What can you tell me about choosing breeds for pastured poultry production?
Answer: For pastured laying hens, as for any animal-agriculture enterprise, a source of quality livestock is absolutely necessary. Different poultry breeds have different characteristics that a producer must take into account when choosing a breed for an operation. Egg-laying breeds used on pasture need to be able to keep laying a steady supply of eggs while being efficient foragers. The first step to starting a productive flock is to determine which breed will be the best fit for a farm and its climatic region. USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) organic regulations require “selection of species and types of livestock with regard to suitability for site-specific conditions and resistance to prevalent diseases and parasites.”Egg-laying breeds differ from meat-production breeds in a few main respects. The first is the way they grow. Layers grow at a much slower rate and will reach a lower final weight than meat-type birds. However, once laying age is reached, most energy derived from feed is used to produce eggs, so feed is utilized at a much more efficient rate. Layer rations have a lower protein content than meat bird rations. Not all layers can produce eggs at the same rate, though. Breeds differ in feed efficiency (a certain weight of feed needed in order to produce a certain weight of eggs), egg color, foraging ability, and overall behavior. Very good egg layers, meaning those breeds which can lay more than 250 eggs per year, include Leghorns; Bovans Browns; Rhode Island Reds; and Gold, Black, and Red Stars. Egg Color The shell color of the egg is s linked to the breed of chicken. Differences in shell coloration do not denote a difference in nutrition or quality of the internal contents, meaning the yolk and albumen (the white of the egg). Feed and general nutrition will help determine the contents of the egg itself. The most common eggshell colors are white and brown in a variety of shades, but a few breeds are known to lay blue or green eggs. Sex Link “Sex link” refers to poultry that have been crossbred to produce traits that are linked to their sex chromosomes. This makes it easier for hatcheries to sort chicks by gender, based on the color of their feathers at hatch. Breeds in this category are usually very good layers and are preferred by many growers. However, sex-link birds are hybrids, meaning they are bred through the cross of two different breeds. As a result, they will not be able to be used in a breeding flock to produce another generation. An upside for producers looking to start out is that with sex links you can order a set of chicks that will have a much higher probability of being hens. Otherwise, “straight-run” is standard, meaning that there will be a mix of hens and cockerels that will only develop characteristics after they have been raised to maturity. Examples of sex links include Brown Stars, Red Stars, Red Comets, and Black Stars. Weather Adaptability Climate is a large deciding factor when choosing a breed to start a flock. All chickens originated from the Red Jungle Fowl, Gallus gallus, which was found in the forests of South-Pacific Asia. Ancestral members of the Gallus family (to which all chickens belong) survive best in warm climates. However, there are newer breeds more suited to a bit of cold. Heavier-bodied birds with more feathers usually survive better in areas that receive cold weather. On the other hand, smaller-bodied chickens tend to do better in climates where it can be hot for weeks at a time. Think of it as wearing a heavy coat: you would much rather wear a coat in snow than you would in a heat wave. Another factor to consider relative to climate is comb shape and size. Breeds such as the leghorn have large combs, which are useful for heat dissipation in warm climates but make them more susceptible to frostbite in cold climates. If a flock will be on pasture during the winter in a colder climate, producers should look for a breed with a smaller comb (such as a “pea comb”).Foraging Ability A distinguishing factor in raising pastured poultry is that the birds will be foraging through the day. This can relieve feed costs slightly, given the right combination of genetics and pasture quality. Although a producer can realistically expect a 5% to 20% contribution to total nutrition from pasture, genetics will play a role in exactly how much nutrition a bird can get from forages. Some breeds prefer to look for their own feed when they need it and will go to great lengths to find supplemental nutrition; others prefer to wait and be fed concentrated rations to satisfy the entirety of their nutritional needs. Examples of breeds that exhibit superior foraging abilities include Leghorn, American Gamefowl, New Hampshire, Barred Rocks, and Dominiques. Dual Purpose Breeds that can produce both meat and eggs are referred to as “dual-purpose” breeds. While this concept might seem attractive to a grower, these birds are usually not as efficient in either category of production as some of the top breeds. However, in some cases the flexibility of a dual-purpose breed can be of value to producers who don’t have room for separate flocks. Notable dual-purpose breeds include Orpingtons, Australorps, and Plymouth Rocks.You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Pastured Poultry: Egg Production. This publication examines many of the risk factors that beginning poultry farmers should consider before acquiring a pastured laying flock. It addresses animal-management issues including breed selection, housing, nutrition, predator control, and natural-resource management. It also discusses processing and marketing of the end product, table eggs. It is available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=498.