By James S. Rock
Illustrations copyrighted by the American Poultry Association
The first step in being successful with poultry farming is to pick a breed that meets your needs and objectives. If your objective in poultry farming is to supply eggs or meat for your family, you should pick a breed used by commercial farmers. If your interests are in reproducing your own stock and perhaps entering this stock in poultry shows, choose a purebred or ornamental breed of poultry. The offspring from these breeds will be like their parents. The offspring of crossbreeds or inbreeds will vary a great deal from one another, will not be like their parents and, usually, will not perform as well as their parents. (Some hybrids, such as the “Mule duck” are sterile.)
Poultry Farming With Chickens
Chickens are bred for very specific purposes today. Therefore, when getting started with poultry farming, it is important to choose a breed that will fit your objectives for keeping a flock. Having a small flock of chickens can be both enjoyable and educational, providing eggs for the table, and as a hobby. There are some who also grow a small flock of meat chickens for broilers, roasters or capons. The production of fertile eggs and incubating these eggs is another educational hobby enjoyed by many. This type of flock may also be combined with an interest in breeding birds for exhibition at poultry shows and fairs.
Those who are doing commercial poultry farming today demand performance—their only interest is in the efficient production of eggs or meat. To satisfy this demand, the breeders of commercial poultry have gone to crossbreeding, inbreeding or the crossing of quite unrelated strains of chickens for the specialized production of either eggs or meat. Without the parent stock, the crossbred and inbred chicken cannot be reproduced. For the small flock owner, this means if he wishes to keep a high-producing commercial strain of chickens bred for the efficient production of eggs or meat, he must purchase new birds from the hatchery. If your primary interest in poultry farming is reproducing and hatching chickens as a hobby, your best results will be obtained with one of the many purebred or exhibition type of chickens.
Choice of Hatchery
The choice of a hatchery or source of chickens is as important as the choice of breed. Make sure the eggs from which your birds were hatched come from United States Department of Agriculture certified U.S. Pullorum-Typhoid Clean stock. These two diseases are not a problem today and if only U.S. Pullorum-Typhoid Clean stocks are bought these diseases will not be a problem again.
Make sure the hatchery you choose will vaccinate your chicks for Marek’s disease. This is a viral disease of chickens, which usually occurs between 12 and 18 weeks of age and causes lame, uncoordinated, weak birds, which eventually die. The disease is prevented by vaccinating day-old chicks at the hatchery.
Medium-weight, crossbred chickens and heritage breed chickens that lay brown eggs are popular with people who keep small flocks. The mature weight of the hens of most of these breeds is 3-1/2 to 5 pounds. When they stop laying, they are called fowl and can be used for stewing, chicken pies and soup. The parents of most of these strains or crossbreeds were originally Rhode Island Red males crossed with Barred Plymouth Rock females. This cross produced the Black Sex-link laying chicken. The female was black with gold neck and breast feathers. The males had barred black and white feathers and at a day old had a white spot on top of their head.
There are a number of strains of medium-weight, crossbred chickens that lay brown eggs. Some commercial strains are Bovans, Dekalb, Hisex, and Shaver. Leghorn strains are efficient producers of white eggs. The mature weight of most is 3 to 4 pounds and for this reason, they do not make as good a fowl as the heavier brown egg strains. The commercial strains of Leghorns all have white plumage and are inbred or crosses of quite unrelated strains. Some commercial strains are DeKalb, Hisex, Hy-Line, ISA and Shaver. Araucanas, also known as the Easter Egg Chicken, are an interesting variety of egg laying chicken. These chickens lay blue or greenish eggs. Araucana eggs usually are not sold in stores because they are not an efficient commercial breed for poultry farming.
Commercial poultry farming for meat includes a range of specialized poultry breeds. Meat strains of chickens may be crossbreds, inbreds or crosses of different strains of the same breed. Most meat strains have White Plymouth Rock, Cornish or New Hampshire bloodlines; all have white plumage for ease in removing their feathers and to improve their dressed appearance. Some commercial strains of meat birds are Arbor Acres, Cobb, Hubbard, Peterson, Ross, and Shaver.
