Simple Steps to Raising Healthy Backyard Chickens

7 Sep

Written by Guest Contributor on The Prepper Journal.

Editors Note: An article from Claire Woods of The Happy Chicken Coop to The Prepper Journal. A source used by our own R. Ann Parris. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share then enter into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

The explosion in popularity of backyard chickens doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, and it’s no wonder why. They are cheap to keep, very self-reliant and an incredibly hardy animal. Not to mention those fresh eggs you get every day taste too good!

Raising chickens can be incredibly straightforward once you understand the basics. Fortunately for you, today we are going to cover the simple steps you need to know to make your journey into the chicken keeping world a successful one.

Simple chicken keeping all starts with choosing the appropriate breed of chicken. In order to do this you need to think about why you want chickens. Some people want meat chickens to grow and slaughter as a cheap source of food; however, the majority of people want chickens to lay eggs. Once you’ve figured out why you want chickens you can choose an appropriate breed.

There are three ‘groups’ of chickens; egg layers, meat birds and dual purpose. Clearly if you want a meat bird then you should choose either a meat bird breed or dual purpose. Most of the birds available today from hatcheries fall under dual purpose. This is also what I would recommend to beginners as they are generally hardier and less prone to illness.

In case you’re wondering dual purpose means; the hens are both good for egg laying and also meat birds.

Now you’ve actually chosen and bought your hens you should want to keep them healthy. In my experience chickens need three things to stay healthy; food, water and shelter. In terms of chicken feed, a high quality layers pellet will make up the core of their diet. They will pick up other trace nutrients through free ranging and foraging. As for water you can keep it nice and simple; just make sure they have access to clean, cool water, 24/7.

Finally the shelter. Chickens are humble creatures and aren’t fussy at all. They don’t need much out of a shelter, just dry, warm and security. Security being key here; especially if you live rural or off grid. You don’t want a coyote taking your chickens for its dinner.

Once you’ve got your chickens used to their day to day routine (feeding, letting them out to forage, etc.) you will need to periodically perform a few ‘maintenance’ tasks to keep them healthy. The most important maintenance task you will need to perform is the monthly health check. This should involve handling each chicken and checking them over for any lice or parasite infection. In addition to this, each day, as you let your flock out, you should keep an eye on them. Once you establish what normal behavior is for them, you will soon realize something is up if they start acting abnormally…

As I mentioned earlier, chickens are incredibly hardy however they do still occasionally fall victim to illness or some form of ectoparasite.

The final topic you need to know in order to raise healthy chickens is: the pecking order. I imagine most people reading this will already be familiar with the term but uncertain about its origin.

The pecking order refers to the social hierarchy between chickens; you will find this in any flock of chickens. The hens at the top of the pecking order get first access to food and the best roosting locations. Hens towards the bottom of the pecking order can be bullied and treated as a second-class hen. At times this can become too extreme and you will need to take action; you know the pecking order and bullying is too extreme when blood is drawn from one of the lower ‘ranked’ chickens. If this happens you should remove the chicken causing the damage for a few days before re-integrating them back into the flock.

I mentioned the pecking order because the occasional bickering and pecking between hens is to be expected and is perfectly healthy chicken behavior. It’s only when it goes too far that it becomes a problem; however this is fairly rare in practice.

We hope this foray in the exciting world of chicken keeping has given you the confidence you need to go out and get yourself some hens. They are incredibly hardy and won’t give you much trouble at all. Leave a comment below letting me know which breed you decided to go with.

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Truth-Checking Chickens – Broody Hens v. Sandbaggers

21 Aug

Written by R. Ann Parris on The Prepper Journal.

Editors Note: Another article on chickens from R. Ann Parris to The Prepper Journal. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share then enter into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

The faithful chicken is a common choice for preppers and homesteaders. Once the bird bug bites, talk regularly turns to breeding and natural rearing, the dual frustrations that can be a broody bird, and the back-and-forth debate about whether we’ve “bred out broodiness”.

The genetics we choose – and allow – is important. Our husbandry practices, common wants from birds, and changing society has affected poultry’s traits, some of which would have immediately gotten birds a glass-jar coop even in pretty recent decades.

