What breed of chicken is best?
Today I’m continuing my Chickens 101 series with my observations on the various breeds of chickens we raised in our Florida yard.
To answer the question, we first need to consider the meat vs. eggs question. We’ll start with meat, then get to the laying breeds next, since most backyard chicken keepers are more interested in fresh eggs than in slaughtering their own chicken pot pies.
There are breeds of chicken that are bred solely for their meat. The most common example is the Cornish Cross. That’s the variety raised by commercial chicken farmers, Joel Salatin and most backyard farmers.
Cornish Cross chickens look and act like the result of a GMO experiment gone wrong. They’re ugly, stupid, and are fat and lazy. They just don’t have the intellectual spark of other breeds. When you look at them, you’re looking at a quick meal.
We’re talking very quick, too. Cornish Cross birds are ready to be “harvested” in eight weeks! That’s impressive. Their meat is tender and delicious, even if raising and slaughtering them isn’t fun.
One trick I discovered for making slaughtering tolerable is to have friends over. Particularly friends who are NURSES!
Nurses can handle all kinds of yucky stuff. Make friends with them. Trust me on this.
We raised two rounds of meat birds some years ago and just gave up on the process. The birds stink, they eat like pigs, they’ll have random heart attacks and die if you don’t harvest them on time, and my wife just thinks they’re icky. Which they are.
There are breeds of meat bird that are less disgusting than the Cornish Cross, though they don’t get big as quickly. A recently created breed is the Freedom Ranger(TM), but I haven’t raised those personally so I can’t attest to their behavior or flavor.
In general, I’d rather simply raise dual-purpose chicken breeds and then eat most of the roosters and the hens that get too old to lay well.
Let’s take a look at some of these varieties.
Dual-Purpose Chicken Breeds
Most of the chicks you’ll see for sale in the local feed store (provided you live in the country, as every good person should) are dual-purpose chicken breeds.
This means they have large enough bodies to be suitable for eating, but they’re also decent egg-layers. Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons and Silver-Laced Wyandottes fit into this catagory.
I find that the hens of these breeds, though tasty, are not calorically impressive compared to their freakishly large-breasted Cornish Cross cousins. Buff Orpingtons are probably the biggest dual-purpose bird of the chickens we’ve raised, but they’re so pretty and friendly I find them hard to kill.
Rhode Island Reds are scrappy birds that are stand-offish for the most part – they just aren’t all that sociable in my experience. If you want a pet chicken, go with a Buff Orpington.
Where the Rhode Island Reds shine is in their ability to forage and lay consistently. Tough birds.
We’ve also raised the Black Star sex-link birds and found them to be quite similar to the Rhode Island Reds. The Barred Rocks and Silver-Laced Wyandottes are both good birds but aren’t all that big for the table… and they’re not quite as good at laying as Rhode Island Reds or Black Stars.
Though Buff Orpingtons are quite pretty and friendly, they don’t lay as well as any of the other dual-purpose breeds I’ve mentioned so far. They lay decently, but they’re not quite up to the production levels I like to see when I’m paying for feed.
All of these varieties lay brown eggs of good size.
What if You Just Want Eggs?
My favorite egg-laying chicken breed is the regular old Leghorn. They’re funny, scrappy, white, small-bodied birds that lay great big white eggs.They also have cute floppy combs on the tops of their heads and have been quite sweet-natured.
Their laying is like clockwork.
I really love these birds, but they’re too skinny to be much of a meal if you decide to eat non-productive birds, hence the reason I would classify them as an egg-only bird.
Skip the Goofy Chicken Breeds
When you look through an online catalog of chicken breeds, the sheer variety becomes a temptation.
“Hey – we could get birds that lay blue eggs!”
“Wait, what about those ones with the mop-tops?”
“Whoa, look – this heirloom breed lays chocolate-brown eggs!”
I used to have an aunt who kept Blue Cochins. They were friendly, dopey birds with big bodies but like many of the showy chicken breeds, Cochins aren’t all that great at laying.
I suppose if you wanted lawn ornaments, you could pick a funny breed – but if you want to turn chicken feed into chicken eggs, skip the silly types.
We’ve also raised “Easter-Egger” chickens, AKA Ameraucanas, and found them to be foul-tempered and flighty birds in general, plus they don’t lay all that well. The eggs are cool but the return on investment is blah.
My Chicken Breed Recommendations
So – what breed of chicken is best? If you want meat, the icky Cornish Cross. If you want eggs and some meat, Rhode Island Reds or Black Stars. If you just want eggs, get the White Leghorn.
If I were restarting my own backyard chicken operation right now, I’d get a mix of Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds and Black Stars. I want some meat and some eggs, so my flock would produce both. I’d let them interbreed over time, perhaps adding in some Buff Orpingtons for the larger bodies, then incubate the eggs.
Every generation I’d select for the largest and best layers, as well as the best foragers and the brightest birds until I’d created a run of birds I was happy with. We mixed a selection of good breeds together in the past to try and make our own unique flock; however, that breeding experiment came to an unfortunate racoon-induced end in its second generation.
Now if we could just cross a pit bull with a Rhode Island Red, we’d be all set…