New Hampshire rooster
I spent part of today ordering the chickens that we'll be selling next spring as started laying hens. We try to raise a small quantity -- 500 or so -- laying hens each year, and a similar quantity of roosters.
Part of my farming is to do my best to guess what consumption will be next year, and to buy and raise an appropriate number of animals to meet that demand. I have to think about how many I can carry, what the feed costs are likely to be, where I'll house them (because in the winter, baby chicks are especially hard to care for) and basically work through the logistics.
For retail purposes I have to make some guesses as to what people will be interested in buying. The market here for laying hens is driven by the city folks -- many of the cities around my farm allow people to keep small numbers of chickens in their yards, and people tend to like a colorful, varied flock. So when they come to the farm to pick out their chicken, it's nice to have a variety of colors to choose from.
Why raise chickens in the winter?
Raising chicks in the fall and winter is harder than it is in the spring and summer. But the retail customers around here don't think too far ahead -- which is good for me. In March and April, when the chicks arrive in the feed stores, these chickens will be at point of lay. So my basic pitch to the backyard chicken folks, is yes, you buy chicks now, and in 4 to 5 months you'll get your first egg... or you can buy one of these hens, and start enjoying the eggs right away. People will pay for convenience, and this is pretty darn easy. So the reason is to have the birds ready to go during the high season for chicken sales.
My favorite breed of hens:
My favorite chickens aren't the barred rock. Barred rock are my 2nd favorite. They have long been a favorite of the American barnyard, and for good reason. Properly cared for, a barred rock hen will produce more than 200 eggs for at least 2 years, and then provide a meaty carcass for the table afterwards. The roosters are larger, and eaten young (3lbs live weight) provide excellent table fare. They lay a large brown egg.
Barred rock rooster
My favorites are actually the White leghorn chicken. This is the breed that produces the quantities of white eggs you see in the stores, and they really do quite well on pasture. They are active, intelligent, flighty birds. I like them because I like an animal that approaches life with gusto, and these birds do that. They are also the smartest chicken in your flock. If there is some trouble that chickens can get into , you can be sure that the white leghorns will be right there. Leghorns lay more eggs than any other breed of chicken, hands down. That's why industry has focused on them.
The one drawback to leghorns is that their carcass is very small framed, and there's not much meat on them.
I round out my hen order with some buff orpingtons. They're very calm, and very pretty, and people seem to like them. They also work well as dual-purpose bird.
150 barred rock hen chicks
150 buff orpington hen chicks
50 white leghorn chicks
The meat birds
I have a special market in this area, and I was sure glad to find it. I'm able to sell live chickens at the farm gate for $20 each. No processing, not slaughtering, and in fact, not any trouble at all. The people who buy these are usually recent immigrants, and they're after the taste and texture of a bird that's been running around and doing chicken things.
To match this demand we raise a few hundred roosters. We generally let the chickens roam around, and they do a very good job of sucking up any spillage from feeders or fruits or vegetables that get dropped as we move it around, and people start buying them at 3lbs live weight, which we'll hit around march, and all through the summer.
400 rhode island red rooster chicks
40 cornish cross straight-run (my personal 1 year chicken supply)
Most of the people who are doing pastured birds commercially, and most of the chickens that you see in the grocery store are a breed of chicken commonly referred to as cornish cross. I've written about their growth pattern, and measured by conversion of grain into chicken, they cannot be beat. They are hands-down the fastest growing chicken you can buy.
I do raise a small number of cornish cross chickens, but for my own personal consumption. The folks that we sell our chickens to will not buy a white chicken from us. I just like the efficiency, but as with every other meat in my freezer, I prefer to have an active part in its production.
And our feed situation is pretty novel. More than half what the chickens eat is the produce that we also feed to the pigs, or forage that they turn up themselves, including grass and bugs and everything else that a chicken finds tasty. (Chickens are not vegetarians by choice). Given that, I don't have to worry about the cost of feed during the longer grow-out of a heritage rooster, and the hatcheries sell heritage roosters at about half or less the cost of the meat birds -- which means that my outlay of cash to purchase them is smaller than if I purchased cornish cross birds.
Supplementing this chicken order is our own production of eggs and chicks. We'll hatch 100 or so chicks a month of each breed, starting in November, to provide continuing supply of maturing chickens throughout the rest of the year. We stop hatching eggs in June -- the market for chickens starts to dwindle in October -- I like to sell out of all of the adult birds that we're not going to over-winter by the 2nd week in october.