One of those now-inherited traits is clutch abandonment by the fake-broody bird. There’s also an age factor that affects our livestock’s brood-rearing reputations, none so much as chickens. In other cases, we set our birds up for failure with their brooder boxes and our keeper practices.

Understanding the genetic selection and dynamics at play will help increase our successes as we move into breeding our birds.

Standard reminder: I don’t actually like chickens (but do fully appreciate their well-earned place in backyard and big-spread production). I have no problem whatsoever buying that particular species butcher-paper blankets for trips to Polar Camp. However, they are living creatures that deserve respectful treatment in life and death. Know what you’re getting into with multiple-source research, start small-scale to avoid overpopulations problems if you can’t actual kill and butcher something you raised, and be prepared to put ill and injured animals out of their misery rather than prolonging their suffering for hours, days, and weeks.


A broody hen is one that’s ready to sit a nest. Some hens want nothing else from an early age, but mostly it’s mature hens and typically the desire peaks and ebbs by breed, season and individual.

Breeding-In Traits

We’ve repeatedly selected even dual-purpose homestead and long-storied heritage breeds for a focus on laying, not necessarily raising young. It makes sense if you think about it, backyards to big operations, now and all the way back in history.

“A chicken in every pot” was a promise of prosperity, not sustenance. We eat way, way more chicken meat in the last 5-6 decades than ever before. Worldwide, it’s always been eggs that make our chickens such effective, efficient livestock.

For most of modern history, keepers big and small have only needed a small fraction of hens to raise chicks for some meat-grow-outs and adding young-blood laying rates to the flock.

We don’t want all of them to stubbornly insist on raising a family.

While that hen raises her clutch, we’re losing her productivity for a month – up to a quarter or third of the year if she’s inclined to keep nannying for 12+ weeks. Hens also regularly lose some condition while they’re sitting and-or throughout the span they’re raising a clutch. Recovery time adds to lost egg production.

Mail-order chicks and affordable incubators and brooders means we don’t even need a hen to raise new birds now. That makes a broody-prone hen even less desirable for many.

Skewing the Bell Curve

Most hens don’t successfully go broody until they’re 3+ years old. The best mothers tend to be secure, upper-echelon birds hitting 4-6 years old.

However, due to laying drop-offs of 10-15% per year, many keepers *ahem* transition their laying hens after the second or third production year. So the average age of most birds out there is pretty young. That skews some of the general expectations, like broodiness.

Even allowing for altered averages, there’s still a hefty percentage of hens that betray just how much we’ve affected broodiness in our chickens.

Fakers & Schitzo Sitters – 20-50%

If you have 10-20 hens 3+ years old, at some point 2-5 if not 8-12 of them are probably going to cost you either eggs or aggravation with fake-outs or schitzo-sitting.

That’s a pretty huge failure rate. We wouldn’t accept it for ammo, canning-jar lids, batteries, milking teats/animals, emails, garden plants, or tires. Our great-greats and grandparents wouldn’t have accepted it from hens. But we just shrug it off now, far too commonly.

So what are they, exactly?

Faking is when a hen starts accruing her eggs and then breaks off, abandoning the partial clutch. It’s also when, after she’s counted and is pleased with her number, after she starts to actively sit without further laying, she abandons the clutch partway through incubation.

She’s signaled that she’s broody, but she’s not really.

(Days Five and Twelve are way better than the Steel-Tent-bound hen that gets to Day Seventeen-Eighteen before changing her mind about motherhood.)

Maybe she just isn’t actually ready (first 1-2 times, a young hen 9-months to 2-3 years old) and will come around in time. Maybe she had good cause. Mostly, though, she’s faking, and we’re losing days/weeks of her production and possibly that clutch because of it.

*Older birds aren’t making an egg every 24-36 hours like when they were young. Aging hens also take “weekends/holidays” (temporary breaks in laying), longer and more frequently as they go. That’s not faking or schitzo. That’s just bodily function slowing, just like us. Make sure she’s not being wrongfully accused, but also crunch her feed-waste-destruction versus her value – including potential broodiness.

Especially for smaller flocks, fakers need to be discounted when they show the broody cues. If she’s young, sure, give it 1-2 years and let her try again if you like, but if it’s a 4-6 y/o, persistent, and insistent … the Big Steel Tent isn’t unreasonable.