The males of the heavier brown egg strains of chickens are sometimes grown for hobby poultry farming for meat. This type of bird will have achieved its greatest growth by seven weeks of age and should be slaughtered at this time. Leghorn males, because of their small size, are a poor choice for poultry farming when the focus is on meat production.
Exhibition or Purebreeds
If you want to get into reproducing your own birds, select one of the many purebreds listed in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection, or the American Bantam Association’s Bantam Standard*. Egg production and efficiency may not be as great as with one of the commercial strains but with the purebreds, you will be able to select, mate and reproduce a breed of chicken with a fair degree of accuracy. The breeding objective with exhibition or show breeds is to maintain the breed characteristics of type and plumage colors. These breeds have uniquely characteristic combs, wattles, legs and beautiful plumage patterns and colors. They can be bred solely for your own enjoyment at home. If you want to get into it deeper, there are many breed clubs you can join and an unlimited number of poultry shows where your birds can be shown.
Bantams are small birds weighing from one to two pounds. Many of the bantams are miniatures of the large breeds; however, there are breeds that are not available in the large size chicken. The advantage of Bantams is they do not eat as much feed or require as much space as a standard-sized chicken weighing from 4-10 pounds or more. Bantam eggs are usually in the small or peewee weight class. Bantams are cared for pretty much the same as other types of chickens.
Poultry Farming With Turkeys
Raising turkeys is another option for anyone interested in backyard poultry farming. The Broad-Breasted Large White is the strain of turkey grown by most commercial turkey farmers. Most of these crossbreeds were developed from crosses of Broad-Breasted Bronze and White Holland turkeys although a few strains were developed from naturally occurring white mutations in Broad-Breasted Bronze flocks. If you want to grow a few turkeys for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and for use during the year, one of the strains of Broad-Breasted Large White turkeys is your best choice. The hens will be medium-sized (13 pounds live weight) at 18-20 weeks. Both sexes will be heavy roasters at 23-26 weeks; the live weight of the females will be about 16 pounds and males or toms will be 24-27 pounds. The toms can be slaughtered at 28-30 weeks for a few extra-large (30-pound) birds. Since they are crossbreeds, they cannot be successfully reproduced without the parent stock.
The Broad-Breasted Bronze originated in England in the late 1920s and was imported to the US about 1935. In color it resembles the almost extinct, standard-bred Bronze but does not have the pure white feather tips or brilliant copper-colored bronzing of the exhibition strains of standard-bred Bronze. The basic plumage color is black which results in black pinfeathers and a bird that is hard to pick. They are mature roosters at 23-26 weeks.
The Beltsville Small White is a standard variety developed by the United States Department of Agriculture between 1941 and 1962. This turkey is a small bird that resembles the Large White in color and body type. Their live weight at 15 to16 weeks is from 6-10 pounds and at 21 to 24 weeks they will be medium to small size mature roasters (hens, 8-9 pounds; toms, 13-15 pounds live).
There are other non-commercial varieties or breeds such as the standard-bred Bourbon Red and Narragansett and the non-standard varieties such as Royal Palm and Wild turkeys.
Poultry Farming With Ducks
The White Pekin is the only duck used by the commercial duck industry in the U.S. When they are ready for slaughter at eight weeks of age, they will weigh about seven pounds. Mature drakes (males) weigh nine pounds and females weigh eight pounds. They have white plumage, orange-yellow bills, reddish-yellow shanks (legs) and feet and yellow skin. Pekin ducks lay about 160 eggs per year; however, they are poor setters and seldom raise a brood.
They Aylesbury are the commercial duck most seen in England where white-skinned poultry is preferred. Their plumage is white but they have flesh-colored bills and light-orange shanks and feet. Their weight is the same as the White Pekin. Most strains lay fewer eggs than the White Pekin and they are poor setters.
