When it comes to picking a breed of chicken for your backyard flock you have a lot of options. You can narrow it down by choosing a breed that fits your climate and goals.
Chickens are the gateway drug to homesteading, I can’t think of many people that started with a different animal (other than me, my first birds were heritage turkeys!)
Read more about Raising Turkeys
Chickens are a popular choice for beginners and it’s hard not to fall in love with keeping them. There is quite a bit of work in the beginning when you have the chicks in the brooder but once they’re adults and on their own out in the coop they don’t require a lot of daily upkeep.
Read more about Setting Up a Brooder & Preparing for Chicks
There are several ways to start a flock and get your hands on chicks and chickens but you’ll have the largest variety to choose from if you order your chickens online. Hatcheries usually begin shipping in February and it’s best to get your order in early before they start selling out.
Read more about Ordering Chickens Online
Reason for Keeping Chickens
This might seem like an odd place to start but this is the question that will narrow down your choices in the most important way.
Why do you want to keep chickens? Are you hoping for tons and tons of eggs, some tasty fried chicken, a cute pet, lawn ornaments or some combination of all of the above?
Eggs or Meat
Just like with hybrid seeds, hybrid chickens are bred with a specific purpose in mind. They are the birds commonly used in commercial operations, they produce more on less feed making them more financially sound.
Hybrid layers start to lay younger than heritage breeds and will lay more consistently until they burn out, usually after the 1st or 2nd season of laying. When they’re done laying it’s pretty much time to make some broth, the only birds I’ve ever lost to Ascites (or water belly) were hybrid layers in their second year.
Read more about What to Expect from Farm Fresh Eggs
The Cornish Cross chickens are the meat version of that, they need to be raised under specific conditions. You can’t allow them to eat freely or they will eat themselves to death and you need to be ready to slaughter at a specific time or their hearts will give out and their legs can begin to break under the weight of their bodies.
No matter how good your intentions the Jumbo Cornish Cross were not meant to live long and they’ll die young. I refuse to raise them, my grandparents raised a batch or two every year when I was growing up.
They lack all of the qualities I love in chickens. When I did raise my own meat birds I raised Freedom Rangers, another hybrid meat bird but these guys are intended to live out on a field and grow slower.
I do eat chicken from the grocery store and I realize that refusing to look at that reality in my backyard makes me a hypocrite but right now I’m doing the best I can and in the future I will be raising more of the hardier meat birds.
There are heritage breed chickens that lean more towards one purpose or the other, specifically the Leghorns for eggs and the Dark Cornish for meat. Most of what I have to say about them is also true for the Dual Purpose chickens.
Heritage breed chickens are not all considered dual-purpose and the terms are not interchangeable but most heritage breeds are dual-purpose.
One of the big differences between the dual-purpose heritage breeds and the heritage egg breeds have been bred out of going broody, making them a poor choice for a self-replenishing flock.
Read more about Broody Hens
Dual Purpose Chickens
This is the sweet spot for homesteaders. Dual-purpose birds are good at laying eggs and big enough to make plucking worth it, however, they aren’t nearly as good at either as the hybrids.
Read more about Dual Purpose Chickens
The benefits show up in other ways. Dual-purpose chickens lay less and as a result, they lay longer. I have 7-year-old hens that still lay eggs fairly regularly, my two Brahma ladies lived to be almost 10 and kept laying the occasional egg the whole time.
Don’t get me wrong, you can get dual-purpose birds that lay a lot of eggs, New Hampshire & Rhode Island Reds are both dual-purpose heavy layers. You can look forward to 200-280 eggs per year (and 8.5-pound roosters for the table).
Likewise, dual-purpose birds put some meat on their bones. It will take them longer to reach a good size for butchering but they’ll get there. Egg breeds just stay scrawny forever. Those brahmas up there? The roosters get up to 12 pounds!
These birds really fit into the homesteading lifestyle because they can make babies that look and act just like their parents. Almost all of the really broody breeds are in the dual-purpose category meaning they’ll even hatch the eggs and raise the babies when they’re done.
When you hatch eggs you have no control over whether you’ll get boys or girls. It’s roughly half and half so if you hatch out 20 chicks you’re going to have about 10 roosters on your hands.
Do you Need a Rooster in Your Flock? Find out
No one needs 10 roosters. But, give them a few months and you can turn those lovely boys into soup.
There are a lot of birds that fit into this category so you’ll have to keep going with the weeding out process to find the birds that are right for you.
One fun way to whittle down the potential breed list is to look at egg color, of course you’ve got white and tan/brown but you can also get blue eggs, green eggs and deep chocolatey brown eggs.
Bored with white eggs? Raise Chickens for a Colorful Eggs
Pet Chickens or Decorative Chickens
If you don’t care about eggs and you can’t stomach the thought of eating an animal you’ve raised from birth you still have some options.
The best chickens for pets are Silkies, they have a sweet personality and unique barbless feathers that give them a furry appearance. Cochins are another breed with sweet and gentle personalities, I would recommend getting bantams if you’re looking for pets.
Read more about Keeping Chickens as Pets
There are also ornamental chickens, birds that would love lovely scratching up your flowerbeds and pooping on your neighbors driveway.