Then there’s the hen that seems to be sitting her clutch with dedication, but somewhere in there, she’s heading off for normal daily activities, nest ignored for hours or even days at a time.

*Sitting hens need food and water readily available; they usually can’t forage enough and maintain the clutch.

If she’s pushing stubborn broody behavior for 5-14 days, takes her vacay, then pulls the broody card again, and again, or defends her box but leaves it for hours or the day, Schitzo Sitter needs a glass-jar coop.

Fakers and schitzo’s regularly aren’t worth it in normal “today” soft times.

Unless you’re mid-crisis, down to just a few hens, and need every egg and chance to make more birds that you can get (weighed against providing litter and feed/forage for repeat freeloaders), fakers and schitzos are even less worth the aggravations *later*.

We for-sure don’t want to keep their eggs for the next generation, further perpetuating that failure rate.

Due Diligence

There’s some chance a hen had a good reason to abandon her partial or full clutch. Once she’s sitting in a box 24/7, a canny hen might have started seeing something (activity, a previously unnoticed drip, drafts) that she didn’t while she was popping in and out, and is cutting her losses early. Usually, it’s one of four things if she’s not a faker.

1 – Too much human interest and handling. We have to get in there some, but we do not need to get in there even daily once she’s sitting.

*Even if she’s going to be a surrogate, don’t bug her daily. Match her laying cycle when adding eggs. We can maintain interaction by delivering goodies (while the layers are elsewhere or distracted – chickens are smart and vicious).

2- Insufficient laying boxes or a popular/preferred laying box, with other hens forcing in to lay.

*It’s the very rare hen that can manage a full incubation cycle on an active community laying box; she’ll almost 100% need a nursery/brooding pen for the chicks if she does.

3 – Even with sufficient boxes, a more-dominant broody-prone bird may be harassing her, trying to take the clutch for herself.

4 – By the time you have 10-20 hens, chances are good that one of them is a broomstick-riding … uhm, Character. The Character doesn’t even want the clutch or box. She’s just being a Character.

In my world, it’s the problem bird that visits lovely Camp Kettle.

If a bird is abandoning partial or full clutches, she’s usually a faker. However, relocating and immediately resuming laying with broody cues intact is also a warning sign about box activity/placements, wanna-mothers, or Characters, so we have to do some watching.

Breed Expectations

We haven’t completely bred broodiness out of chickens, but we have selected for less of it, especially from high-production breeds.

From backyards to big operations, we also aren’t removing some of the birds/traits from the genepool. Allowing behaviors that wouldn’t have been tolerated in a Renaissance through 1950s farmhouse also changes the capability of our birds, with dedicated, reliable broodiness high on the list of affected traits.

Average age may skew a breed’s broodiness rating, but use general breed reviews to set your expectations. It’ll get you pretty close.

If you want hens laying and sitting lots of nests to raise out for meat, “high/yes, very broody prone” works.

If you’re mostly after the eggs and maybe a replacement clutch or two every so often, “high” is likely to be a problem.

“High” usually means one way or another, you’ll fight broodiness often. Especially if descriptions mention “persistence”, possibly often enough to impact the eggs-per-week or eggs-per-year numbers listed somewhere nearby that rating (stressors reduce laying).

“High” also tends to mean you’re going to be dealing with cranky hens less willing to quietly let you take their eggs, more likely to find places other than the box to lay, and more likely to get huffy with each other.

“Low/not prone” is not always the answer, though. It’s really not the answer if you’re only going to have one breed and <3-5 keeper hens per person/dog.

“Low” means you’re going to have fewer birds willing and able, they’ll be willing less often, and you’ll usually be further into the old, slow-laying ages before hens truly go broody.

Mostly, if you’re mostly looking for eggs but you do want hens to periodically raise a clutch or serve as a surrogate, aim for the middle-road “occasional”-average listings.

Many sources only give a yes-no broodiness rating, so read the reviews and consider contacting the suppliers to ask for recommendations.

There are a ton of aspects that go into breeding and flocks, some of which you can find here

Make sure reliable broodiness is one of the factors that gets weighed when picking breeds, as well as deciding which hens to keep or kettle.

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Raising Chickens: Breeding Resilience with Broody Hens

14 Aug

Written by R. Ann Parris on The Prepper Journal.

