We usually replace our laying hens in the fall of their second year. They are still laying enough to be a good addition to a backyard flock, but not economical for us to keep over the winter. Some might end up in the freezer, since mature hens make excellent soup. Some will end up at the auction yard, which doesn’t net as much cash as selling on Craigslist, but given our recent chicken stealing experience, we plan to limit ‘visitors’ for a while.
In any case, it’s time to shop for some spring chickens.
We’ve relied on Barred Rocks as our main laying hens for a number of years. They are hardy, good foragers, good stewing hens, and lay well in winter. But this year we decided to look at higher quality heritage breeds instead of the usual hatchery or feed store chicks. Being able to hatch our own means we can research and choose from a wide variety of breeders that specialize in chickens bred to a “Standard of Perfection” – a detailed and exacting description for each breed recognized by the American Poultry Association.
Color, size, shape and more for each breed have been standardized over the years, and breed aficionados take great pride (and show ribbons) in maintaining and improving their birds. Most retail hatcheries limit themselves to selling stock with a basic resemblance to the breed standard – colors match, egg shell colors, comb shape, etc. – and this is usually just fine for most backyard flockists.
In fact, as we found out while looking at heritage Barred Rocks, sometimes hatchery stock are better layers. Since most people get into chickens to have a steady supply of eggs, it makes sense to sell birds from productive strains of the various breeds. This often means getting away from the dual-purpose origins of many farmstead favorites. Smaller, lighter weight birds put more energy into egg-making than developing a meaty carcass, and people interested in meat birds usually buy hybrid chicks specially developed to put on weight fast and efficiently.
Many heritage poultry breeders are working with exhibition lines – birds that emphatically meet the breed’s standard of perfection. And while they are very lovely, aren’t usually selected for egg production in tandem with more readily observable characteristics. What this means to our search for replacement laying hens is that the Barred Rocks we found were probably not a good start for our heritage flock.
The breeder we contacted (Jeremy Woeppel of XW Poultry Ranch) mentioned that his New Hampshire hens were his best layers, and might be a more suitable alternative. This breed had come up in our previous research as a good homestead hen, and a couple of years ago we ordered 6 from the hatchery to try. They were decent enough, and did well in our 4-breed egg trial in June 2011. But our rooster at the time didn’t like them, and they didn’t really stand out, so we cycled them out of the flock.
What we didn’t realize then was the difference breeding makes. After digging a little deeper into the history of New Hampshire chickens, investing in 2 dozen hatching eggs made sense. The first part of the 20th century was all about chicken-madness. Hundreds of books and journals were published, every farm it seemed was developing its own breed of chicken, and dual-purpose was the name of the game. An informative article in Mother Earth News says:
Beginning about 1910, poultry raisers in New Hampshire deliberately selected for early feathering, fast growth, and maturity as well as large egg size and good meat conformation. Certain strains were also noted for their vigor and hardiness.
By 1935, this specialized offshoot of the Rhode Island Red was accepted into the APA as a distinct breed. Not long after, war broke out in Europe, eventually leading to the German people eating most of their farm animals. To help them rebuild breeding stock after the war, New Hampshire chickens were sent over, and while Americans became enamored of all the new hybrid poultry strains, the German people kept working with the New Hampshires without interference from other breeds. A number of these beautiful birds were imported back to America recently, and dedicated people are working to reestablish them here.
Naturally new interests mean new projects, and we are working on our chicken infrastructure with the goal of a practical and comfortable breeding set up for multiple lines of stock. A big change from our usual hodgepodge of hens, but we are looking forward to taking our game to the next level.
For more information on the New Hampshire breed, and the chicken mania of a hundred years ago, check out these links:
- History Worth Repeating – an essay on the history and possible future of heritage poultry.
- German New Hampshires – a post from the always-informative Scratch Cradle blog.
- K & S Chicks and Eggs – beautiful pictures of heritage chickens (including the rooster in our post). Also a source for buying your own.
- Taylor Hobby Farms – another site with beautiful photos and stock for sale.
- German New Hampshires – a subforum on Backyard Chickens with pages of pictures and discussion from experienced breeders and interested novices.
- New Hampshire Chicken – on board the Slow Food Ark of Taste.