Choosing the right chickens to suit your lifestyle, pocket and backyard or farmyard can be nerve wracking for most newbie chook owners.
‘Where do we start?” is one of the most frequently asked questions. “What type of chickens do we get…how many…do we go for shavers or the more striking heritage breeds?” “Can we mix the two types?” The questions are endless…and rightly so, as there is much to consider when venturing into the exciting world of chook keeping.
We can divide the chooks here in NZ into two ‘basic’ categories – the heritage breed poultry and the commercial hybrids (and then of course there is the backyard blend of the two!) So if looking to keep chooks for a particular reason whether it be laying, pets, composting, garden ornaments or all of the above then making the right choice is all important.
THE COMMERCIAL HYBRIDS
The commercial hybrids here in NZ are the Brown Shaver or Hyline Brown. These are carefully selected hybrids produced by two large international breeding companies, ISA of Holland (who market the northern hemisphere-bred Shaver) and Hy-Line International from the USA. These are the hens they use in the commercial egg industry. They have been developed, designed and breed for their awesome laying ability and are capable of laying upwards of 340 to 360 eggs to 80 weeks of age. After 80 weeks it is no longer economically viable on a commercial scale so birds are normally culled. Man has designed the commercial hybrid hen to grow fast and mature quickly so it comes into the lay around 18 to 20 weeks unlike the heritage breeds that are slower to mature and come into the lay around 24 to 32 weeks. The Shavers and Hylines are compact little laying machines; they have an insatiable appetite, are vigorous foragers and produce oodles of chook mature. They are very good converters! Laying an egg is a mammoth task so all their energy and nutritional resources go into egg production. There is little if any left for maintaining long term optimum health or focusing on proper annual moults. So life in the fast lane eventually takes its toll with shorter life expectancy and general reproductive problems. The commercial hybrids are well suited to either free range or intensive housing so are very adaptable. They make both excellent layers and great family pets - a real bonus if you are keeping chooks on a budget and want the best out of your chooks. They might all look the same (both the Shavers and the Hylines are brown feathered birds with occasionally some white in the plumage) but they do have individual personalities.
So if you are looking for ordinary brown laying hens that lay lots of eggs these are the ones for you. And best of all they lay lovely big brown eggs too - a joy and delight to collect from your laying boxes. The commercial hybrids are available for sale to anyone either as day old chicks (yes all guaranteed females as the males are culled at hatching), perching or POL pullets or as ‘rescue hens’ from commercial farms. POL pullets are usually around $25-$30 each. For the first time chicken owner the Shaver or Hyline make a great beginner’s bird and their egg production will amaze you.
If the commercial hybrid is the egg laying machine of the 20th century then the heritage breed fowl can be described as the good old fashioned layer of the 19th century when our fowl fancier forebears worked with nature to craft and create attractive natural laying breeds that were both pleasant on the eye, the table and more gentle on the garden!
THE HERITAGE BREEDS
The heritage breeds are in our opinion ‘real’ fowl. They have a natural laying season (breeding season) and take time off every year to moult (shed their old feather coats and grow new ones) and lay down reserves for the new breeding season ahead. They seem to be more at ease with nature: they are less inclined to defoliate the garden and delight at laying eggs as means of producing the next generation rather than spitting out eggs to feed the masses cheaply.