Editors Note: Another article on chickens from R. Ann Parris to The Prepper Journal. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share then enter into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

Chickens are some of the most popular livestock worldwide, modern backyard enthusiasts to sustenance-level farms from China to the Balkans. There’s good reason. They’re economical, versatile on the table, and multi-function laborers. Most chickens have pretty short “working” lives, though, which means we need to replace them regularly.

(Full disclosure: I don’t actually like chickens, but they’re essential to my production capabilities and I respect them as such.)

Breeding capability builds our resilience against the personal and short-term disasters as well as the nation-shaking and world-altering crises. A good rooster and reliable broody hen are a gold mine in these days of ordering chicks.

Those broodies are worth identifying, especially. They can save us time, electricity, and effort, and even increase the efficiency of our other poultry. Watching for some key traits in our hens, both good and bad, can maximize our flock’s ease and success.

I’m specifically talking about chickens, but many factors also apply to other poultry, and the behavioral aspects apply to the other super-efficient, inexpensive, every-prepper, apartment to acreage meat source: rabbits.

*Not everybody who can/will shoot a person or a wild animal is capable of harvesting something they raised. Start small and make sure you can actually control the population before you go big or breed more.


Broodiness is basically when a hen is ready and willing to sit a nest. I have never successfully induced broodiness. If a hen doesn’t want kids right now, game over. Maybe somebody is managing, but don’t waste too much time trying on this one.

See, most of the suggestions miss a big factor: Successful mothers are usually older hens, 3+ years. The best are typically upper-echelon birds hitting 4-6 years old.

Because laying decreases significantly every year, a lot of people have already replaced hens by then, leaving mostly young birds. It’s expecting a toddler-teen to focus, earn, budget, and shop like a 30-40-year-old.

That said, do use breed reviews to help anticipate broodiness expectations.

If you want a laying flock to periodically reproduce or serve as surrogates, avoid breeds listed as “low” and “no/almost never” for broodiness.

If we want 3+ clutches annually, we might maintain a couple keepers from breeds listed as “high/yes, often broody”, but try to go with breeds that break off broodiness easier, not breeds listed as persistent (read: constantly, stubbornly broody).

For fewer over-broody frustrations but periodic clutches from our layers, choose a “moderate/occasionally broody” breed.

Laying Boxes

Most of us expect our hens to share laying boxes. That can be a problem for brooding. If a hen shows signs of being inclined but isn’t sitting the eggs we’ve left, see if she’s getting displaced by other hens.

If so, that box is too popular. You need more boxes, to try moving her and her clutch to a different box, or relocating her box and replacing it for the other hens.

*Bonus tidbit: You may need extra boxes even with only 6-12 birds in non-brooding daily layer life, although you should be able to have a minimum of 2-4 layers using each box. — If you’re having problems, check the placements but start watching for personality traits and your own habits. There’s usually a problem, and it’s usually our fault or a particular animal or two with unacceptable behavioral issues.

Insufficient boxes can also be responsible for full and partial-clutch abandonment (she started sitting, then abandoned her eggs).

Check the hen and flock for battle signs, although roosters are rough lovers. She’s a sitting target on the nest, so he may actually be the problem. If it’s not him, she’s fighting off other hens for her nest, and may eventually give up or lose.

*Bonus tidbit: Hens with “love torn” back feathers are actually the indicator for most-likely-fertilized eggs.

Mean Ol’ Bitty

A hen should not resist being nudged out of the box daily. Nor should you be pecked over every egg. That’s cause to assess how calm the coop is at collection time (checking for problematic human habits) and then send problem birds to the glass-jar coop in the pantry.

Since our birds are calm, cool, and cooperative, we can recognize a hen exhibiting broody behaviors: staring daggers as soon as you appear, racing from feed/calcium/water to occupy the box before you get there, becoming increasingly unwilling to leave the box while you collect, fanning out feathers, pecking your shoe, snatching your sleeve, trying to squeeze through the lift in back-access boxes to follow her egg(s), and-or trying to wedge into the collection basket or hovering over it.

*Bonus tidbit: Also watch for hens laying near their favorite box(es) but not in them. Sometimes they can’t get in to lay because a broody is defending it.

Those behaviors are – for this out-of-character, slow-ramping (3-8 days), and temporary behavioral change – acceptable.

