homestead chickens - healthy and productive mixed flock
Homestead chickens – what are your flock goals?
My first flock of chickens started with browsing through a Murray McMurray catalog and marking all the breeds that seemed to have good characteristics for my situation (like laying during hot weather) … as well as the ones that looked pretty. I ordered 2 or 3 of each breed to make the 25-chick minimum, and ended up with a colorful assortment of Rhode Island Reds, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Black Australorps, Black Sex-links, Red stars, Barred Rocks, a few partridge rock bantams and silver penciled bantams, a Japanese bantam, and a rosecomb bantam. The Buff Orpingtons were not available, so I got them at a local feed store, along with some Brahmas they had at the same time. A speckled Sussex came along as the “free rare chick.” And friend gave me some silky eggs to incubate which hatched into four sweet little fuzzballs that followed me like puppies. My goal was to have lots of eggs to sell, and a bunch of colorful assorted chickens wandering around to look at. I didn’t intend to raise any chicks at that time. (Though as it turns out my rosecomb bantam hen had other ideas, and presented me with MANY chicks!)
homestead chickens - my first flock of assorted chickens
From that flock, I learned a lot. I found that “flighty” breeds such as the speckled sussex were NOT for me. That crazy hen used to sit on top of the clothesline or coop door, would never go in with the others, and when startled was just as likely to fly straight at my head. She was actually the only one I lost … maybe a predator scared her one day and she probably flew right at it. Or there was a noise and she flew away startled, never to find her way home again. She was pretty, but it was almost a relief not to have to deal with her. And she only laid a few eggs for me.
Fast forward to now, when my homestead chickens are not pets, but part of a dynamic combination that makes up my homestead. What I want from them are enough eggs to eat, extra chicks to sell, and an extra rooster here and there for meat, as well as double duty of turning over the compost and helping control insects. What I’m willing to give them is a secure night coop, plenty of fresh water, but as little extra feed as possible. Foraging ability is a plus. To accomplish those goals, I’ve started with a similar group of chickens – I have more Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, Silver-laced Wyandottes, and silkies. The standards are all good laying breeds, all but the RIR are heavy bodied and good for meat, and the silkies I had hoped to be broodies for me.
I discovered to my delight that two of my silkies were not only wonderful broody hens, but are also good layers. Their eggs are smaller than standard hens, but not by very much. The yolks are of similar size, making their eggs a bit richer than typical eggs. So Pearl and Fidget became a foundation of my breeding stock, from the six silkies I started with. Both are white. Fidget took a bit longer to get started and usually raises smaller batches than Pearl, but Pearl was setting on eggs before she was 5 months old.
Pearl was crossed with my Rhode Island Red rooster, producing Rosie. Rosie is just as good of a mama as Pearl, and has already raised several batches of babies. She is more protective than Pearl, and just as good a forager. That’s another benefit … my silkies teach their babies to forage well and so they consume very little feed as adults, except in the coldest months. (As an added benefit — I often give the silkies eggs from the other hens to hatch and raise, so they will raise my new generations of standard hens, teaching them to forage as well as they do.)
Because of that success, I raised a lot of silky crosses the first year. I found the Barred Rock x Silky to make a nice-sized bird, so I saved a barred rock x silky rooster, and am working on breeding barred rocks with just enough silky to be a reliable broody. So far I am having success with 25% silky 75% barred rock.
As a summary – here is what I found to be the best traits of my flock to work with:
- Silkies – great broodies, great foragers, fairly good layers, large yolks. Not good for meat
- Rhode Island Reds – great layers, good mothers when crossed with silky. Not good for meat
- Barred Rock – good layers, some broodiness, great meat birds
- Buff Orpingtons – good layers, some broodiness, great meat birds
- Silver-laced Wyandotte – fairly good layers, more consistent layers in hot weather
- Black Australorp – good layers
A further advantage of barred rock hens x Rhode Island red roosters is the possibility of creating black sex-linked chickens (though since I grow out roosters for meat, it’s not such a big deal for me – I usually sell chicks when a bit older and I can usually tell the pullets fairly well).
I cull all extra roosters to help control breeding, since my flock is mostly free-range. I have caged roosters before to control breeding, but I’ve found that my three roosters work well with my size flock. Rowdy (barred rock x silky) takes “his girls” to the front area, and breeds almost exclusively with them. Red (RIR) is the flock “boss” and breeds most of the other hens, while Sgt. Rock (Barred rock) is his back-up man, and only sneaks in a breeding when he can. I’d actually prefer more barred rock in my chicks, since Red is a tall but lean rooster, and the barred rock produces a larger body. But meat is a secondary consideration for me right now, and the RIR genes are producing better layers for me. (Not to mention my barred rock hen that showed up with 17 chicks apparently prefers Sgt. Rock, so I have a nice batch of pure barred rocks coming into the flock.)
Homestead chickens are about producing what is needed (in my case eggs, chicks, meat – in that order) as sustainably as possible (meaning mine forage well and reproduce reliably). Health is of course important too, but I’ve had almost zero problems since I started the flock, so no need to cull any of them.
I did start with chicks from a breeder this time, instead of hatchery stock, except for the silver-laced wyandottes, which came from a feed store. I think this gave me larger-bodied birds, perhaps a bit slower on egg-laying, but very healthy and better able to survive free-ranging. As a group, their instincts seem to be much better than my first flock of hatchery birds. In fact, they sometimes insist on doing things their own way (my nicest barred rock hen disappeared for weeks while she set a nest somewhere in the fields or woods, only to return with 17 chicks!).
But I think homestead chickens should be hardy, healthy, and survive well on their own, since they free-range and forage all day. The eggs come at a satisfactory rate, and are large or medium and many have larger yolks, which suit me just fine. Since I’m not pouring bag after bag of layer feed into them, a slight reduction in eggs is no cost to me. And right now I have so many chicks I’m not even sure how many chickens I have, and very few are ever lost to any predator. Soon I will probably have many more, since now 5 are broody.
Of course, many of my chicks are not 100% purebred, which can limit the market if people are interested only in purebred chickens. But to be honest, I find these to be much more useful birds, so that’s what I’m breeding. And I do have a good many purebred chicks as well, so I’m not out of that market. But if I were buying, I’d be looking at usefulness rather than blood, and would WANT the silky mixes. Also, it turns out that a flock of mixed-breed chickens are very attractive – every one is pretty and so many are unique! (I haven’t found this to be true of mixing duck breeds, which sometimes “muddies” their appearance.)
So ask yourself what are your goals for your flock of homestead chickens? If you want to sell purebred chicks, you’re probably better off staying with one breed unless you want to house and pen them separately (which cuts out free ranging). If you want to raise chicks, it’s much easier with a hen that goes broody – several breeds are suited for this, but bantams are some of the best (and silkies can be the best of the best). However, I do have a reliable purebred Buff Orp and Barred Rock that each raise chicks for me. Foraging ability was a must for me, but I have found that it is a skill that can be taught by the mother hen, so choose your broodies well! And health is an important consideration no matter what kind of livestock you are raising … any animal that has any tendency to problems should be culled from breeding. It costs just as much, or more, to raise sickly animals as healthy ones, and healthy ones produce better. If you plan to sell chicks, research your market first to make sure the breed(s) you plan to offer sell well locally.
Good luck with your flock of homestead chickens! I hope you enjoy yours as much as I do mine!