Help Us Find the Ideal Urban Chicken Breed

Townes Van Zandt with chicken

We are in the market for new hens and lately it has occurred to us that the best breed criteria for our situation is not a breed which lays most frequently, but a breed which maintains its egg production as it matures–even if that means that it doesn’t produce as many eggs per week as a typical high production hen.

Does that make sense? Because Erik is such a soft touch, we have to maintain a nursing home for hens. It would be great if our ladies would continue to contribute eggs into their dotage. It is less important that they are daily producers in their youth, because the two of us can’t eat that many eggs.

This is not what hens are bred for–I understand that. Laying hens are bred to give as much as they can for two years, after which they are usually culled. Long term laying isn’t much of a consideration. But I thought this trait might be more apparent in some of the heritage breeds.

Let me know if you have an old hen still laying, and what kind of hen she is.

Erik adds this: In The One-Straw Revolution Masanobu Fukuoka mentions he has just such a hen–but he doesn’t go on to tell us the name. Anyone know about Fukuoka’s chickens?

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40 Comments

  1. Our Easter Egger, Nugget, and our two Wyandottes, Noodle and Fricassee, are still laying quite steadily at age 3.5. Of course, they’re pampered beyond belief, so that might contribute… :)

  2. My 4-year old Plymouth Barred Rock is still laying occasionally. She’s also one of the friendliest of my hens, the kind who squat down when you pass by so that you can pick her up.

    Joel Silverman

  3. Good topic and one I haven’t really considered. I plan on getting hens this year, but haven’t really given much thought on the breed, other than laying hens. I’ll be watching the thread in hopes that someone will be able to give a definitive answer.

    And I can empathize with Erik. After all, when you have had them for a while, they have become pets. They are pets that produce eggs, but still pets. Just because they stopped producing isn’t reason enough for me to cull them.

  4. I don’t have any chickens at all, but from what I’ve read, I believe the Barred Rocks and the Leghorns lay pretty much all year.

    And yes. The only way people can get hens to lay as much as often as possible is by lighting the coop to provide the necessary 14 hours of light, I think it is. Which is not natural.

    Most of the blogs I read, their chickens have all but stopped during winter. One blog I follow has Wyandottes, Brahmas, Australorpes, Orpingtons, and one Cochin. She got a few eggs in January. I don’t think she got any in December, but she only tells what she got when she posts.

    Good luck with your research!

  5. I would have to say after living with chickens most of my life the Ameraucana aka the Easter Egg chicken, is the best layer for the longest.
    Even our friends in Alaska say the same.

  6. If i could start all over again i would get bantam chickens. They are bigger than what you think a “small” chicken would be so still look like chickens. They are better in terms of size for a small backyard and lay smaller eggs so perfect for people who want a little egg in their diet but not a lot. The only problems is there is no guarantee if you are ordering them that you’ll have hens. But if you want to keep a rooster, a bantam rooster will have a quieter crow and less likely to bother neighbors.

  7. Hi, I often keep hens well past the two year mark as long as they are good layers and ideally if they are older, I also look for broody traits. The best to date have been my small old fashioned brown leghorn hens.

    To date the best hens I have that continue to lay well into old age-by which I mean she is five this year an still laying two to three eggs per week, when she is not winter resting and or being broody at the age of five.

    I have had three purebreds over the years, all got from the same breeder at the local spring bird sales, one lived to be four before a hawk got it, currently the oldest is five and still going strong.

    While not a good meat bird at all, as a long term layer, as a amazing free range bird and as a broody momma, they have yet to be beat.. Some folks have a banty breed for the broody mom’s, I have brown leghorns.

    The catch is, I don’t know if this normal? in the breed or just years and years of work on the part of the local breeder that I get them from?

  8. I second the folks who report the more measured yet steady production of Wyandottes. My Speckled Sussex is also doing well for an older bird, though she’s more independent than the Wyandottes — she’s also a little larger and more self-sufficient when it comes to foraging. RE: Fukuoka’s bantams, I had four bantam leghorns for a while and while they were amazing layers, small and sweet, they flew all the time and loved to roost in the trees. If your situation isn’t set up for flyers, may want to stay clear of them.