So long as they’re not excessive.

We are not going to screw with this hen often, but we are likely to want in there.

We need to add, crayon (track), and candle (check the contents of) eggs. We may want to get our hands on the hen (briefly and noninvasively) to feel under-the-feather condition.

In some cases, we may need to relocate our hen and her clutch/box (extreme weather, coop companions, brooder or grow-out pens, changing conditions that affect nest safety).

We’re usually going to want to get our hands on the chicks somewhere through their “raptor” stage at least once or twice, even if we’re not sexing or weighing them and don’t handle/socialize our birds.

We need to be able to do this without the stress that excessive guarding creates within the flock and her clutch. Excessive guarding can also be contagious to the flock and chicks, and carry over to her post-clutch conduct.

We might let an over-aggressive bitty raise this clutch (be aware: the genetic inclination is there if it’s her chicks). We wouldn’t indulge her broodiness again, though, and she’s looking hard at the butcher-paper poncho.

(Apply that to rabbits and other livestock, too. There’s a line mothers need to walk between enough and excess.)

Successful Broody Traits

On top of her personality, a broody hen needs to check a few boxes successfully, and a few more if we’re not hand-rearing the chicks or she’s raising them inside a flock.

One, and it might seem obvious, but she needs to eat.

Two, she needs to be lickety-splickety, and then get back to the clutch.

(Psst … We usually need to feed her, not expect her to free-range forage.)

Some hens are easily distracted or not dedicated, and will leave a clutch too long. Flip side, some barely budge at all. We may need to provide her with some extra tidbits, or keep feed and water closer.

Good mothers of most species lose condition, but if she loses too much, it may be months before she recovers enough to lay again after her brood.

Also seemingly obvious: She needs to sit her nest for the 12-60 hours it takes all the eggs to hatch.

Flaky hens will sometimes only sit the first few chicks, then abandon the rest. It’s especially frustrating to find cool, wasted eggs that were abandoned half-cracked and chicks that have gone hypothermic. Check them frequently when hatching starts.

Some young hens are like any other new mother, and just don’t get it yet.

We may be able to finish the hatching this time, but if she leaves early a 2nd-3rd time, we need to not indulge her broodiness anymore (and weigh feed-productivity against a glass-jar coop).

Unless we’re taking the chicks away to raise and only wanted the non-electric incubator, our broody hen needs to walk another balanced line: showing her fluffy-fuzzies how to eat and drink, but keeping the late-cracking pips and wet peepers warm enough.

This is another one where a food-water station near the box can make a difference.

If she’s keeping her peepers, the bitty walks that narrow aggression line again: Being peck-happy enough to protect her chicks from other barnyard residents, but not being a feathered Terminator intent on keeping everything 50’ away from the shed.

*Chickens are brutal. Do let her keep other birds off the chicks.

I prefer flock-raised clutches, but it’s not always possible. Big-gap fencing, small hawks/big crows, free-range factors, and the broody spending too much time guarding can make it unfeasible.

*Watch for a particular bird harassing her/them; problem chickens get the Ziploc poncho.

Especially if we have a big, multiple-breed, or mixed flock, we’re likely to need a brooder pen. Usually multiple hens can share them, especially if the nests are within 2-4 weeks of each other.

Once they’re separated, we’re going to have to be careful with introductions/reintroduction’s to the flock.


While my preferred birds will raise guineafowl, quail, turkey, and waterfowl, I for-sure want hens that will incubate them.

Sometimes we can add 3-4 eggs at a time, so she has the 10-20 she can cover in just a couple days. Sometimes we can add a full dozen at once. Sometimes it has to be slower, adding 1-2 eggs at a time to the ones she’s laying.

Some will roll significantly different-sized eggs out of the nest. I don’t love it, but it’s not a glass-coop or never-again offense to me.

A workaround is swapping for her eggs. Sometimes we’re stuck with 1:1 egg replacement, but usually we can match the size/mass of what she had – 2-3 hen eggs for 3-6 quail eggs or 1-2 goose or turkey eggs.

*Hen size determines her max egg count. Chickens cannot fit over as many goose or turkey eggs/chicks as they would their own.

Some hens will take on not only foreign eggs, but live chicks. Some will accept even 7-10-day-old chicks into their clutch.

