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A Beginner’s Guide to Chicken Breeds

A Beginner’s Guide to Chicken Breeds

More than 50 years ago, Texas homesteader Bill Rosser knew his favorite breed of chicken, a preference he credits his family for helping to foster. “My grandfather raised them when I was young,” Rosser says. His grandfather introduced a 6-year-old Rosser to White Leghorns, and that remains his preference today. “They are small so they eat less, but still lay big, white eggs over 300 per year per bird,” he says.

Hundreds of chicken breeds exist all over the world, but only a few are suitable for domesticating in a homestead environment, and those fall into two camps — either single or dual-purpose, which means they can be bred for both eggs and meat. The three most common poultry descriptors to remember when talking breeds include layers (lay eggs but are not good for meat), meat (rarely lay eggs and are bred for their meat), and dual-purpose chickens (lay eggs and provide meat). 

It comes down to what particular breed and variety that you wish to raise.

When picking a breed of chicken, multiple factors should inform your decision: the purpose for choosing, the geography of where your homestead is located, your available resources, and the anticipated size of your flock. At the beginning, as you peruse the different breeds, their range of colors (white, black, red, brown, buff, gray), the varying feather attributes (silkie? pom-poms on their heads? long tails? feathery boots on their legs?), and their differing dispositions (peaceful? flighty? friendly?), it might seem overwhelming.

chicken illustration 

“It comes down to what particular breed and variety that you wish to raise,” says John David Adkins, secretary at the American Poultry Association, a national organization dedicated to educating people about poultry breeds since 1873. From his experience working at APA, he says that Barred Rock (Plymouth Rock), Cochin, and Wyandotte breeds are a few of the most commonly bred chickens in the country, and they adapt well to smaller farm areas and make great pets.

Think of it — if you had to buy 65% less food, how much more wealthy could you be?

For colder temperatures, breeders suggest Araucanas because they adapt well to colder temperatures and don’t mind being confined in a coop or pen. Alli Kelley from Northern Utah usually seeks out chickens that do well in the cold, but she doesn’t really pay attention to layers vs. meat breeds. She picks chickens for her homestead purely based on their ability to lay colored eggs.

But Len Elie, a full-time homesteader from Winchester, Va., raises broiler chickens that are crossbreeds of the Cornish family, on his nine acres. Unlike Kelley, he focuses solely on the breed’s ability to assist the bottom line of his food budget, noting broiler chickens offer the best “feed to meat conversion available.” Elie says his family grows 65% to 75% of the calories they consume. “Think of it,” he says. “If you had to buy 65% less food, how much more wealthy could you be?”

Whether it’s the eye candy of colored eggs or the budget-saver capacity of a breed, thinking about what you want to bring to your spread is a helpful step in the chicken-acquisition process. But if you’re still struggling to narrow your options, consider these experts’ suggestions, which identify breeds that are easily available and that adapt to different climates easily.

plymouth rock chicken
Barred Rock/Plymouth Rock
Navigate both hot and cold temperatures well, and are extremely docile. Dual-purpose. Brown Eggs.
cochin chicken
Don’t lay as many eggs as their laying peers and are considered “ornaments” or pets since they are fluffy, beautiful birds with pleasing dispositions. Brown Eggs.
wyandotte chicken
Lay eggs, deliver meat, and thrive in colder temperatures. Dual-purpose. Brown Eggs.
orpington chicken
Calm, friendly birds that handle confinement, barnyard life well. Dual-purpose. Brown Eggs.
red star chicken
Red Star
Known for their rugged personality and ability to handle the cold well. Dual-purpose. Brown Eggs.
rhode island red chicken
Rhode Island Reds
Good for cold places and confined spaces. Dual-purpose. Brown Eggs.
americauna chicken
Rare and hard to find, they do well in the winter and can tolerate confinement. Light Blue Eggs.


Scientific information source: My Pet Chicken, ‘Favorites’ source: Backyard Chickens and Facebook group – Chickens Chickens Chickens, Suggested by John David Adkins from American Poultry Association and Tom Watkins from Murray McMurray Hatchery