To celebrate the publication of Free-Range Chicken Gardens, we’re giving away a chicken garden start-up kit — including a coop plan, seeds for chicken-friendly plants, chicken feed, and more (including a copy of the book, of course)!
Choosing Your Flock
Chickens are relatively easy on the land compared to other livestock, thus making them an ideal animal to keep for almost anyone. There are many factors to consider, though, when selecting chickens for your flock.
The question of how many chickens to keep in your yard is a crucial one. With chickens, because there are so many ways to raise them and so many different kinds of garden settings, there is no straight answer, other than using practical sense, for how many to keep on a certain amount of land unless the law restricts the amount. If you are going to raise the birds for eggs for your own family’s use, then think about how many eggs you can eat in one week. A good rule of thumb is to have two birds for each person who eats eggs in your household. One hen can lay anywhere from 50 to 300 eggs per year, depending on breed, age, and environmental factors. Keeping chickens at different ages will ensure more consistent egg production, because when chickens get older, their egg laying slows down.
For free-ranging chickens, you want to make sure you do not have too many birds on a small piece of land without proper planning and management. Allowing a dozen chickens to free range in a backyard of 1000 square feet could decimate all green plants in a matter of days. But if a garden of that size is well designed for chickens and the number of birds is small—approximately three to five hens—it can work. For gardeners who plan on raising the chickens for eggs and as garden helpers, the chart on page 22 may be helpful in determining how many birds to keep. In general, free-range chickens should have no less than 250 square feet per bird. And I recommend keeping at least three hens, because they are social animals and will not be happy without a small flock of friends.
In choosing what kinds of chickens to keep, it is important to ask yourself why you want chickens. The way you raise them will vary depending on whether you want egg layers or broilers for the table, and whether they are meant to be family pets or the animal you plan on eating after a few short months.
With hundreds of breeds to choose from, you should do plenty of research to find the right breed for your situation. Just like plants, chickens come in different species and varieties. Breeds range in size, temperament, egg or meat production qualities, color, foraging abilities, and more. Some breeds do well in confinement while others do not. Many domesticated chickens originated in specific areas of the world—including Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, North America—and these breeds have different characteristics because of their original climate and geography, such as heat or cold tolerance.
Not all chickens are created equal for free ranging in a garden setting, and you may have reasons for seeking out a specific breed. I use the term “breed” loosely; there are purebred and hybrid breeds, or strains, available. Hybrids have often been bred to produce well commercially or to behave in certain ways. There are
many qualities in chicken breeds that may or may not be desirable for the chickens you keep:
- Heritage breeds. Much like heirloom plants, heritage breeds are a good option for preserving genetic diversity. Many have qualities of self-sufficiency, such as good foraging abilities, resistance to disease, and natural mating habits. Heritage breeds also possess a longer and healthier lifespan than most hybrid breeds. They grow and mature more slowly, which gives them time to develop stronger skeletal and internal systems before carrying all of their body mass.
- Egg-laying abilities. Some breeds are more dependable than others in laying eggs at a consistent rate. Some breeds can lay up to 300 eggs a year, like Leghorns, or as little as 50, like Cornish.
- Meat birds. Breeds known for their quick growth are often processed after a few short months. Because of the quick growth, they can have potential health problems, such as their legs not supporting the weight of their body. In most cases, these chickens are raised for a quick turnaround and are not going to be pets or intended to be free ranged in a garden setting, but they can be kept in other well-managed, confined range systems with access to foraging in the fresh air. Cornish or crosses are the most common types of chickens raised for meat as well as many dual-purpose breeds.
- Dual-purpose breeds. These self-reliant breeds are the most common for backyard chicken farmers because of their versatility, vigorous health, good foraging abilities, and disease resistance. Dual-purpose breeds include Australorp, Brahma, Buckeye, Chantecler, Dominique, Faverolle, Jersey Giant, New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, and Wyandotte.
- Temperament. Chickens can range from being docile and sweet to being flighty and unpredictable, or aggressive, making them difficult to handle. Some chicken breeds can tolerate being confined better than others, while some chickens are better foragers. Some chickens have strong wills while others are more passive. Keep in mind that the chicken’s personality may change or be a result of how it was raised. If chicks are handled a lot by humans, they will be more sociable than if they were not.
- Hardiness and climate tolerance. Whether you live in Anchorage, Alaska, or Orlando, Florida, you can keep chickens. In different climates, however, you will want to choose different breeds and housing. Some breeds are better adapted to being in colder climates. A good rule of thumb is that the heavier feathered breeds do best in cold. But knowing where the breed originated will give you hints about where it will do well.