Our mission is to share the wonders of the natural world by publishing books from experts in the fields of gardening, horticulture, and natural history. Grow with us.

Free-Range Chicken Gardens: Choosing Your Flock

by Timber Press on January 17, 2012

in Gardening, Natural History

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)!

If you’ve been thinking about exploring the many benefits that chicken gardens provide, head over to our contest page and sign up. Or you can read this excerpt from Free-Range Chicken Gardens:

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.

Chickens forage near a vegetable garden

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.

Selecting Breeds

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.

A selection of chicken breeds: Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Silky, Black Star, and Ohio Buckeye

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jack Speese May 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Excellent advice. I’ve had poultry most of my life. If you want a docile breed, any of the dual purpose breeds like Rhode Island or New Hampshire Reds, Plymouth Rocks, the sex links (which are crosses between Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Delawares, Wyandottes) Delawares, Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons or Brahmas will fit the bill. I’ve raised them all. Plus all of these breeds are pretty. It’s hard to beat a flock of Rhode Island or New Hampshire Reds for sheer beauty. Plymouth Rocks and Wyandottes come in a wide variety of colors. Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons are good setters and mothers if you want to raise your own chicks. But oddly enough, the best setting hen I ever had was a black sex link, which is a commercial brown egg layer (barred plymouth rock hen x rhode island red rooster hybrid). If you want Easter eggs, though, consider a white egg laying breed like a Minorca or Leghorn, or a Blue Andalusian. Brown-shelled eggs don’t dye well. These lighter breeds are accomplished fliers, though, so you will need appropriate fencing. And for pets, bantams can’t be beat. Just use two bantam eggs to equal one regular egg in recipes. Also Cochins, one of my favorite. They are not tremendous layers but are great setters and mothers, calm, and beautiful birds. They too come in many different colors. Polish are another beautiful variety, with their crests. They lay white eggs and are very calm and gentle. Although there are indeed factors to consider such as cold tolerance, desired egg color, intended use of your birds, etc. you really can’t go too wrong choosing a breed just because you like its looks. A well-cared for bird of any breed will do great. But it is true about broilers, though. They are meant to be raised to slaughter size and that’s it. Even another large breed like a Rhode Island Red will look like a parakeet at 8 to 12 weeks (the average slaughter time in a home flock) compared to a broiler. Broilers have the gene for double breast meat and are bred for fast growth. Many of the commercial broiler strains can’t even mate naturally. The same is true for commercial broad-breasted turkeys.

2 Brendan Murphy May 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I agree with Jack, the New Hampshire / Rhode Island Red is a magnificent bird and I can spend hours just watching my flock of 12 peck and scratch their way free range around my place.
Well cared for birds make all the difference – be careful feeding meat if you free range – meat attracts predators more than poor management.
Overall, bringing chickens into your family is a great lifestyle choice and shares responsibility and commitment. Great article and conversation starter.

3 Norm dyche May 10, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Chickens disappearing: Had a neighbor at the end of our street start loosing birds to other flying critters i.e. eagles and red tailed hawks. Not much a problem when matured but when they are young it a feast. I suggested he go to a feed or bird store and purchase a decorated duck, or bird that has moveable wings, as the wind (which we seem to have a fair share) they will rotate. Seems to keep them away from all mine. He tried it and mentioned the other day that the eagles and hawks don’t bother his flock anymore It is sad when you start loosing one every few days. Pretty soon you are down to 2-3 and end up keeping them penned up.

4 Brian Ridder May 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Great suggestion, Norm. Thanks for sharing!

5 Brian Ridder May 15, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Wow. Great advice, Jack. It looks like you could write your own book on the subject! Thanks for sharing.

6 Brian Ridder May 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

We agree, Brendan, “…bringing chickens into your family is a great lifestyle choice.”

7 Jared @ Moon over Martinborough April 25, 2013 at 11:49 am

We recently tried raising some commercial meat birds at home. They were the kind bred for large breasts, and they grow quickly — the ones that break their legs easily and can’t stand up when fully grown. I was really uncomfortable with the entire thing. It didn’t go well for a variety of reasons. In the future we’ll be raising dual-purpose or heritage breeds.

8 Brian Ridder April 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

Ah, the Frankenchicken kerfuffle. Raising animals is always unpredictable. And raising them for meat is particularly unpredictable. Do you do your own butchering? That might be a whole other kind of kerfuffle…

9 Kirsten of ChickenCoopAtHome September 3, 2013 at 3:40 am

As our chicken coop is almost ready, we are now ready to purchase chickens and my search led me to your wonderful site. Thank you for sharing your ideas .We like the idea of raising free range chickens because according to my research the meat taste better and they are healthier because of exercise ( they get to roam around freely) and air quality they breathe, as well as they get to enjoy natural vegetation. Do you have any suggestions on how many chickens to start with considering we are just beginners.

10 Brian Ridder September 3, 2013 at 11:20 am

Hi Kirsten,
Thanks for the comment. You might start with three (enough diversity without too much work) and let us know how it goes!

11 emery poore February 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I have a flock of about 350 for egg laying. the are all rhode island red and leghorn cross. They have been probably the best layers i could ask for. But before that i had most of the hens above the plymouth rock were my favorite and were probably the best egg layers we had.

12 Brian Ridder February 27, 2014 at 11:33 am

Thanks for the comment, Emery. 350. Wow. Were they all free-range?

13 ian September 22, 2014 at 2:45 am

Can different breeds of chickens be kept together or is it best to stick with just the one breed ?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: