This is the first in a 12-part series on the “Care of Farmyard Poultry”. The aim of the articles is to help you, the lifestyle farmer, obtain and manage a healthy backyard flock for eggs and meat. The articles also celebrate the fact there is sheer pleasure in having a little flock of contented and productive free-range poultry in your backyard. They contribute hugely to the lifestyle.
The 12-part series will cover a comprehensive range of topics relating to free-range poultry farming for the lifestyle farmer, including hatching and egg production, nutrition, housing, handling birds, management practices like clipping the wings and home killing, and common diseases. Although circumstances vary hugely from one region to another, lifestyle farmers throughout the western world have a lot in common, and the information provided in the articles is as relevant in Oklahoma or England as it is in New Zealand.
In this first part, we consider the history of poultry farming and poultry breeds
History of poultry farming
For many lifestyle farmers, having a few poultry (also called chickens) is an important part of their quality of life. There is something very relaxing for us all about the way chickens croon and warble as they meander through the yard fossicking for insects and pottering about in the dust. They lay eggs with rich yellow yolks, providing breakfast or lunch for the family on a daily basis, and poultry raised in the farmyard for meat can provide tasty meals. In well-managed backyard flocks, chickens can live for several years, and life spans of 6 to 8 years are not uncommon. So we can get to know our hens, and they can become pets as well as providing us with food for the table. It’s not surprising then that they have become such an integral part of the lifestyle many of us enjoy.
Backyard flocks are not a recent phenomenon of course. Our ancestors have been farming poultry for thousands of years. Wild fowl were first domesticated by the Egyptians over 5000 years ago and since then they have been farmed by peoples from many cultures around the world.
In the first half of the 20th century and in many countries of the world, laying hens were kept mainly in small groups, and most eggs were produced by backyard flocks, with a relatively small proportion from commercial flocks housed in arks or open-fronted houses. Eggs were not readily available in summer and annual consumption per head was not great.
After World War II the demand for eggs in the Western world increased and flocks became larger, and this was associated with an increase in the amount of disease and injury in the flocks. Cages for layer hens were introduced in the late 40s and although these enabled better control of disease and cannibalism, they raised real animal welfare issues because of the restriction of freedom imposed on the hens. Now, large intensive systems may involve carefully controlled environment houses containing thousands of cages and tens of thousands of birds. These “battery systems” are the norm around the world for mass-production of eggs for commercial purposes.
In some countries, there are alternative systems that may offer the hens more freedom. These include the “barn” and the “aviary”. The “barn” is a building in which layers are restrained within an enclosed barnhouse during their laying cycle and have access to a slatted and/or litter area within the barn. An “aviary” is a building housing layer hens without cages, similar to a barn but providing two or more floor levels giving free access for birds to all floors. In much of the western world since the 90s there has been public concern about intensive cage systems and a growing demand for “free-range” eggs. As a result, systems such as “barn” and “aviary” operations have become more prevalent.
The history of broiler chickens or meat poultry farming is similar. Although cages have not generally been used for broiler production, the bird density in housing systems has become very high. This can be a real animal welfare issue, especially towards the end of the growing phase when the birds are at their largest and consequently the amount of space per bird is at its smallest.
Perhaps as part of the backlash against intensive poultry systems and hand in hand with the increased popularity of lifestyle farms, small backyard poultry flocks have become more popular again. The lifestyle farmer, in choosing to farm a small number of poultry in free-range style, is farming them as they were farmed for thousands of years before intensive systems were introduced. We've come full circle!
Poultry come in all shapes and sizes and there are quite a few breeds to choose from. Here are just a few of the most popular breeds for the farmyard flock:
Australorp have black plumage with an intense beetle-green sheen. The cocks usually weigh 4 kg, and the hens 3 kg. They lay brown eggs, and are good egg producers with fair meat production. Good dual purpose fowls.
Note that Australorps hold the world record for egg production with one hen having laid 364 eggs in 365 days under official Australian trap-nest testing!
Orpington can be black, blue, buff or white. The cock bird weighs about 4.5 kg, the hen 3.5 kg. Its eggs are brown. It is relatively big and heavy, and docile. It is hardy and can tolerate cold weather better than many other breeds. Hens can show broodiness and make good mothers. They are late-maturing and don’t lay a lot of eggs for the amount of food they eat, but they are the largest of the roosters to fatten.
Plymouth Rock come in barred or white, buff or partridge varieties. The cock bird weighs about 4.3 kg, the hen 3.4 kg. It lays brown eggs, and is generally kept for meat and egg production. It is docile. The hens can be broody and make good mothers.
Rhode Island Red. Cock birds weigh about 4 kg, hens 3 kg. The hens lay brown eggs. This is a good dual-purpose medium-heavy fowl useful for meat production as well as for egg production. They are relatively hardy, and are the best egg layers of the dual purpose breeds, so they are a good choice for the small flock owner.
Leghorn is usually white, black, brown or buff. The cock bird weighs about 2.7 kg, the hen 2.1 kg, and the eggs are white. They are kept mainly for egg production, and they are small spritely noisy birds with great style. They rarely go broody. Another point in their favor is that they are good foragers and if they have a big range they can find much of what they need to eat themselves.
Minorca is black, white or buff. The cock bird weighs about 4 kg, the hen 3.4 kg. Its eggs are chalk-white and its egg production fair. They are principally exhibition birds.
Wyandotte is a popular heavy breed. The cocks are usually about 3.9 kg and the hens 3 kg. The eggs are brown. They are a good medium fowl for egg and meat production, and they are hardy.
Sussex comes in various varieties including Light, Speckled and Red. The cock usually weighs about 9 lb and the hen 7 lb. The eggs are brown. The Sussex is a good general purpose breed for meat and eggs, and the birds are alert, attractive and good foragers.
Anconas are small fowl that lay a fair number of rather small eggs, but they are good foragers and very hardy. The cocks weigh about 2.7 kg and the hens 2 kg. They have beautiful glossy black plumage with a green sheen and white-tipped feathers.
Bantams come in many varieties including Dutch, Polish, Australorp, Rhode Island, Sussex, Rosecomb, Sebright, Pekin, Japanese, Frizzle, Modern Game and Old English Game. Bantams in general are small, quiet, easily tamed and very good pets for children. Then there are the Frizzle bantams that have their feathers curling backwards. They are delightful little birds.
Among the most popular varieties are the Silkies, cute fluffy birds that lay well. They are often called Silkie bantams, but some people consider them a light breed fowl.
The Australorp x White Leghorn has been a popular cross, called the AustaWhite. It tends to broodiness however and the eggs are tinted. Inbred hybrid crosses “Hyline” and “DeKalf” have become more popular in many places.
For more details of breeds and varieties, see www.ansi.okstate.edu/poultry/chickens/chickens.htm