Category: Chicken breeds
We like to raise new hens every year for optimal egg-laying, and recently we’ve mostly started those chicks by hatching our homegrown eggs. However, last year I opted to branch out into ducks, and that meant that we went into winter with a very small chicken flock — just three hens and a rooster. Since all four of our chickens are siblings, I felt like that was too much of a genetic bottleneck, so I opted to start from scratch this year rather than hatching our own chicks.
Of course, buying chicks will also give me an opportunity to experiment with new breeds, something I always enjoy! In addition to our tried-and-true Black Australorps, we’ll be experimenting with Dominiques, New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, and Buff Orpington this year. (The photo shows Buff Orpington chicks at Cackle Hatchery, where we placed our order.) Here’s why I chose each new breed:
- Buff Orpington — one of the parent strains of our beloved Australorps, good winter layers
- Dominique — reputed to be excellent foragers and good winter layers
- Rhode Island Red — very prolific, good winter layers
- New Hampshire — good winter layers
To learn more about the breeds we’ve already tried and deemed wanting or perfect for the homestead, check out my ebook Thrifty Chicken Breeds. And, in the meantime, if you’re planning a chick order, be sure to put it together sooner rather than later! For dependable laying of your pullets before winter, you’ll get best results if your chicks arrive by the end of March.
many homesteaders, I’m not willing to keep a heritage breed if it
doesn’t pull its weight on my farm, so when egg numbers dwindled this
winter, I started pondering the idea of adding a few hybrids back into
the flock. I know from experience that Golden Comets
keep plugging along all winter with barely lowered production, and I’ve
read similar reports about other production strains like Red Sex-links
and White Leghorns.
Chicken Breed Chart
sticks to heirlooms, but puts a snowflake beside species that are
reported to lay well during cold weather. Their winter egg-layers
include Buckeye, Chantecler, Delaware, Dominique (aka Dominiker),
Faverolle, Jersey Giant, New Hampshire (aka New Hampshire Red),
Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and
Wyandotte. However, if you pay attention to the number of eggs
the winter-laying habit, you’ll see that only Rhode Island Reds are
prolific layers year-round as well as being good winter layers,
followed up with Delaware, Faverolle, New Hampshire, and Sussex.
Another thing to
consider if your egg production dwindles in cold weather is being more
hard-nosed about age of your hens. First-year pullets will
usually lay through the winter without a problem, but after that,
heirloom breeds especially are prone to take a long time off after molting. So if you want to
have winter eggs and you’re adamant about sticking to heirloom breeds,
your best option might be to raise new layers each spring early enough
that they’ll be in full lay by fall.
To get an idea for the difference between winter-laying ability of one
year old and two year old hens, take a look at the chart to the left,
showing our flock’s average number of eggs per day last winter (blue)
and this winter (purple). Despite going into the 2011/2012 winter
with only three Australorps who were old enough to really be laying
well, plus three Marans who started a bit late and mostly stopped, we
still had more eggs than this winter with our larger flock of three
mature Australorps, two mature Cuckoo Marans, one Australorp pullet,
and three Rhode Island Reds. (As a side note, even though they were sold
to us as first year pullets, after perusing their combs
and the way they mostly stopped laying for the winter, I’m pretty sure
those Rhode Island Reds were actually going into their second year when
we bought them.) All this despite taking care to ensure our
flock has everything they need to thrive over the winter.
In the end, I think I’m
going to hedge my bets by adding a few hybrids to our flock, and also
by keeping my layers for only one year rather than two. While the
shorter life span means we spend more feed getting new birds up and
running each year, it probably evens out once you figure in all the old
hens who take the winter off but keep eating. Plus, we’ll have
more delicious stewing
hens to eat, which
is a very good thing.