Updated: Jul 28
Choosing the right breed or breeds for your flock is an important part of raising chickens. But, it can be an overwhelming prospect when you consider the hundreds of breeds available.
To start with, consider your needs, and why you want chickens. Do you want lots of eggs, colorful eggs, meat chickens, dual-purpose (meat & eggs) birds, friendly chickens, fancy chickens, or exotic birds? Whatever you are looking for, the wide world of chickens has something to offer everyone. It’s important to know what you want from your flock before getting started because not all chickens are the same.
If your goal is to have lots of farm fresh eggs, but you purchased Sultan chicks because they look pretty, you’ll be sorely disappointed when you find out they’ll only lay one large egg a week. Before you end up with breeds that won’t serve your purpose, here are some things to consider when choosing chicken breeds for your backyard flock.
The Four Main Categories of Chickens
While there are hundreds of breeds of chickens, they all fall into one of four main categories:
The Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breeds as chickens from a recognized American Poultry Association (APA) breed that are naturally breeding, have a slow growth rate, and a long life span. Examples of heritage breeds include Rhode Island White, Dominique, Sultin, and Faverolle.
Egg Laying Breeds:
Chickens that fall into this category have been bred to produce large quantities of eggs through their short production lifetimes. Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Orpington, and Australorp are all good examples of prolific egg producers.
Dual Purpose Breeds:
These “jack of all trades” birds offer the best of both worlds since they are productive egg layers that grow large enough to be used as a meat bird later in life. Good examples of dual-purpose birds include Wyandotts, Marans, Jersey Giant, and Sussex.
As the name suggests, these chicken breeds are bred specifically for their meat. Birds in this category grow rapidly, put on weight at an almost alarming rate, and are ready for slaughter at around nine weeks. Brahma, Buckeye, and Cornish Cross are some of the more popular meat breeds.
Your initial consideration when choosing a breed of chicken should be the climate in which you live. Most chickens are fairly cold tolerant, however, many breeds struggle in the heat. For example, Sumatras, Plymouth Rocks, Andalusian, Phoenix, and Minorca chickens like heat. But Brahma, Orpington, Chantecler and Australorp chickens prefer cooler climates.
If you live in an area that’s warm or humid for much of the year, then choosing heat-tolerant breeds will be important. Look to Andalusians, Leghorns, and Penedesencas. Their smaller, sleek bodies and large combs help them stay cool in extreme heat.
On the other hand, if you live in a cold climate, look for larger-bodied breeds with smaller or rose combs. These include Australorps, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Cochins, and Wyandottes.
All About the Eggs
Every breed produces eggs, even ornamental breeds, but egg size and production vary. If maximum egg production is your goal then you can’t go wrong with a Wyandotte, Australorp, Barred Rock, Delaware, Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, or Speckled Sussex. These breeds are known for their egg-laying prowess. While no chicken lays an egg daily, a good layer will generally produce 5 to 6 eggs a week during the spring and summer months.
Keep in mind that many birds will not lay eggs in the colder winter months when much of their energy is diverted to keeping their body temperatures up. But, there is such a thing as “winter layers”; those breeds include Chantecler, Rhode Island Red, Buckeye, Australorp, and Orpington.
If a basket full of colorful eggs is your heart's desire you can have that too. Most everyone is familiar with the white eggs that are predominant in the grocery store, and brown eggs are synonymous with “farm eggs.” But the truth is that eggs come in a whole rainbow of colors. Easter Eggers will produce eggs in a range of blues and greens. Olive Eggers will deliver light green to dark olive eggs. Marans will provide you with deep russet eggs. Or, if you’re looking for a pinkish cream check out Light Sussex, Mottled Javas, Silkies, and Faverolles.
If you have small children or dreams of “lap chickens” who are content to be cuddled and eat out of your hands, then Australorps, Brahmas, Silkies, or Buff Orpingtons are all great choices.
At our house, we jokingly call these “gourmet chickens.” There are breeds with feathered feet like the Cochins, Faverolles, or Marans. You can opt for puffy cheek muffs with Easter Eggers or Ameraucanas. If a crazy hairdo is your vibe, you can select Polish chickens, Silkies, or the always frazzled-looking Frizzles that have feathers pointing every which way. While most fancy breeds are not known for being the best layers, they certainly entertain and delight with their unique appearance.
Do I Need a Rooster?
If all you are looking for is eggs, you typically don’t need a rooster. Your hens will lay eggs with or without one present. A rooster’s function is to mate and fertilize eggs. Meaning that you will be collecting fertilized eggs, instead of edible ones.
If you hope to hatch your chicks yourself, keeping a rooster in your flock will help you achieve that goal. They are protective and provide care for the ladies in their flock and can be great fun to have around.
On the flip side, they can be aggressive, and loud, and many cities have ordinances against keeping them.
What’s in Our Flock?
When we first got started with chickens, I did hours of research to select the best breeds for our mountain-top homestead. We live above 8,000 feet, in prime predator territory with a climate that can range from 110 in the summer to negative 10 in the winter. So, I had a bit of sleuthing to do.
I wanted cold hardy breeds with docile temperaments that would egg through our cold winters. In the end, we settled for Buff Orpington, Australorp, Dominique, Gold Laced and Silver Laced Wyandottes, and Easter Eggers. Our ladies are all top layers, providing us with a rainbow of eggs that only slows slightly in the winter.
This year, we plan to complete our egg rainbow and add in Olive Eggers and Black Copper Marans. If you are new to the world of chicken keeping, be sure to check out our Chicken Keeping 101 page.
What breeds are on your must-have list? Tell us all about it in the comments below! And, until next time,