Chicken Breeds for Backyard Farming

Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less) discusses several of the favorite heirloom chicken breeds in both the egg-laying, meat, and dual-purpose categories.

Egg-Laying Breeds

Ancona* – Hardy egg-laying breed less than 6 pounds but able to lay over 200 eggs per year.

Hamburg* – Highly active and colorful breed producing over 230 eggs per year.

Leghorns* – Not just the typical white, leghorns are faithful layers available in a variety of colors.

Penedescena* – A rare Spanish breed that lays extremely dark eggs.

Polish Crested – Originally bred for egg-laying there are still strains that will lay more than 2 eggs a week. However, many of the exhibition strains are bred for their looks instead of production so keep your needs in mind when selecting a chicken. The Polish crested is named for the full crest of upright feathers on their heads that give the birds an amazing, even comical look. Eggs are medium and white and the birds are about the size and build as leghorns.

Sumatra – More jungle-fowl in body type and attitude, this breed produces a good amount of small white eggs each year. They are broody, active, hardy, and make excellent mothers. The chickens are active and do not tolerate close confinement well. In a free-range situation they excel and are quick fliers, able to roost high in trees and evade capture from predators more easily than the heavier dual-purpose breeds.

Meat Breeds

Cornish Cross* – Most popular meat breed and the one used in commercial productions, they aren’t as well-suited to the typical backyard format.

Java – One of the oldest meat breeds that is parentage stock in both the later Jersey Giant and Plymouth Rock breeds.  Java chickens do extremely well when given the chance to forage for themselves even if their growth rate isn’t up to modern commercial standards but they do well enough. They lay a large brown egg and are moderate-good layers in addition to being able to fend well on their own. Unlike some of the game or jungle fowl breeds, Javas are typically docile and easy-to-handle.

Javas are good foragers. Photo by EarlRShumaker

Jersey Giants* – Slower maturing than the Cornish Cross, these are the largest of the pure breeds.

Old Cornish* – One of the Cornish Cross parent breeds grows slower and has a calm temperament.

Dual-Purpose Breeds

Ameraucana* – Blue-egg layers with ear muffs and tails that are often confused with Araucanas.

My Americana Rooster. Note the tail feathers and ear muffs.

Araucana* – Araucanas have no tail feathers but also have the ability to lay blue eggs.

Black Australorp* – Moderate egg-layers with  medium-large size, but the world record egg-layer is a black australorp.

Buckeye – An American breed with a pea comb and full-bodied build that tolerates cold winters with ease. These gorgeous birds mature between 7 and 10 pounds, and lay around 175 eggs per year making them an excellent dual-purpose breed. At one time it was a severely threatened breed but recent efforts have helped bring the Buckeyes back from the brink. My favorite feature of the Buckeye is the deep mahagony coloring, more richly saturated than the typical Rhode Island Reds.

Chantecler* – Bred to tolerate cold, these birds make good egg-layers and good meat birds at the same time.

Cochin – One of the most eye-catching breeds, the standard Cochin is also a large chicken with hens reaching over 8 pounds and roosters over 11. With an average around 160-180 eggs per year they are generally a good dual-purpose as well. Cochins are noted for their broodiness and some hens will even hatch multiple clutches of eggs per year. This trait makes them useful as foster moms for turkeys, quail, geese and other poultry eggs in a backyard homestead situation. Their feathered feet can pose a problem in wet, cold conditions, encouraging frost bite in the toes. These heavy birds do not fly well and are generally calm and docile chickens so may be more prone to predation if not provided with sufficient protection.

Cochin chickens – note the deep saddle and feathered feet.

Cuckoo Maran* – Medium-large birds with average egg-laying abilities, their stand-out feature is the very dark, speckled eggs they lay.

Delaware – Developed in the state of Delaware with the intention of becoming a commercially accepted breed, these gorgeous birds are actually a fabulous dual-purpose that does well in the backyard. They are rare because they were quickly usurped by the Cornish Cross for commercial purposes but didn’t have a chance to become widely accepted in rural communities and with backyard breeders. They don’t gain as quickly as the hybrid meat breeds, but have excellent feed conversion rate and breed true to type which makes them better suited for backyard chicken coops.

Minorca* – Not as winter-tolerant as other breeds, but excellent layers with medium size.

Orpington* – Gorgeous, colorful and fluffy chickens that are heavy-sized egg-layers and tolerant of a variety of weather conditions.

Wyandotte chicken on the left, Buff colored Orpington on the right. Photo by mazaletel.

Plymouth Rocks* – Large, dual-purpose chicken that is one of the most popular breeds for backyard chicken flocks.

Rhode Island Red* – Prolific egg-layers with beautiful red coloring, these are popular as well, and the parent breed of Black Sex-Linked layers.

Dark red colorations and great dual purpose. Photo by sammydavisdog

Sussex – An ancient English breed, the Sussex is a great dual-purpose breed. They produce about 250 eggs per year and mature between 7 and 9 pounds. They are good foragers and grow to a full mature weight fairly quickly compared to some of the other layers. The Sussex breed is a great mix of sweet-tempered and docile (they don’t usually try to fly away and tolerate confinement well) but are also good foragers.

Unusual coloration on the speckled sussex. Photo by owlmonkey.

Welsummer* – A rare breed that is making a comeback in backyards because of their friendly nature, good mothering and good egg-laying.

Wyandottes* – Excellent layers with decorative color variations and great personalities for backyard chicken coops.

*Discussed in-depth in the book.

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  1. Rhonda says:

    Don’t forget our first American bird – the Dominique. They are a good dual purpose bird that are great foragers/layers/mothers. Their rose comb is also less likely to get frost bite in cold areas. The feed bill is also better with these birds over Barred Rocks or Orpingtons as Dominiques are a bit smaller & seem to mature more quickly. I also raise Orpingtons & Ameraucanas but the Doms beat them hands down as far as efficiency goes.

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