Best Chicken Breeds for Home Food Production
There are chickens that have been bred for excellent egg-laying capabilities, and others that have been bred for stellar meat production. The hobby farmer may prefer to consider those breeds with the best of both worlds.
Chickens for Hobby Farming
Chickens supply two food products for the home: eggs and meat. There are top bred egg producers and top bred meat producers. There is also a compromise through dual-purpose breeds that may suit the needs of hobby farmers the best.
Chickens for Meat Production
An ideal meat bird is bred for quick weight gain. The faster the bird grows on the least amount of food the more economical the meat is. Weight to feed conversion ratio is important for cost-savings. These birds attain their market weight in 8 weeks or less. Most birds recognized for this ability are from the English Class of chickens. This class includes the Cornish, the Australorp and the Orpington, with Cornish leading the way.
This bird was originally developed in Cornwall, England and now is almost always crossed with other breeds for improved production. The Cornish Game Hen or Cornish Rock is the Cornish crossed with a New Hampshire or White Plymouth Rock. This is the fastest developing broiler available. The males can be slaughtered as broilers at 6 weeks for 3-4 lbs final dressed weight, the females a week or two longer. A more recent hybrid is the Cornish Roaster. It grows a bit more slowly but makes the best roaster reaching a dressed weight of 8-9 lbs in 12 weeks. The feathers on the Cornish are white and the skin the desired yellow coloring. One drawback to this breed is that it can gain weight too fast. They are known to have their legs twist or break under the abnormal weight for which they have been bred.
Chickens for Egg Production
The best egg producers in terms of numbers tend to be more nervous, smaller chickens, as they focus their energy on egg production not body build-up. These breeds all lay white eggs. The average hen will lay about 24 dozen eggs/year for a year or two. Then production significantly drops off. Commercial hen houses will dispose of layers after their first year because the egg to feed conversion ration no longer turns a profit. The best egg layers are in the Mediterranean Class with names like Ancona, Leghorn, and Minorca, with the well-known Leghorn topping the list.
Leghorns are named for Livorno, Italy where they were developed. They come in a number of colors but it is the white variety that is used for production. These birds begin laying early at around 4-5 months and will continue to lay longer than other breeds. They produce a nice bright white-shelled egg of uniform size. These would be the eggs usually seen on supermarket shelves. The Leghorns are also preferred by large producers because they tolerate confined spaces better than others. Hopefully the home producer can give them a better quality of life than the tight cage to which many are confined.
An alternative to the white egg layers are Sex-link chickens. These hens lay large numbers of attractive brown eggs. Though production is not as good as the Leghorn it is the best of the brown egg layers. These chickens come in red and black. The Red Sex-Link is the offspring of a Rhode Island Red male and White Leghorn female. The Black Sex-Link is a hybrid also of the Rhode Island Red male but the female is Barred Plymouth Rock. The chicks can be sorted (sexed) at birth by their color. These chickens cannot reproduce themselves true to type. If you want to maintain the high breeding standard you must go back to the hatchery for new chicks when it is time to replace your stock.
Dual Purpose flock
Usually the best choice for a home producer or hobby farmer is the dual-purpose breeds. They are not the best at either meat or egg production like the star breeds in those fields but they do a good job of combining both qualities. Most of these are designated the American Class as their names reveal: Rhode Island Red, Delaware, New Hampshire Red, Barred Plymouth Rock. They are attractive, full-bodied birds that come in a great assortment of colors. Because these tend to be less highly bred for production the hens will sometimes maintain their instinct for setting (broodiness). It is not uncommon on the local farm for these hens to raise more chicks for the flock on their own.
For home production of food a hobby farmer can't go wrong with a flock of dual-purpose breed hens or a mixture of the different breeds mentioned for consistent egg laying, occasional meat production and an overall very attractive flock of birds.