I’d like to introduce you to “The Ladies” of The Pony Draw. These are the our feathered friends who supply us with the beautiful and tasty eggs that are available for purchase. I have given this blog the title Popular Homestead Chicken Breeds not because I am an expert on which breeds are most commonly found on American homesteads, but instead because I am not an expert of any kind and thus any chicken breed that is part of my flock must be pretty easy to obtain considering that I have one.
I’ll share the birds that are part of our flock in the order in which we received them along with a little bit about how they came to us. I’ve also linked each to a breed description available through Backyard Chickens which is a great website for all things chicken as well as other backyard poultry.
We got our first batch of chicks in February of 2015. We had been talking about beginning our homestead with the purchase of chickens for sometime. When the local farm supply store had them available Neal decided now was as good a time as any. I received a phone call that afternoon that chicks were on the way. We had purchased thirty chicks on what would be the coldest day of the year. It was so cold in fact that the heating set up we had for these little chicks in our tool shed wasn’t enough. The heat was dissipating before it reached the chicks and we couldn’t safely hang any closer to them. So…..in the house they went. The tub you contain baby chicks in is called a brooder. It can be any kind of set up that works for you. Some people use their bath tubs as brooders. We use livestock water tanks for their dual purpose…brooders in the spring, water tanks the rest of the year.
This first batch of chicks was made up of 6 Rhode Island Reds (RIR) and 24 Barred Rocks. The RIR chicks came from what is called a straight run meaning they are a mix of male and female. The sex of RIR chicks cannot be distinguished on looks alone. The barred rocks were all pullets meaning all female. Barred rocks have off white dots on the tops of their heads as babies. The females have a larger dot than the males and so you can tell the difference in sexes when they are hatched. Sexing birds this way is about 99% accurate.Out of our 24 barred rocks, one did indeed turn out to be a rooster. As a young bird his coloring was much lighter than the hens and so he earned the name Whitey before we even know he was a roo.
Above (left to right): Plymouth Barred Rock and Rhode Island Red roosters. Aren’t they handsome?
We were lucky and all of our chicks survived into adulthood, but we still had a number of months before they were going to start laying. Most chicken breeds start laying around 20 weeks of age. A friend of ours let us know about a small livestock auction that was just a few minutes up the road from us that did a lot of chicken sales. We decided to make the trip and see if we could pick up a few laying hens to have eggs for our own use. What we know now is that is was not a very good idea and caused us to compromise the health of our flock, but more on that for another blog. Just take from this today that I DO NOT recommend adding grown chickens from an unknown source to your flock.
The first hens that we brought home were Bates Hatch American Game hens. Again, not knowing any better until later on, we had purchased two hens from a well known fighting line. Obvious, we were not interested in raising birds for fighting nor do we condone such activities on any level. Low and behold though those two little hens were excellent layers. They are the only hens in our flock that are white egg layers and during their first few months with us they laid consistently.
Above: American game hen with an Americana hen on the rooster behind her. You can see the similarities in color well here.
The next hen we purchased was a beautiful Buff Orpington. She remains one of the prettiest birds in our coop. She lays a large, brown, oblong shaped egg though not as regularly as I would like. I suspect she is a few years old and past her laying prime. She has a very calm and docile demeanor making her one of my favorite hens.
Above: Buff Orpington (center) with a Rhode Island Red hen in front.
Our next addition was two Blue Laced Red Wyndottes. These were by far the prettiest hens we had seen at this sale and in hindsight wish we had bid on the third hen and matching rooster that went through that night. These girls also lay a large, brown egg though like the buff not as regularly as a young bird. They sure are beautiful though and add lovely variety to the flock.
Above: Blue Laced Red Wyndotte hens. These girls are rather timid and regularly hide behind the rungs of the roost when I am in the coop.
The same night we bought the wyndottes we purchased two Red Sex Link hens. One thing about bidding at a poultry sale is that you can’t always get a good eye on the birds as they go through. The bidding goes fast and depending on your seat in the crowd (and how good your eye sight is) you may not get a good look at the condition of the birds. When we got them home I was able to see that these birds were in the worse shape I’ve ever seen a chicken. They had clearly been with several roosters to the point of losing almost all the feathers on their back and someone had debeaked them giving them the most awful under bite beak you’ve ever seen. I wasn’t sure they would be able to forage with the condition of their beak, but they ended up doing OK. These birds also had mites in the scales of their legs which we had to treat and while the mites are now gone the bulk of the damage to their skin is permanent. During the Fall of 2015, I found one of the golden comets huddled under the laying boxes, limp, and bleeding from wounds on her feather bare back. A bird that normally did not care to be held or touched was completely unresponsive to me when I picked her up. I asked for Neal to end her pain as I was uncertain that she even had a high quality of life before I found her that day. Her mate is still with us. Ugly as can be, but doing fine nonetheless. I wonder how well she will fair through the winter without a full coverage of feathers.
Above: My Red Sex Link hen. The ugliest bird I have ever seen.
The last set of birds to join use were five Ameraucanas. This breed is best known for laying the bluish green shelled eggs. I love this breed’s fluffy cheeks and multi-hued feathers. We purchased these birds as chicks along with a friend of ours who raised both hers and ours until they were old enough stand on their own with the adult birds in our flock. The Ameraucas are very similar in appearance to the American Game hens and I often have to do a double take when counting hens to make sure I counted the correct bird.
Above: Ameraucana hen.
We are coming up upon a year since we purchased the first set of chicks. We have lost a few birds to common farm problems; one to the extreme summer heat, one to a neighbors dog, and two to illness that we inadvertently brought in when we purchased the birds from the sale. We have learned a great deal in a very short amount of time, but couldn’t be happier with how our flock has turned out. Plans for the future include to establish a rotation to replace the birds in the flock every two years. A general rule of thumb is that a laying chicken will be most productive during the spring of its first adult year. That will be Spring of 2016 for the birds we raised as chicks. To maintain the highest levels of egg production we will want to always have a portion of the flock at this age.
Above: Neal feeding dried meal worms to the flock. They LOVE meal worms!
We did harvest two of the RIR roosters as food for our household as well as two other roosters that we had purchased at the sale during the year (a Black Sex Link and Dominique). One benefit of maintaining your own flock is that you not only have a egg source, but you also have a meat source in the unwanted roosters and unproductive hens. These birds lived a much more humane life than the broiler birds raised in commercial houses though the taste is very different and it may take some time to get accustomed to the different flavor.
Above: Photobombed by a barred rock. Sit down in the coop long enough and all of the birds we raised from chicks will hop up in your lap or on your shoulder to see what you are up to.
I have found chickens to be one of the easiest animals to add to a homestead. Even an urban homesteader can usually have a few hens in their backyard pending any city restrictions. They are inexpensive to purchase and raise which also makes them addictive. Start out with a few and you’ll end up with a big ol’ flock!
Happy homesteading and God bless!