  9. We have keep Buff Orpingtons and Barred Rocks and both are winter hardy, friendly and continued to lay into their fourth year. Both are dual purpose, heritage breeds.

  10. We have some Buff Orpingtons and White leghorns 3-4 years old still laying. Leghorns are bred in the same manner as Bantams, through selective breeding. Leghorns are not the cornish X of the eggs world. They are really sweet, compact, great foragers and great feed conversion ratio, (less input as far as feed in to your farm). I do love our small sicilian buttercups- small egg a week for the last 2 years with some broody behavior.

  11. I would like to use this as an opportunity to point you to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

    http://http://albc-usa.org/

    They are working to protect American livestock breeds from extinction. After much consideration, my wife and I decided to invest in a flock of Buckeyes. They have been great chickens and were recently moved from Critical to Threatened by the ALBC. I am not sure if any of the breeds the ALBC is monitoring fit your requirement, but it would be a win to get the traits you want and also help a rare breed at the same time.

  12. Black Copper Marans are working out well as backyard birds for me. They are a hardy, big, and relatively quiet. They lay very dark brown eggs, so even when I’ve ended up with roosters, I am able to sell them for breeding.

  13. I am not sure whether laying longer is strictly a breed thing. It probably is also an individial trait. For instance I have an Australorp and one Wyandotte out of four chickens that are so superior in the egg laying department.

    I chose Wyandottes because they have small combs and lots of feathers so are adapted to the cold and got an Australorp by mistake. She is my best layer. They are 2 years old so still young. They now lay a few less but bigger eggs so probably by weight they are still producing about the same amount. Except for 6-8 weeks while they moult, they lay over the winter without any additional light and we have very short days as the sun goes down behind a mountain.

    I am much happier with the heritage breeds than the egg factory chickens I had before. They are pretty, hardy and good foragers.

    I am sure there are people who are breeding chickens for longer laying, somewhere. Call me in a few years. It is something I have on my To-Do list!

  14. I don’t keep my hens that long personally, but my neighbors growing up had a pair of ameracaunas that roamed the property and continued to lay eggs throughout the seven years that I was hanging around there!

  15. I’ve heard from another chicken owner that giving the hens a high protein diet throughout their life will keep them laying as they age. Specifically, farming worms, mealworms, maggots or crickets to give to the hens. (Or buying dehydrated mealworms in bulk online.)

  16. Just yesterday my neighbor was telling me that her Golden Polish started laying again after the winter break. We could not even figure out how old she is, probably 5 or more? She was an “extra” in their box of 25 mail order chicks and the only white egg layer in the flock.

  17. My oldest hen is Geraldine, a faintly hyper rhode island red who pops out an egg every other day or so. Lots of personality, great scratcher and forager, and she loves freaking out our cats. She’ll be 4+ next spring. What I really like is she’ll bond with anyone and has a sense of humor.

  18. Thanks for the question. We’ve been wondering the same thing as we’ll embark on our urban chicken keeping in our spring. Hoping the info will apply in New Zealand too;-)

  19. We favor Buff Orpingtons for the reasons outlined in the blog post reachable by clicking my name. Friendliness is definitely as much a factor as laying, but they are strong layers too. And cuddly!

  20. Check out Rhode Island Reds. They lay well for me. Right now, they have had a trauma and slowed down on laying. But, they lay. Small combs are good for not freezing. You don’t have that problem. As for too much light not being natural, what do the chickens do near the equator?

    The problem with long nights is that long nights/less light generally occur where it is cold. Hens can use their energy for laying or for keeping warm, not both. So, you don’t have to choose by comb size since you are not subjected to subfreezing temperatures. My hens insisted on sleeping outdoors when it was 9 F, and did not suffer a bit.

    Don’t choose a breed advertised as “lively.” They may be loud, given to escape over fences, and generally not be lovable. My hens have not once even tried to jump over the 6′ fence or off the four foot retainer wall. I have trained them not to go out in the front yard.

    I vote for Rhode Island Red.They have fewer health problems, it seems.

    By the way, Joel Silverman, hens squat because they look at you as procurer of food, the one to whom they must submit for big chicken love. So, “pick up” is only in the street vernacular…lol…most people don’t know that.

    Oh, a banty (bantam) is noisy. At least the ones I have known are loud.

