What breed of chicken you choose will of course depend largely on what’s available, and that will vary hugely from one country to another. The breeds listed in Part 1 are some of the most popular breeds in the western world, although not all of these breeds will be available in every country.
If you want to keep chickens mainly for eggs, the best egg producers are probably the commercial hybrids, like Shavers and HyLine. These strains lay brown eggs and are derived mainly from the Rhode Island Red. They have been bred for high egg production in intensive systems and can lay up to 280 eggs a year, but they adapt well to life on the lifestyle farm. One disadvantage is that it’s not a good idea to breed from them because being hybrids their progeny are not as likely to produce as many eggs are their parents.
Pure breeds are generally differentiated into light, heavy and dual-purpose breeds. The light breeds tend to lay more eggs than the heavier birds, which are better suited for the table or as ‘sitters’ for hatching eggs. The main breeds and their attributes were discussed in Part 1.
If you want to farm your poultry for meat, you could choose an old breed like the Light Sussex. Alternatively, the slow-growing strains of black and red feathered hybrids are a good choice as they have been bred for free-range production. It may be possible to buy small numbers through a supplier. They can be purchased as day-old chickens mixed male and female. They grow fast and at 7 weeks they can reach about 2.5 kg liveweight. If they are kept on they will continue to grow until they are 12 weeks of age, but by then their legs may not support any more weight and they tend to put on fat, not meat.
Buying your birds
Whether you have your poultry for eggs, meat or show, you should choose your stock carefully. It is best to buy from a reputable source, and visiting local poultry shows is a good way to get to know who's who.
Give any bird you hope to buy a health check. It should have plenty of muscle over the breast bone. Make sure there are no discharges around the nose, beak and vent. Look for lice among the feathers, and make sure there are no skin sores and that there is no excessive feather loss.
If you are buying hens to lay eggs, check whether they are pullets or hens by feeling the distance between the two sharp bones on either side of the vent. If you can fit only one finger between these bones the bird is not yet laying. If you can fit in two fingers she is getting close, three fingers and she is in lay. A layer hen also has a large moist vent while a bird that is not in lay will have a dry small vent.
The birds’ plumage should be shiny and bright, and the birds should be active, alert and interested in their environment. They should have red combs and wattles even if immature, and bright shiny eyes. Roosters are generally larger than hens and have longer and redder combs and wattles.
If you decide to rear your own replacements you will need a rooster or two! However, some roosters can be quite aggressive, especially the game roosters. Heavy breed roosters are mainly docile, but in the breeding season, even a docile rooster can be very protective of his hens. If having a rooster in your yard might be a problem, it might be best not to have one at all. You could buy in your replacement birds or purchase fertile eggs and put them under a broody hen.
Table birds are often bought in as 2-day-old chicks to be reared in a brooder, or as 6-week-old birds.
For egg-laying, many free-range farmers buy in their birds when they are at the point-of-lay at about 18 weeks of age. It is best to acquire them at least a week before they start to lay to give them time to settle in. They lay from about 20 weeks of age for about a year until they moult.
You might find it most convenient to purchase hens in spring so they lay throughout summer, and many farmers find it convenient to replace their hens after their first laying period when they are about 18 months old. Alternatively, they may be kept on after this first laying period through the subsequent moult and then for a second laying season. If you choose to keep your hens any longer than this, they might lay fewer eggs, there will be a tendency for more eggs to be misshapen, more hens will get oviduct prolapse problems and more will become broody. On the positive side, however, the eggs will tend to be larger.
In some places, “spent” hens can be purchased cheaply from intensive poultry farms after their first laying period when they are about 18 months old. They are inexpensive because they will have to be farmed through a moult that takes about 10 weeks, and they have to learn to perch and they may be nervous about going into the open. Their food and water must be close at hand otherwise they will not find them. Rehabilitation can be a slow and frustrating experience. However with time, they can become quite good egg producers, and many owners like the satisfaction of offering the hens a good life after months of confinement.
What you should check for regarding the vaccination status of bought-in birds varies widely from one country to another. For example, in some countries vaccination against Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease and/or infectious bronchitis is wise, and the flock of origin should be free of Salmonella. It is best to check with a veterinarian to make sure that any birds you buy in have been appropriately vaccinated and sourced. It is wise too to have birds de-wormed before bringing them onto your property.
The birds’ living area should be prepared well in advance. If the housing has been used by other birds, it should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before new birds are brought in. A good store of food should be on hand and a reliable supply of clean fresh drinking water. Two-day-old chicks will of course need special facilities including a brooder.
The new birds should be shut in for at least 24 hours after they arrive so that they know where “home” is. When they are mixed with the established birds there is a risk of fighting because the home birds are often territorial. So the new birds can be penned separately for a few days so that they can get to know the home birds through netting before they are mixed. When they are mixed, offering plenty of food helps keep them busy rather than squabbling.