It’s a rarer hen that will let you add already-hatched other-species to her own chicks, but they’re out there. (Some bitties would happily sit a half-grown emu.)

If you’re going to lose a clutch anyway (power/heat light out, mother overwhelmed or killed), give it a shot but brace for carnage. The earlier you can add them, the better.

I love the surrogate trait, but I don’t want hens too crazy with their adoptions. Too-keen birds trying to steal eggs or chicks are too disruptive, especially in smaller flocks.

It can result in fights, serious injuries, production-stoppage (stress), broken eggs, and mangled, run-over chicks.

We spent 5+ weeks (minimum) doing without a layer’s production to get those young birds. Heaven forbid they be from slow-laying, low-production game birds. The problem hen heads to Camp Kettle.

Broody Birds

Reproducing our flocks takes some pre-planning and know-how, but it increases our resilience to everything from personal disasters to worldwide crisis.

Reliable, versatile broody hens further increase our capabilities, even beyond small (but devastating) crises like outages/gennie failure and burned-out incubators and brood lights. They improve the efficiency of all our poultry.

Older, slower-laying chickens can raise clutches for higher-yielding young hens, maximizing each’s strongpoints and minimalizing each’s inherent age weaknesses.

Chicken surrogates incubating slower-laying game bird eggs gets those hens back to laying faster, too.

They also give us a canny bird to raise clutches for species that are mortally stupid mothers.

However, excessive broodiness is a problem akin to clutch abandonment and fake broodiness, and there are other broody behaviors we want to remove from our bloodlines. It can be hard for some keepers, but it’ll give us a more peaceful and productive flock in the long run.

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Self-Sufficiency Superstars – Pickin’ A Chicken

7 Aug

Written by Guest Contributor on The Prepper Journal.

Editors Note: Another article from R. Ann Parris to The Prepper Journal. Think you know everything there is to know about preppers preferred livestock to raise, maybe, but you will know much more by the end of the week. As always, if you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and be entered into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

I should say right now that chickens are at or near the bottom of the list of my favorite self-reliance animals, right there with horses. I just don’t like chickens (they started it). However, as a homestead animal, they’re absolutely indispensable.

(As opposed to horses, which I love but don’t find efficient and thus stick in the “pet” category.)

Chickens’ feed efficiency, are multi-functional, and able to perform labor tasksthat make them fantastic livestock for backyards and big-acreage homesteads. They eat things my preferred game birds can’t and perform functions the non-diggers, non-grazers won’t or can’t.

There are pro’s and con’s to any animals, and birds are no different. As a permaculturist and a prepper with a mind towards long-term sustainability, I have a specific list of considerations when it comes to pickin’ my chickens. Those list items are why a few of the commonly recommended breeds don’t make my “superstar” list.

For example, I like buckeye hens, but the roos are commonly way more space aggressive than I want. Others drop off the list due to production when expected to free-range – 70% of their feed, heat stress, or low tolerance to confinement/penning.

Some breeds are bullies that don’t share mixed barnyards well. Some drop because their feathers are tougher to pull than ducks’.  Some are way too hair-triggered and panicky for me.

Alternately, some are oblivious to threats. Some pile up in a corner of a pen where a raccoon can reach through. Some stand stupidly staring at the sky while the ducks, doves, guineas, and smart chickens are bobbing in “I’m up, they see me, I’m down” sprints for cover or low-crawling under edges toward the dogs or Mr. Mother Goose.

Poultry are very situation-ally dependent, and there are always exceptions. I’ll go into the factors that affect my choices after my pick-chicken short list. Any prepper can use the traits as a checklist, even if my preferences aren’t as important or completely oppose their priorities.

Superstar Breeds

Wellies/Welsummers – 6-7 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 2-4 eggs/week (green graze to buggy lots, seed-grain lots, or bag feeds), medium eggs, heat & cold hardy, savvy, friendly & curious personalities, medium-average broodiness – A European breed as popular in Australia for ease & production as RIRs, Orps, Plymouth Rocks, and Wyandottes are here (U.S.); keen surrogates for hatching & raising guineafowl, turkey, or quail

Dominique – 6-7 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 2-4 eggs/week, small-medium eggs mostly, cold and humid-heat hardy, savvy, calm and curious personalities, average broodiness, super mothers – Popular from colonial & pioneer times through the Great Depression due to ease and efficiency in keeping, then almost lost as modern production breeds started taking over; cold-weather layers, seldom over-eaters, self-coop if coop-raised, shrewd stranger-friend-foe discrimination, chill with kids and known dogs but not pecking-order pushovers.