  21. We have had Buff Orps and they were decent long term layers and were good for meat too. Currently have 5 Dominiques where are on the Heritage watch list. Ours are only a couple of years old, so I don’t know what the long term laying is like. They are also dual purpose birds.

    Aaron

  22. have you thought about raising another bird entirely? maybe a couple of small turkeys or a pair of geese? They will lay longer, have delicious larger eggs and can defend themselves so you don’t need a coup. They also make fantastic weed eaters and fantabulous insect eaters. I’m sure you know all this. But maybe it’s time to switch out of the chicken game and into the turkey or goose game? I was pretty happy when I switched bird types. Although I might go back to chickens because they do poop everywhere. I have a lot of concrete and wood decking that I can’t tear out yet, but if I ever do I’d go back to turkeys and/or geese.

  23. I have two five year old Dominique’s and get one egg every three days from each right now, it was two a week in Dec and Jan but it was ten degrees at the lowest. Now that the days are longer and it’s slightly warmer the production goes up. Heritage breeds are the best in my opinion. I also have three six year old Wyandotte’s that lay but I don’t really know who is doing what. They are kind of sneaky and will all go and sit together then when there is an egg they all “announce” it like it’s their own.

  24. So far my oldest birds are my EE’s which are in their 4th year of laying. So far this spring we’ve had an egg out of each of them about every 2-3 days. I suspect their “mutt” background gives them some “hybrid vigor” . . . but I also suspect that it is indeed more of an individual-, health- and breeding-related trait, since any breed can have individuals that perform better and live longer than the norm. All in all for a backyard farmer I suspect it’s a crapshoot, since we can’t bank on taking the best performers out of huge numbers of birds – we have to get it right with a few select individuals and that makes it a bigger challenge.

  25. I have kept various breeds of Bantams since the late 90′s and think they are the perfect bird for small backyard flocks.Many of the Bantam breeds do very well in a pen situation.I have had silkies,cochins,mille fleurs,japanese,cornish,and brahmins,and a couple others that I can’t remember.At this point I think I would try to put together a flock of the bantam Brahmin.They are good egg layers,mild brooders,and pretty friendly and come in pretty color variations.Right now I have 2 mille fleurs and one golden laced cochin.The cochin was a mail order chick in Sept of ‘o7 and is laying eggs every other day.I am always amazed that with the growing popularity of backyard chickens that people go for the big standard breeds.And to dispell some of the above mentioned generalities about bantams.Not all the bantam breeds are noisy,nor are the roosters quieter because they are small.And only some of the bantam breeds are prone to flying.Cochins and silkies are not very aerodynamic.
    Two nice chicken websites are Feathersite.com(an amazing wealth of info on breeds).And a small heritage breed hatchery Sandhill Preservation Farms.Good luck on your search and keep us tuned to your choices.

  26. When we inherited our first hen, an Ameraucana, she was already 2 years old. She layed about 5 eggs a week until she was about 6. She lived to the ripe old age of 13, and continued to lay about 2 eggs a week in the summer until she died. We live in Fullerton, so our weather is the same as yours. We currently have 2 hens, a friendly and adventurous Black Star and a Barred Rock. The Black Star, Amelia (she’s a flyer), is almost a year old and has given us an egg a day throughout the winter. The Barred Rock, Nellie, molted and was out of production for a couple months, but is back to laying 6 days a week. I want to add an Ameraucan again someday, both for the beautiful eggs and the long laying life.

  27. Our leghorns and buttercups are all laying well at three, though with many months rest for molting/ winter. Don’t imagine a commercial farmer would have put up with that…

  28. I haven’t kept that many different breeds, so I don’t have a real good take on this question. I suspect it varies with every backyard flock, depending on origin/heritage, nutrition, environment, and pure luck. Witness the varied answers you’ve already gotten. Personally, I have long-since accepted the fact that I will never come close to saving money by getting eggs from my own chickens, but that’s not why I do it anyway. So I have no problem keeping the geriatric girls around as long as they live. Having said that, I’ve had the best long-term-laying results with Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons, with Easter Eggers close behind. My Red Stars and Black Stars (sex-links) seem to live forever, though I’m not sure they laid more than the occasional egg in their later years. My best shorter-term layers have always been Rhode Island Reds, which are bred to lay non-stop for two or three years; as a result they generally don’t live very long, so you don’t often end up feeding them into their dotage anyway.

