Chicken breeds come in all shapes and sizes, from hulking great Brahmas down to ridiculous little Seramas. Which chicken breed to choose depends on your attitude to the laying process, and it’s worthwhile doing a little reading when you find out what’s available locally.
For beginners, we recommend Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, or hybrid birds based on either of these breeds. This will give you large and vigorous birds that are disease-resistant and lay well, but have very little tendency to go broody. For information on chicken breeds take a look at poultrypages, but to give you an idea of how different breeds can be, here are a few examples.
ISA Browns (sometimes just called ‘utility birds’) are usually easy to get and are good first-timers, being good layers and not all that fond of flying. A light-bodied bird, so not suitable for eating. Up to 300 medium eggs per year.
Rhode Island Reds are tough and resistant to illness, and are usually docile, quiet and friendly. Good free range birds, heavy enough for meat, and 275 large eggs per year.
Silkie bantams look fragile, but are hardy enough to free range despite looking like someone has sneezed in a hat shop. They like to sit on eggs (making them handy incubators) and are extremely docile and friendly. They lay about 150 tiny eggs a year.
As you read descriptions of various chicken breeds, you might be forgiven for wondering why everything hasn’t been bred to lay as heavily as possible; the answer is that the more heavily a bird lays, the shorter its egg-laying career will be.
You have to decide what your attitude to laying is. On one hand you might choose White Leghorns or ISA Browns and install a booster light into the house to extend “winter daylight” hours and squeeze out every last egg for a year or two; on the other you might prefer to have Cuckoo Marans laying only around 180 chocolate-brown eggs, but laying tolerably well into their fourth year.
It’s important to know that chickens don’t lay their eggs regularly around the year. In the summer when light levels are high they will lay frequently, but as winter approaches and the days get shorter the numbers of eggs you collect will begin to drop off until the annual moult approaches, at which point there will be very few – if any – eggs until the bird feathers up again. Egg production will then be relatively slow until the days lengthen again, and then it’s business as usual.
For this reason, if you want to have enough eggs for your family right through the year, you’ll need to keep enough birds to provide them when days are short and production is low. This means that you’ll end up with too many eggs during the summer, but the surplus is easy to sell and should more than pay for the year’s feed bill.
By the way, you don’t need a rooster for your birds to lay – only if you want the eggs fertilized!
‘If you’re relying on those eggs, you’ve also got to think about how to deal with chickens at the end of their productive life. Some hybrids lay like metronomes in their first year, every other day in their second, and then stop completely. This means you have to turn over (read ‘kill and eat’) your laying stock every 18 months or so, or treat your ex-layers as pets. Chickens usually live from five to ten years, depending on breed.’