Which Chook?

One of the questions we are frequently asked is, “Which type of chickens should I get?”

There are many breeds of chickens and each of them serve a different purpose. More and more, people with small to medium setups are looking to move away from the standard commercial brown laying chook.

It can be very difficult to give advice on this subject, since its not just about what breed of chicken you want, but also the different lines within that breed.

The Australorp is a perfect example of this conundrum. They should be a terrific choice for a backyard layer because they are the classic Australian chook. However, you can’t just buy Australorps and assume you’ll get the 300 eggs per year suggested by most Internet sources.

Around the same time that commercial egg production companies moved away from using Leghorns, New Hampshires and Australorps to lay eggs for public sale, chook enthusiasts began to breed them for show. The net result of that changeover is a lot of pure breed chooks in Australia have lost their value for the backyard chook keeper. In the show ring, egg laying ability and meat quality don’t even rate a mention, so have been slowly bred out by those attempting to get better colour, feather or combs.

So in Australia we have many strains of pure breeds that should (and used to) lay 250 – 300 eggs per year and are now barely scraping in at 150 – 200 eggs per year if you’re lucky. In my opinion, that simply isn’t viable for the backyard scenario.

But don’t lose hope just yet – some utility strains do still exist in Australia. You just have to be careful when buying.

The most important question to answer is what you want from your chooks. If you’d like to keep the same ones longer term and have them as pets for your kids, then brown layers are not for you. Commercial laying hens are bred for high production of eggs, but they cannot sustain it for very long. They will lay lots in the first season, well in the second and then the egg count will drop dramatically – leaving you with an unproductive mouth to feed. Commercial companies simply switch out their layers every two years.

So if you don’t want new chickens every two years, you’re looking for a pure breed. But which one?

The difficulty now is choosing the breed that fits you and then finding some that are still up to standard, at the very least in the laying department, and depending on your needs in the meat one as well.

Asking the owner if their chooks lay lots of eggs doesn’t really work – if they keep more than one chicken/pen, how can they really tell?

There are several commercial hatcheries that still deal in one or two pure breeds. While their chooks are more reliable layers, they tend to be on the small side. This makes them more efficient because they eat less, but in my experience, the smaller the bird the flightier it is. If you’re simply searching for reliable laying but don’t want to bond much with your birds or breed with them, then pure breeds from commercial hatcheries might be a good option for you.

If you want chooks your kids can have as pets, we would recommend choosing one of the larger pure breeds. The bigger birds tend to be more docile and therefore make much better pets. Of course, depending on what you choose, you may be sacrificing a small amount of laying ability. There are plenty of beautiful pure breeds out there that make great pets if you’re willing to have a few less eggs.

If you’re looking for a good broody hen instead of getting an incubator, then you simply can’t go past a Silky. They are fantastic mums and quite cute too.

Bantams are always an option if you are short on space, but keep in mind they do lay smaller eggs, which means you could need two eggs where you would normally use one.

There really is no simple solution to this problem. Perhaps the only viable solution is to support the small-scale backyard chook enthusiasts who are doing their best to return some of the pure breeds back to their fantastic utility selves. This is, of course, a long-term solution but with careful breeding it is possible.

We recently acquired an older leghorn hen that still lays 80 – 100gram eggs six days a week for 90 per cent of the year. We found her a rooster and are incubating all of her eggs to expand our laying flock. She is a laying breed, so we don’t need to worry about meat quality.

So, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this blog post comes in several parts:

• Be very clear about what you want out of your chooks
• Consider line as well as breed
• Shop around and ask lots of questions
• Generally, the bigger birds tend to be more docile
• You’ll always need to compromise

Good luck in your search for the right chooks for you. We have included some pictures of the widely available backyard breeds below!

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