Ayam Cemani are poor layers and technically edible but too small to really make plucking worth it. What they lack in utility that makes up in appearance.
Ayam Cemani are a jungle fowl from java and they are completely black; they have black skin, feathers, combs, and feet. They are also really expensive, the chicks are around $50 if you can find them.
Game Bantams are another group of ornamental chickens, they are small and have sassy/flighty personalities that make them better admire from afar than to try and cuddle with. The hens make good moms and the roosters are very aggressive with each other, you only want one of these guys!
Consider the Climate
Chickens have been bred for hundreds of years, resulting in a lot of very specific traits. All of the chickens we have today come from Red Jungle Fowl, those birds are right at home in the hot jungle but they’d be a lot less happy here in New York.
One of my favorite things about heritage breed chickens is that we know their histories. Right off the top of my head, I can give you three chickens that were born and bred for the miserable Northeast winters, birds that would probably be pretty bummed to live in the hot, humid jungle.
By the way, those three birds are the Wyandotte, the Dominique, and the Buckeye, read more about these specific birds in my break down on Heritage Chickens Bred for Cold Weather.
Learning the history of a breed can give you a lot of insight into its ideal climate.
When it comes to picking a breed of chicken you need to match them to your most extreme weather. By that I mean the temperature, not tornadoes, there are no chickens bred to survive tornadoes.
Chickens, in general, are hardy and adaptable, if given the chance they can adapt to most environments. It’s very important to let them adapt, that’s why you should put heat in your chicken coops.
If you keep your chickens used to 50 or even 40 degrees and you get a severe winter storm that knocks out the power along with subzero temperatures you’re birds aren’t going to be happy.
Why the Texas Storms were Terrible for Livestock
One thing I kept seeing over and over on social media was “our birds/cows/whatever are fine in Wyoming/New York/cold place your animals will be fine!” and it almost had me ripping my hair out because it’s just not true.
The reason our chickens do fine in the winter is that they’re used to it, it starts getting cold in October and by the time the really cold weather kicks in in January-March they’re (hopefully) fresh out of a molt and ready to go with a brand new thick coat of feathers to keep them warm.
Not to mention our coops and barns are built with winter in mind, in the south they have the opposite issue where they need to maximize the cooling ability.
If someone woke you up at 4 am tomorrow and told you you were running a marathon at 4:05am you’d be in a pretty rough place too.
Cold Weather Chicken Traits
The comb shape and size are the most obvious thing to look at when picking birds. You absolutely can raise breeds with large combs in colder areas but frostbite and exposure are more likely to be problems.
- Small combs, even on the roosters. Pea combs and rose combs are very close to the heat and less likely to get frostbite
- Large, bodied heavy birds with dense feathering to maintain body temp in cold weather
Read more about the Challenges of Winter Chicken Keeping
Hot Weather Chicken Traits
Not surprisingly the traits that make chickens thrive in hot weather are the opposite of the traits that make them great for cold weather.
- Large single combs for better cooling
- Smaller birds with less dense feathering and lower body weight
- Lighter feathers reflect the sun
The final thing to take into account when selecting your perfect breed of chicken is the size. There is a large spectrum of chicken sizes, from the tiny Serama to the small-turkey-sized Brahmas and Jersey Giants.
While the size does play into utility, for example, larger birds lay larger eggs, it can also play an important role in your comfort. If you’re just getting into chickens and you’re a bit uncomfortable handling large birds I would recommend looking into the mid-sized birds in the 6-8 pound range.
It might seem logical to go for smaller birds right off the bat but in my experience, you’ll have more predator problems (especially hawks) and they tend to have more abrasive personalities.
One of the meanest roosters I’ve ever met was an adorable bantam cochin, if he could have hit higher than mid-calf he could have done some serious damage.
Read more about Bantam Chickens
Can you Mix Different Types of Chickens?
It is safe to mix different breeds of chickens in a flock. If you’re looking for a little bit of everything this is a great path to take.
My flock is currently a mix of over a dozen breeds and years of their offspring, aka really odd-looking chickens. All of my birds are heritage breeds but they fall into the ornamental, egg layer, and dual-purpose categories.
I have my really good layers, my broody mama hens that will raise anything (including a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte that raised guinea keets last year!), and the tiny silkies that occasionally make an appearance on Zoom show-and-tell.
If you’re going to have them free-ranging it’s not as big of an issue to have mixed sizes but if you’ll be keeping them in a run you should match the size and personalities of your birds.
Every bird is different but the majority follow a set standard as far as being flighty or lazy, calm or aggressive. Chickens can be vicious and if they’re locked up and they get bored the more assertive chickens will beat up and potentially kill the calmer birds.
Read more about The Dark Side of Chicken Keeping
It’s really important that you don’t overcrowd your birds, especially when they have no option to escape. Based on personal experience my birds break themselves up into groups based on their personalities.
The calmer silkies, Cochins, and Brahmas stay pretty close to the barn, the Appenzeller Spitzhouben spend half the time in the trees eating all my fruit and the other half zipping around the fields. They’re the most active birds I have but the Easter Eggers aren’t far behind.
Looking for more info? Check out my Chicken Keeping page or start here: