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Bulletin #2104, Match Your Need to the Right Breed: Choosing a Bird for the Home Flock

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Maine Poultry Facts

Match Your Need to the Right Breed:
Choosing a Bird for the Home Flock

Developed by Professor Emeritus Robert Hawes, with Extension Professor Richard Brzozowski. Reviewed by Professor Emeritus H. M. Opitz.

For information about UMaine Extension programs and resources, visit extension.umaine.edu.
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Feeding and watching the hens in their cage.Beginnings

When starting a small poultry enterprise, most people look for some guidance in selecting the appropriate breed or strain for their particular purpose.

What do you expect to gain from a poultry flock?

  • Eggs for home use, or for sale at a farmers market?
  • A few broilers or turkeys for the freezer, or a few hundred for sale to friends and neighbors?
  • A few ducks for the pond, or some geese as crop weeders?
  • Competition at local fairs and specialty poultry shows, or conservation of a heritage variety of chickens or turkeys?

When choosing a hatchery, make sure that the eggs come from U.S. Pullorum-Typhoid Clean stock. Choose a hatchery that will vaccinate your chicks for Marek’s disease. There is no cure for Marek’s disease, which can strike birds after they reach 12 weeks of age.

Check with your local feed store, as they may have an arrangement to buy bulk shipments of chicks for resale during the spring months. Swap days, or livestock auctions, are not the best places to acquire stock if you are inexperienced. These events are good places to observe breeds and talk with breeders, but it is better to go to one of the hatcheries or a private breeder and buy clean stock.

Below is a list of suggestions covering five species appropriate for the small-scale poultry keeper. NOTE:

  • Breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association are printed in normal type.
  • Hatchery breed names, which generally imply breed or strain crosses, are italicized and followed by an asterisk.
    (Most of the seasonal hatcheries will carry one or more of these breed crosses as well as several of the pure breeds.)

Buff Orpington and Jersey Black Giant pullets.  Photo by Lloyd Slocum

Strains or crosses for egg production

Brown-egg layers

The following are some breed and strain crosses: Hyline Brown*, Black Sex Link*, Black Star*, Babcock Brown*, Hubbard ISA*, Golden Comet*, Bovans*, Red Sex-Link*, Red Star*, Cherry Egger*, and Cinnamon Queen*.

The breeds listed above are the most efficient for the person concerned with egg numbers. However, if you like the idea of keeping a purebred bird and can accept a lower egg production rate, here a few of the better choices: Rhode Island Red, White Plymouth Rock, Barred Plymouth Rock, Buff Orpington, and New Hampshire.

There are many other interesting and colorful brown-egg producers offered by the seasonal hatcheries, and if you enjoy heritage breeds try one of the breeds in need of preservation. Dominique, Australorp, Wyandotte, Rhode Island White, Buckeye, and Java are a few of the names to consider.

Dark-brown-egg layers

Barnevelders, Marans, and Welsummers all lay a very dark brown, almost chocolate-colored egg. Including a few of these in a dozen eggs being offered for sale can make an interesting assortment.

White-egg layers

Babcock B33V*, Hyline White*, Hubbard White Leghorn*, and Pearl Leghorn* are company creations and are generally strain crosses within the Leghorn breed.

You can also buy pure strains of White Leghorns from many hatcheries but egg production will not equal that of the strain crosses.

Other white egg layers include California White, California Gray, Ancona, and Brown Leghorn.

Tinted-egg layers

The Austra-White* is one of the few hatchery breed crosses laying tinted or light-brown-colored eggs.

Another popular layer of tinted eggs is the Ameraucana (sometimes called the Easter Egg chicken), which will produce eggs in shades of brown, green, and blue. Including two or three of these tinted eggs in a dozen can make an attractive offering at farm stands.

Note: When using any of the breed crosses listed above for egg production, plan on 1.5 layers per person for a family flock. When using the heritage breeds, plan on 2 layers per person.

Strains or crosses for meat production

Broiler strains

A broiler (or fryer) is defined as a young bird from 4 1/2 to 5 pounds, of either sex, slaughtered at seven to eight weeks of age.

Since broilers are not around for long, performance takes precedence over appearance. The best growth rate and feed conversion will come from commercial-type Cornish x White Rock crosses: Cornish Cross*, Hubbard White Mountain*, Hubbard Redbro*, and Vantress x Arbor Acres* are some hatchery offerings. These hybrids can reach weights of 5 to 5 1/2 pounds in as little as six to seven weeks. But the rapid growth rate that these birds exhibit puts stress on their legs and on their heart, causing a certain amount of mortality if they are not carefully watched. Growers should follow hatchery guidelines for feeding and management as these birds can be a challenge for the first-time grower. The Cornish crosses have been selected for an indoor sedentary life. They are rather inactive and often unable to handle the challenges of an outdoor system.

