.
However, if you’re willing wait for something better, then consider the Jersey Giant. You won’t have to worry about losing it amongst your flock as it will be the one towering over everyone else.
What Breed Of Chicken Is Best For Hatching Chicks?
The term broody, with regards to chickens, refers to the behavior exhibited by a hen as she sits on a clutch of eggs with the intent of hatching them. This is important to know as some breeds of chicken are very ‘broody’ while others rarely are.
It is widely thought that the Buff Orpington is the perfect breed for those who want to hatch their own chicks. This breed of chicken displays a sweet and gentle personality and this extends to the ‘little ones’ that need a mother’s care.
Orpingtons, also, tend to go broody more often that the other common backyard breeds.
So if your main priority is to hatch your own chicks, then clearly the Buff Orpington is the breed for you. However, it should be noted that broody behavior is difficult on the health of a hen as she will forgo food and water to remain with her eggs.
This is especially problematic if the eggs have not been fertilized. The natural trigger for a hen to leave her broody state is the arrival of the chicks. And if the eggs are not fertilized, then obviously no chicks will ever hatch. This means that a hen could sit on a nest to her own peril.
If you choose to add a Buff Orpington to your flock, then be prepared to deal with this broody behavior – even when it’s not convenient to do so. Her health depends upon your proactive management.
What Breed Of Chicken Is Best For Meat?
Homesteaders who are looking to fill the freezer with meat that they have grown for themselves are generally looking for two things in a chicken breed; size and growth time. As mentioned before, the Jersey Giant is a very large bird, which offers quite a bit of meat. However, this breed takes up to 18 months to reach full size.
The Cornish Cross is a breed of chicken that can reach butcher size in as little as 7 weeks – making it the best choice for someone looking to fill the freezer with meat.
This fast growing breed allows the owner to raise his flock with a lot less feed (2 months worth versus 18 months worth).
However, it should be noted that raising Cornish Cross chickens is considerably different than raising any other chicken. In fact, it’s my opinion that this breed of chicken is more like a feathered pig than a real chicken!
Special feeding requirements are necessary to successfully raise this breed, as if left to their own, a Cornish Cross chicken can eat itself to death.
I have found that raising this breed of chicken is not overly difficult, but can be more labor intensive than other breeds – especially in the few weeks leading up to butcher. But this extra labor is larelgy negated by the fact that you only have them for two months.
What Breed Of Chicken Is Best For Colored Eggs?
It can be absolutely ridiculous how much fun there is in guessing what color of egg shell is going to greet you when you reach into the nesting box. And while the bulk of backyard chickens will lay brown shells, there is one breed that loves to buck this trend.
The Easter Egger is a breed of chicken that was clearly brought about by breeders looking to have fun. Not only does this bird come in a whole variety of colors and plumage, but Easter Egger hens will lay eggs shells that are blue, green, olive green and sometimes even red.
And the best part about this breed is that every single bird is a surprise. There is no set pattern for plumage, nor is there any reliable way to guess what color egg shell they will produce. It’s all simply a matter of chance.
This can be problematic for those who have specific wants. But if you’re open to some unexpected fun, then I highly recommend this breed. Point of fact, my current flock of 10 has 6 of them!
For those of you who are in the stages of planning your first flock, I strongly recommend that you mix a variety of breeds, rather than sticking with just one breed.
The characteristics made available by diligent breeders, can either make or break your experience. And while these unique traits can vary from breed to breed, it’s been our experience that chicks raised together generally come together as a family like flock – except for roosters. (Rooster live by their own creed of ‘I am king, all others will submit’, which is problematic when you have more than one king.)
My personal recommendation is to pick two or even three different breeds that have the most of what you’re looking for.
For our family this year, we raised Buckeye, Barred Rock, Orpingtons and Easter Eggers. Our plan for next year will be a Golden Buff, a couple of Welsummers, maybe a Cream Legbar and of course, my personal favorite the Black Australorp.
For an in-depth look at starting a new flock, check out: Raising Chickens: 5 Easy Steps For The 1st Timer.