The heritage breeds come in a myriad of different shapes, colours, sizes and temperaments. Plumage can vary in colour and can be laced, pencilled, mottled, spangled, barred, columbian or splash. Feathers can be soft or hard, silkie-like or curled back on themselves (frizzled). Leg and eye colour can vary. Combs can be single, pea or rose. Some breeds carry an extra toe like the Dorking, Favorelles and Silkie. There are breeds that sport extra feathery additions like fancy crests on their heads, muffs on either side of the beak and beards below the beak and those with feathered legs and toes. There are breeds that are solid and rectangular is shape (Dorking), others are curvaceous (Wyandotte) some are lean, tall and hard feathered (Indian Game) and others are soft, large and well rounded (Orpington). Some are petite in stature, no bigger than a pigeon (Sebright), whilst others are gentle giants (Croad Lanshan). Eggs can be different sizes and colours: some are bluey green (green eggs and ham!) some are a crisp white and elongated (Dorking) and others are speckled and dark brown (Welsummer). Personalities and temperament can vary between the breeds: some chickens are more laid back and friendly, others more enquiring, independent and/or adventurous. Some can be flighty in both temperament and agility. Some are regular layers and others more intermittent. Some go broody more often; others make great mothers and are better suited to raising young. So when it comes to the heritage breeds it is safe to say a chicken is not just a chicken!
Heritage breeds have a stunning array of plumage. The feathers have mainly a practical use, acting as a protective covering for fowl, protecting it from cold, rain, sun and injury. Each chicken on average has about 8500 feathers a good portion of which will be lost and replaced during the annual moult which usually begins around autumn (but it can happen at other times of the year too).
HERITAGE BREED CLASSIFICATION
Heritage breeds can be divided into 2 sizes of fowl - Large Fowl and Bantam. Both sizes can be found in many breeds, the bantam version having been created as a miniature of the Large. True Bantams, are those with no Large Fowl counterpart and the breeds under this heading are usually for ornamental purposes (best not kept as layers!)
In fowl, another important distinction is that made between 'Hard' and 'Soft' feather breeds. Generally speaking, the 'Hard' feather breeds are the 'Game' varieties, whose historical origins lie in the outlawed pursuit of cockfighting. Cockfighting was made illegal in Britian in 1849 but British breeders still wanted some sort of competition so resorted to poultry shows. As the term suggests, they also have tighter feathering. The 'Soft' feather breeds are those remaining that have an abundance or wealth of feather and fluff like the Wyandotte, Houdan or Orpington.
These days most of the original breeds of poultry are considered rare and it is the poultry enthusiasts that keep these birds and their bloodlines going. Many breeders and poultry clubs work to the NZ Poultry Standard (the chook bible) so the breeds continue to look like they should and hopefully good laying ability is maintained. Laying ability can vary from strain to strain within a breed and sometimes if the focus is solely on showing the laying ability of the bird can be compromised. So when purchasing from a reputable breeder always enquire what the laying ability is like of their line.
Large Fowl can be split into mainly heavy and light breeds.
Heavy breed (soft feathered): Have a heavier frame and generally are of good temperament. Many of the heavy breeds are now dual-purpose and used for both meat and egg laying ability. They lay brown or tinted eggs except for the Dorking. (Usually all red ear lobed fowls lay tinted or brown eggs.) Due to their heavier frame heavy breed hens are more inclined to stay behind standard poultry fencing of 1.8m in height. Most of the heavy breeds make ideal backyard layers like the Plymouth Rock, Sussex, Wyandotte, Dorking ,Rhode Island Red, Autrolorp, Barnevelder, Langshan, Faverolles, Frizzle, Maran, North Holland Blue, New Hampshire Red, Cochin and Orpington.
Light breed (soft feathered): Have a lighter frame and good egg laying ability. Lay white eggs except for the Welsummer (red earlobes). Most birds with white earlobes lay white eggs. Light breeds are inclined to be more agile and can be flighty in temperament. So if you are looking to purchase light breeds as your preferred choice make sure your pen is fully enclosed (netted over the top). Includes the Ancona, Andalusian, Araucana, Houdon, Legbar, Leghorn, Minorcas, Polish, Campine, Hamburgh, Welsummer and the Chinese Silkie.
True bantam (soft feathered): These are not a bantamised version of the light or heavy breeds but the real bantams like the Pekin , Rosecomb, Sebright and Japanese Bantam. The banties are really kept for ornamental reasons and are not prolific layers. The Pekin Bantams would be the most popular bantam here in New Zealand. Pekins make great wee broodies and do a fine job raising young. Due to their smaller size and feathered feet they are gentler on the garden. They make ideal pets for both children and adults alike. If you are after eggs (layers) choose a heavy or light breed.