Some hatcheries offer alternative lines designed especially for range rearing. These include the White Cornish Cross*, Gray Meat Bird*, Freedom Ranger*, Silver Cross (Kosher King)*, and the Hubbard Redbro*. It may take some searching to find these latter types since only a few hatcheries offer them. These slower-growing hybrids and the standard-bred birds tend to be more active than the Cornish crosses and they forage well in outdoor situations. With proper management, chickens of this type can weigh 5 to 5 1/2 pounds by nine to eleven weeks of age.

Cornish game hens

Not a game bird and not necessarily a hen, but a commercial-type (Rock x Cornish) broiler slaughtered at about four weeks of age and at a weight of about 2 pounds or about 1 pound dressed. There are no specific choices for the production of game hens. Any of the males from the Rock-x-Cornish-type crosses can be used. However, males from the dual-purpose breeds will not do the job.

Roaster strains

Roasters are defined as young birds of either sex, weighing 6 to 8 pounds and slaughtered at 12 to 18 weeks of age. Carrying males from the Cornish x Rock crosses or from the alternative lines for another four to five weeks past broiler weight will give you birds suitable for roasting. A few hatcheries offer specialized crosses for producing roasters. As with the broilers, the hatchery guidelines for feeding and management should be carefully followed to avoid leg problems.

Capons

Capons are castrated male chickens, usually slaughtered at less than eight months of age and suitable for roasting. By removing the source of testosterone, capons are expected to be more tender and juicy than intact males of the same age. However it is difficult to find people who can do caponizing, especially for small lots, and a certain amount of mortality may result from the caponizing process. Since the heavy roasters are generally produced from the broiler-type males before they become sexually active, there is less interest in producing capons. However, some growers advocate caponizing the pure breeds such as the Rhode Island Red or the Barred Plymouth Rock to produce an alternative to the Rock x Cornish crosses.

Stewing hens

Stewing hens (spent hens) are mature females, usually over 12 months of age. These are fine for soups, pies, or for pressure-cooking. There are no specific lines for stewing hens but the brown-egg type females have a more desirable carcass for this purpose than the white-egg or Leghorn type females. Leghorn-type females will have a very small amount of meat.

Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rock pullets. Photo by Lloyd Slocum

Dual-purpose breeds

There are no true “dual-purpose” breeds. Females of the breeds billed as dual-purpose are reasonable layers of brown eggs, but the males aren’t as efficient for meat production as Cornish x Rock cross broilers. Using the males from the white-egg breeds for meat production is even less efficient. However, the brown-egg heritage breeds are probably easier than the Cornish x Rock crosses for first-time broiler growers to handle. These pure breeds will have fewer leg problems and lower mortality. For those wanting to try dual-purpose breeds the best choices are Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, White Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, and Delaware. Some of these breeds have colored feathers, which will produce a dark spot on the carcass that consumers may find undesirable. Males will require 10 to 12 weeks to reach about 3 pounds.

Should you wish to produce your own chicks, dual-purpose females will be more dependable setters than commercial crosses. Also, chicks from commercial crosses will be a “rainbow collection,” whereas chicks from standard breeds will be consistent for their breed type. Females from the white-egg lines rarely want to set.

Breeds for exhibition

Many people start out with the utility strains of Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, or New Hampshires but then become interested in exhibiting their birds at the local fair or at a specialty poultry show. These utility birds, bred for meat and eggs, do not fare well when shown against exhibition-bred strains. Exhibition-bred Barred Plymouth Rocks are different birds than utility-bred Barred Plymouth Rocks. All seasonal hatcheries carry several heritage breeds that can be used for exhibitions. These hatchery birds are a good place for the beginner to start. However, this hobby requires skill in selecting and breeding the perfect bird and you will eventually need to acquire stock from a specialized breeder if you plan to compete in the larger shows. Many standard breeds have both utility and exhibition strains but some breeds are specifically classified as “fancy,” such as the Polish, Hamburg, Cochin, Houdan, and Campine, among others.

Bantams

These are simply miniature chickens, with 25 to 30 percent of the weight of their large counterparts. There is a bantam breed to complement nearly every large breed. In addition, there are several bantam breeds that have no large counterpart, such as the Rosecomb, Nankin, Silkie, Japanese, and Belgian d’Anvers. Such breeds are often called “true bantams.”