Images: Buff & Speckled Sussex

Sussex –7-9 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 3-5 eggs/week, medium-large eggs, cold tolerant, okay-decent heat tolerance, savvy roosters*, confident but calm personalities, average broodiness – Very old breed, once the standard English table bird (dethroned by the Cornish); prone to tender flesh & fattiness (fats are a good thing for self-sufficiency & survival), very non-flight prone, incredibly efficient & low-waste eaters, early- and late-season layers with year-round laying possible

*Sussex hens respond to roo, flock, keeper, & LGD warnings, but are typically juuuust a little less “stranger danger” and foot-traffic observant on their own than my other picks.

Sussex hens are surprisingly human-oriented tagalongs (not always a good thing).

*Wellie and Sussex hens are so chill, they’re likely to be low-bird on the totem pole. Introduce them to mixed flocks with a handful of other birds, not as individuals.

Reds, Woman, Reds!

Yeah, I skipped the Rhode Island Reds/RIRs (and the less-common Rhode Island Whites & Blacks) and New Hampshire Reds. They are hugely popular backyard and homestead birds.

However, they’re “excellent” 5/week layers (with extra-large eggs that further tax feed and calcium needs). All roos are rough lovers, but RIRs and NHRs seem excessively so, especially in small-flock situations. I also find Rhode Island’s excessively destructive and messy compared to other breeds.

Both also tend to classify all dogs, cats, and humans in the same categories – either all good or all bad – and aren’t keen at individual recognition. That’s a problem here.

Top Priorities

The first thing I want out of my birds is the ability to reproduce them, which means a purebred (and a rooster I can stand long enough to breed).

I typically trial heritage and dual-purpose breeds. They’re more likely to both lay and “eat” well, and to be forager-willing and predator-savvy than the production breeds and dedicated laying or meat breeds.

They’re also a smidge more likely to have retained the ability to sit their own broods, politely, without me fighting constant broodiness, which lets me skip electric incubators and brooder boxes.

I also want mothers to be able to raise clutches within the flock so I don’t have to segregate, then introduce flock members. Mothering hens need to be canny to chick threats (including foot and equipment/tool traffic), but not over-defensive.

Breed Traits

Flighty v. Docile – Docile birds are less likely to have excellent risk awareness (water, predators, egg care), but flighty birds are commonly pen and tree hoppers, harder to handle, and noisier. The calm-savvy line is a tough one to walk, which is one reason my short list of breeds is actually short.

Images: Buff Sussex

Broody balance – willingness and ability to sit eggs (theirs and other poultry’s), keep a clean nest (relatively) while eating and drinking well, but not constantly fighting to keep hens from hiding, stealing chicks/eggs from other birds, and sitting eggs (and rocks, tennis balls, etc.)

Mothering – able to care for 10-16 chicks – protecting them from predators and the flock, teaching them hunting and foraging, keeping them warm and out of thick, wet grass, but not smothering them or excessively guarding

Rooster behavior – good flock provider, accurate predator savviness, but relatively quiet and easy handling (relatively = “for a roo”)

Rooster weight – All but one rooster every 2-6 years is going to hit a pot, so I want a breed that gains relatively well in the 3-9-month harvest-age window, as opposed to being excessively lean teens.

Breast meat – Many dual-purpose & layer breeds birds lack significant breast portions. It’s not a must-have but it is a big check mark for me if pullets & roos develop decent breast meat.

Camouflage – I like breeds with colors that blend into the terrain. (I don’t mind the skin color undulations or darker skins on meat from colorful birds versus the uniform white-pink of most market birds.)

Images: Speckled Sussex flock, Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen, & Dominque flock

Barred, laced, and speckled plumage – even the stark white-black zebra-type – camo sometimes surprisingly well in pasture, bare runs, snow, and dappled edges. They do better against predators, especially when they typically cluster elbow-to-elbow to forage, run, and roost.