The Muscovy is a distinct breed of duck. They do not quack or gaggle but make a hissing sound and roost like chickens. The males’ faces are covered with a red fleshy outgrowth and have a fleshy knob at the base of the bill. The white plumage varieties are preferred for meat production. The meat is of excellent quality and has a distinctive flavor. Muscovies are slower growing; however, they should be slaughtered before 17 weeks of age. Adult drakes weigh 10 pounds and the females weigh 7 pounds. Muscovies are excellent mothers and can be used for hatching and brooding other types of poultry.
“Mule Ducks” are produced by mating female Muscovies to Mallard-type drakes (males). This cross produces satisfactory meat yields but the offspring are sterile.
Rouen ducks have the same coloring as wild Mallards but are non-flying and heavier. The Rouen is slower growing than the Pekin reaching the same weight (7-8 pounds) in five to six months. The dark plumage gives it an undesirable dressed appearance and, thus, it is undesirable for commercial production.
Cayuga and Buff ducks are minor duck breeds which usually weigh about a pound less than the three other meat breeds.
The Khaki Campbell ducks are considered the best egg producers with some strains averaging close to 365 eggs per duck in a laying year. Khaki color describes most of the plumage of these prolific layers. Mature males and females weigh 4-1/2 pounds.
Indian Runner ducks stand erect with their body almost straight up and down. Three varieties are recognized: White, Pencilled, and Fawn and White. Indian runners weigh the same as Khaki Campbell ducks but usually do not lay as many eggs.
Domesticated Mallard ducks are often thought of as game birds. They are a small breed of ducks weighing about three pounds. The male Mallard, with its green head and distinctive white neckband, is well known. The female is fawn-colored with brown flecks.
Other small breeds of ducks, which can be kept for ornamental, hobby or exhibition purposes, are White and Gray Calls, the Wood Duck and Mandarins.
Poultry Farming With Geese
Geese are usually kept for meat production, pets or as show birds. Young geese, not over six weeks of age, are used occasionally as weeders in orchards and for such crops as strawberries, asparagus and nursery stock.
The Embden is the most popular breed of geese used for commercial meat production. They grow rapidly, mature early and have pure white plumage, which gives this breed a good dressed appearance. Mature males weigh 26 pounds and females weigh 20 pounds. Embdens lay about 35-40 eggs per goose per year.
Chinese geese are smaller than the other standard breeds and have a more swan-like appearance. Mature males weigh 12 pounds and females weigh 10 pounds. Both the brown and the white varieties mature early and are better layers than the other breeds, usually averaging 40-65 eggs per bird per year. A cross of young Chinese males with medium-sized yearling Embden females usually results in fast-growing white geese of good market size. The reciprocal cross is also fairly satisfactory, although Embden males are usually less active and heavier, the Chinese females will lay more eggs.
Toulouse weigh the same as Embdens but have a more massive-appearing body. The plumage is dark gray on the back and gradually shades to light gray edged with white on the breast and to white on the abdomen. The Toulouse is usually not as good a setter as the Emden.
The African goose has a distinctive knob on its head, grows rapidly and is a good layer. Mature males weigh 20 pounds and females 18 pounds. It is not as popular for meat production because of its dark pinfeathers which make it more difficult to dress.
The Canada is the common wild goose of North America. This goose is difficult to keep in captivity. However, sometimes they do become semi-domesticated by long residence in an area near people. Before Canada geese can be sold or transferred to another person, a permit must be obtained from the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, D.C. Canada geese can vary from 3-12 pounds in weight. They mate only in pairs, are late maturing and lay very few eggs.
Canada geese are a different species than the other breeds of geese kept for commercial or ornamental purposes. The wild Canada male is sometimes bred to females of the domestic breeds, producing the so-called hybrid mongrel goose which is usually sterile but with fine quality flesh.
The unique feature of Pilgrim geese is that the males are all white and the young females are gray and, thus, gray and white as they mature. Egyptian geese are very small. Buff and Sebastopol are two other minor breeds of geese.
When trade names are used for identification, no product endorsement is implied nor is discrimination intended.
Originally published in the February/March 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.