  29. I second everyone on the Ameracauna/Easter Eggers, I used to keep them when I was young and recalled them laying for many many years, hence the surprise when my current chickens stopped laying at just 3 years, and someone said that was normal (but the one that is an easter egger started to lay consistently again).

  30. I once kept Red Stars to over 3.5 years of age and they were still laying decently if not fantastically. They ARE production model laying machines in their youth – little more than oviducts wedded to a digestive tract. Expect at least 6 eggs per week per hen up to age 2. They put nothing on their frames in the way of meat and are very small birds compared with heritage breeds. Also, the older they got, the larger the eggs got. Near the end I couldn’t fit their eggs into egg cartons.

    I’ve not kept Marans quite so long, but I never noticed that their egg production changed much over the 2 years I kept them, and I started keeping them at about a year of age. White Marans are significantly less productive, ime, than the Cuckoos, but the steadiness of production as they age seems about the same.

    This is just a hunch of mine, but it seems that the high production models are more prone to early death than the heritage breeds. The only birds that have up and died on me were the Red Stars, though just a few of those. So maybe sex-link hybrids would tend to reduce the hen retirement plan obligations for you.

  31. Thank you so much everybody for your comments! So many long, good comments came so fast, that we’re still trying to absorb it all. So again, thanks to each of you, even if we can’t answer your comments individually. Perhaps we’ll have to make a chart to keep track of it all!

    All I can say off the top of my head is that I have heard that Ameraucanas are steady layers–as several comments here confirm. A couple of our friends with chickens are all aflutter over Leghorns this year. I think Leghorns are trending a bit, for some reason– but they do indeed sound like good birds, as, again, several of you have commented.

    And then there’s the beautiful Orphingtons and Wynadottes…oh the choices!

    The classic “feed store breeds” like barred rocks and reds are darn good layers–those are what we had. Our rocks were champion layers and were still laying once in a while when they died suddenly at 4. We lost our red this weekend (we’ll probably be writing more about that soon) and though she hadn’t given us an egg for 6 months or more, she was almost 5. So that’s nothing to complain about.

    Now we’re left with a single, decorative ameraucana, who hasn’t laid since she was a year old (she got sick, and while she survived, and the egg factory must have been damaged). She’s lonely, and we have to think of a plan quick.

  32. Have you guys gotten in touch with the backyard chicken forum? They do a socal meet every now and then and sell/trade hens or fertile eggs. Lots of local(ish- I think they meet in Fontana generally) birds to choose from. :) http://www.backyardchickens.com/f/8/chickenstocks-shows-meet-ups Seems like the most recent one was in San Diego, but if you like any of the birds in the Socal Meetup threads I’m sure you can get in contact with them (the breeders, not the birds lol).

  33. American Dominiques are excellent long-lived layers. They produce plenty of medium sized brown eggs, and they also are a dual purpose bird, giving you a nice carcass if you decide to raise chicks and have an excess of cockerels. I highly recommend buying from a breeder, many of the hatchery stock is really lacking in true Dominique characteristics that make the breed so good.

    They are moderately broody, we usually have a handful of hens (we keep around 50 Doms) go broody each year, but they aren’t so broody that they are impossible to break out of broodiness, like many bantam breeds can be. They are good mothers, and we have had some really nice birds temperament wise. They LOVE to forage and eat whole foods over chicken grains any day, but they also withstand confinement well.

  34. DATE: MARCH 31ST
    PLACE: NORCO- NEIL SNIPES PARK on the corner of 5th and Hammer
    TIME: usually start around 10AM till the cows come home!
    WHAT WE DO: TALK “SHOP’ BUY / TRADE / SWAP / OOGLE EVERYONES BIRDIES / meet all those people we only know by BYC names
    Bring yer favorite birdies too and let them play in the sun and grass…..we all love to see everyones birds.
    There is a beautiful open air pavillion w/ picnic tables that we use. PLEASE bring yer own lunch and drinks. Pot-lucks just don’t work out well…but if you want to share goodies……….

    Here’s the next socal chicken meetup if you guys are interested in checking it out! I got the email from Susan Maclean: frogbait3@gmail is her email.

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