Hard Feather (heavy and bantam): Includes the Old English Game, Old English Game Bantams, Modern Game and Indian Game birds. These breeds are more suited to experienced poultry keepers.
The comb is the fleshy growth on the chicken's head and is usually larger in the cockerel. It is one of the distinguishing features of each breed and comes in many varieties. Chickens cannot sweat so when too hot they can pump blood through the exposed comb and wattles to naturally cool the rest of the body. It is also a very good indicator of the overall heath of a bird and in the hen indicates whether or not she is in lay.
So if you are looking for attractive hens with plenty of character, for more variety in egg size and colour, and chickens that are generally less destructive on the garden then the heritage girls are for you. Heritage breed hens also make great feathered friends; they look a picture fossicking around in the garden and reward you in with lovely fresh eggs. Heritage breed pullets can be sourced from reputable poultry breeders but availability of breed will be dictated by the time of season and price is usually around $35 to $50 per pullet. Another point to consider is that the heritage breeds unlike the commercial hybrids are not vaccinated against the common backyard viruses like Mareks Disease and Salmonella. Due to the cost and the fact that the vaccine has to be purchased in large doses and needs to be stored in liquid nitrogen and administer on day one most if not all breeders of heritage breeds in NZ do not vaccinate their birds. The emphasis is more on producing robust and vigorous stock.
The Rarebreeds Conservation Society of NZ lists some of the poultry breeders.
“How many eggs do I need? How many hens do we buy?”
Shavers fit the bill perfectly if you are keeping chickens just for eggs. If you are working to a budget they are the most cost effective birds to both purchase and keep if comparing feed dollars to egg output ratio…considering the laying flock is refreshed (replaced) every couple of years. The older hens get the less eggs they will lay …you don’t want to be spending money on feed when the girls are laying less and less each year.
Number of chickens versus number of eggs
Say your household (family) requires 2 dozen eggs a week. That is roughly 4 eggs a day. Four commercial hybrid hens (in their first season of lay) will provide 2 dozen eggs per week if fed, watered and cared for correctly. Best to make it 5 birds as having an extra hen from the beginning is well worth it. Adding one at a later stage is never a good idea as chooks have their pecking order and are never happy when you try and introduce a single, younger chook to their chook house just to boost your egg numbers.
Now… if you were to opt for 5 heritage breed hens then you would find that egg numbers would be somewhat down on the Shavers as they would not be laying every day. Add to it some down time during the ‘off’ season when they moult (autumn to winter) and have time off again when they decide to go broody. Broody hens do not lay eggs. So to match the 4 eggs a day from 5 Shavers/Hylines we would recommend doubling numbers so ideally 8 heritage hens would be the number to keep to average 4 eggs per day.
A mix of both the hybrids and heritage can also be a good way to get an interesting backyard mix. We would, however, recommend getting all at a similar age, preferably from the same breeder and introducing them at the same time to the hen house to achieve a happy outcome.
Remember purchasing young pullets is better than buying mixed aged hens as they will have their best laying years ahead of them. Look to purchase pullets around 12 weeks of age so they have plenty of time to settle into their new hen house and environment before they start to lay. Advisable to keep them on the same feed that they are used to as the transition from breeder to your backyard is a stressful one.
SO TO SUM IT UP:
Have fun! Work out what type of chooks will best suit your requirements and your budget: shavers or heritage or a mix. Ask yourself how many eggs you need each week and work your flock size back from here. Speak to a local breeder to find out availability before writing up your wish list as what you have in mind might not be readily available. Remember buying chooks is not like buying sweets….they are not readily available in a jar on the shelf…so planning ahead is essential especially if you are after the lovely heritage ladies.
Gordon and Fionna Appleton
Appletons Animal Housing and Poultry Supplies
This newsletter was published 25th February 2013