Forage efficiency – I want birds to free-range from pasture, compost, garden-orchard spaces, scrub and woods. We’ve bred both the inclination and ability out of many breeds.

I also want breeds with the least production loss on green-grazing and green-protein forages (versus seed-nut and bug-heavy seasons/areas).

Flight – Pasturing, penning, and evening re-cooping is easier with breeds that are just disinclined to leaving the earth, versus “normal” tree-roosting and flight-happy breeds.

Laying balance – I typically look for breeds listed with mediocre to middling laying rates. (Somebody just fell out of their chair.)

Thing is, egg production is one of the tweaks we’ve made along the way, like our leaner pigs, faster-growing meat animals, and dairy production. It’s based on cheap, easily accessible grain feeds. Even heritage breeds listed as both excellent foragers and layers aren’t reaching their 200-275 eggs/year on just pasture.

Humans are hand-delivering 50-75% of their nutrients.

*Nice article: Modern chicken timeline, 1900-present –

Without that feeding (and without heating or cooling and 12+ hours of light) most of those “better” breeds rapidly lose productivity, hitting 100-150 egg/year ceilings.

I want birds free-ranging 70+% of their soft-seasons feed. The middling-production breeds typically retain more of their optimum laying (and weight gain) in those conditions, ending up with larger total yields in side-by-side comparisons with a “better” bird.

Two, hens need a lot of calcium to maintain successful laying and bone density. High-yield layers need more, and faster-absorbing sources, and can get less of their total-need percentage from forage and free-choice ground eggshells.

Tons of fragile eggs that crack in the boxes or basket do me less good than a smaller number of hardy eggs, before we even get to layer-breeder losses from deficiency injuries.

Condition & age-production resilience – resistance to production drop in lowering light & low temperatures; reduced slumps in 2nd, 3rd, & 4th-year laying (my goal: average decreases of 8-10% per year v. 12-15%)

Range-space versatility – willingness to wander for forage but also comfortable being penned/barned for 8-16 hours a day, & for days & weeks at a time (bird & produce harvest safety, pasture regrowth, evacuation crates/trailer, weather, theft/predator risks, injury/disease quarantine, flooding, assessments)

Mid-Size – best-fit for my predator load, efficiency desires, & climate (wet winters with ‘teen-20s lows, then 95-100+ with 80-95% humidity come July-August)

Feathering – This is really climate specific, but I prefer clean legs and short, light feathering on thighs, heads and spouts. The smoother they are, the less dirty they get. (You still have to provide leaves, straw, and mulch to soak up seasonal mud and wastes.)

Rule of Thumb: For cool to frigid climates, you want a rounder medium to heavy breed with tight, dense feathering, fluffy “undercoat”, and small combs (lessens frostbite). Some want feathered legs and feet; some of us feel that just collects snow and cold spring mud, then chills birds. If you have warm to hot climates, you typically want lighter-built birds with naked/clean feet and larger combs (heat transfer).

Images: Gold-laced & Buff Orpingtons, & laced Wyandottes

Pickin’ A Chicken

Many of my checkpoints don’t apply to people with less interest in long-term sustainability and self-reliance, or who only deliver bagged feed to a permanent coop with less movement. Climate, interaction, and individual needs and abilities factor hugely in appointing superstar status.

Marans and Legbars max out at 120-180 eggs/year, but they can near that max on trash-grass and pine/fir woods forage. For some preppers, that might outweigh the low ceiling and other traits. Others might choose high-yield layers or prefer fast-turn meat birds for a variety of reasons.

Images: Barred Plymouth Rocks, Legbars, & Australorps

Bantams or ornamentals that will only reach quail-level meat and egg yields but are smaller or quieter may suit others best.

Varying preferences are how we got all these choices in the first place. Most homesteaders and backyard keepers run multiple breeds (and types of poultry) even when we’ve settled on a primary because of the diversity.

Do your research (multiple-source research), don’t ignore breed and experience-needed warnings, but experiment. It’s easy to trial multiple breeds even with just a handful of starter birds. At most it’ll cost an extra $0.25-$3.00/chick to mix-and-match breeds when ordering them.

*DO pay extra for sexed hens and limit your roo populations if you’re just getting started.

For some general pointers, there are chicken-specific sections in and

You might also want to check out and your local-area chicken-keeper forums.

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