The husbandry of bantams is very similar to that of large fowl, except the space requirements are less demanding and feed costs are understandably lower. Bantams are usually kept for ornamental use and for exhibition purposes. However, some breeds are fairly efficient egg producers if winter lights are used (See bulletin #2227, Lighting for Small-Scale Flocks). One could make bantam hybrids just as we make large-fowl hybrids. A logical cross would be that of the Rhode Island Red bantam male onto Barred Plymouth Rock bantam females: this would produce a Black Bantam “sex-link.” Sex-link crosses are chickens that can be sexed at hatching: Black Bantam male chicks will be primarily black with an irregular spot of white on the head, while females will be totally black with no head spot, Females from this type of mating will be great little egg layers. Three bantam eggs are equal to two large eggs from a standard breed.

Males from the American-type bantams (Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, etc.) can be used for meat production but it’s about a “one bird:one consumer” situation. Many bantam breeds are available from the hatcheries and these are perfect for the backyard, but if you plan to become a serious exhibitor then quality stock must be purchased from a specialty breeder.

Male Large White turkey. Photo by Keith Weller, ARS

Turkeys

Commercial lines

There are two types of market turkeys carried by most hatcheries: the Large White* or Broad Breasted White* and the Broad Breasted Bronze*. Expect weights of 14 to 15 pounds at 16 to 18 weeks for hens and 25 to 28 pounds at 20 to 22 weeks for toms.

Heritage varieties

The old breeds are gaining new status. Better flavor, the ability to utilize range, and the ability to mate naturally are traits that are allowing them to find a new niche. Expect fewer leg problems and slower growth with birds reaching market weight in 26 to 28 weeks. The White Holland, Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, and Narragansett are all favorites. Varieties such as the Black and the Slate can also be used as meat birds, while the Royal Palm is more of an ornamental variety. A few hatcheries offer Midget Whites, which will mature at about 10 to 12 pounds for hens and 18 to 20 pounds for toms.

Ducks

Egg types

Golden 300 Hybrid*, Gold Star Hybrid*, and the White Layer* are some of the hatchery creations for egg production.

These strains can be expected to produce 250 to 290 eggs in 52 weeks of lay. Pure breeds that are also excellent layers are the White Indian Runner and the Khaki Campbell.

Meat types

“Jumbo” Pekin or “Super” Pekin are the best choices. Commercial producers of ducks can raise 7- to 8-pound birds in seven weeks, but under farm conditions they will probably take longer, and 6- to 7-pound ducklings in seven to eight weeks is more to be expected. The utility Rouen is also used as a meat bird; expect them to weigh 6 to 8 pounds at 12 to15 weeks.

If you want more colorful birds and can accept a somewhat slower growth rate there are other breeds that can be used for meat production, i.e. the Buff, Swedish, Cayuga, and Muscovy. The smaller Mallard duck is reputed to have an excellent flavor and is very ornamental.

Geese

Geese are kept mainly for meat production, for exhibition, or as crop weeders. The first choice for meat production would be the White Embden, but the utility Toulouse is also used. Young geese from the utility breeds will weigh 11 to 15 pounds at 5 to 6 months of age. Geese for weeders need to be small and active, and the Brown and White Chinas are recommended. Breeds for exhibition, which may also be used as meat producers, are the African, Pilgrim, Buff and Roman. The Dewlap Toulouse, Canada, Egyptian, and Sebastopol would be mainly for exhibition and enjoyment.

Guineas

Guineas are kept for a variety of reasons including bug control, meat production, ornamentation, and as watch birds. The meat is all dark but is highly prized by some restaurants. The guinea has recently been accepted by the American Poultry Association as a “breed,” and so this bird has a more legitimate spot in poultry exhibitions than previously. There are several color varieties but the White and the Pearl would be the best choices for home meat production. One hatchery has an improved line that reportedly weighs up to 4 pounds by 10 weeks of age.

Resources

The American Standard of Perfection. Burgettstown PA: American Poultry Association, 2001. www.amerpoultryassn.com. Presents the official breed descriptions for large fowl, bantams, waterfowl, and turkeys.

Bantam Standard. Augusta, NJ: American Bantam Association, 2006. www.bantamclub.com. Presents the descriptions for bantam breeds.

Central Maine Bird Fanciers. www.centralmainebirdfanciers.org. Information for exhibition breeders in Maine.

Feather Site. www.feathersite.com. A very extensive and informative site for breed identification, housing, and information on various species.

The Coop. www.the-coop.org. For people who raise, show, or breed poultry and related species.

Backyard Poultry magazine. Backyard Poultry,145 Industrial Drive, Medford, WI 54451. www.backyardpoultrymag.com. A bimonthly publication with information on rearing, breeding and housing for all species of poultry.

ATTRA and NCAT Publications. attra.ncat.org or www.sustainablepoultry.ncat.org. Pastured poultry and sustainable poultry information.

Note: Most figures presented in this bulletin were taken from material published by seasonal hatcheries.


Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 1989, 2009
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