Chicken Breed Basics

By Kelly Klober

Chickens are a small investment, but can be a big headache if your management techniques are not up to date. Learn the basics of the different chicken breeds available.

The first question raised about bantam chickens is, “Of what good is a little chicken?” Certainly they are ornamental and have been taken up by many exhibition breeders for the challenge some of the colors and feathering patterns in bantams represent. And, for some, there is the challenge to produce a perfect large fowl in miniature. For the backyard poultry folks the little birds take up less space, there is a reduced noise level, some of the breeds are exceptionally docile, they are easier to contain, they are bred in great variety, and they eat much less. Three bantam eggs will replace two large fowl eggs in most recipes and as a serving size.

Chicken and baby chicks

Our barn banties would begin taking to the nest in early spring, and we once had one small hen emerge from the hayloft with five little peeps on Christmas Eve. A few times each year we would make a late-night safari to the barn with burlap bag and flashlight in hand. There we would pluck surplus birds—mostly roosters—from rafters, gate tops, stall walls, and other roosting places. My grandparents would then dress the contents of two or three cackling, wriggling, and occasionally even crowing tow sacks. Mostly they went into big pots of winter day vegetable soup or chicken and dumplings. The latter was a favorite of Dad’s and one time, unbeknownst to us, she added a tray of store-bought chicken necks to a couple of the little roosters going into a big pot of dumplings. The second day into that particular pot Dad began his table grace by asking to be spared, in the future, from little banty roosters that were all neck.

In Europe bantam eggs and other exotic eggs such as those of ducks are regularly offered in stores. They obviously appeal to one- and two-person households that do limited cooking at home. And they could be said to be nature’s way of controlling serving sizes.

I once set about the goal of owning a flock of miniature fowl counterparts for every one of the large fowl breeds we owned. In hindsight it was a sort of fool’s errand as the small breeds are not supported by high demand in our area, and good seedstock for them costs every bit as much as good large fowl stock.

Rising grain and other feed costs have certainly sparked new interest in bantams and miniature fowl. However, their smaller size requires that they be given very nutrient-dense rations to maintain condition due to the small amounts of feedstuffs that they are able to consume. Many keeping them have opted to offer the higher protein content and higher priced game bird feeds to them.

There are some miniatures that can have practical applications of a sort. A well-bred Cornish miniature is quite a little chunk of meat in the hand. And some lines of Leghorn miniatures do lay well. And, where it is still desired or needed, miniature fowl are one of the most dependable choices for natural incubation. Cochin and Wyandotte bantams and their crosses have performed especially well in this role.

You can’t turn a broody hen on or off as needed, and the broodiness factor has largely been bred out of the various large fowl breeds. It is an economic fact of life that the broody hen on the nest is not producing eggs. Miniatures and bantams do tend to be more seasonal in both their laying and brooding patterns, however. There are some management practices that are said to foster broodiness in chickens. These include lowering light levels in the housing and decreasing protein levels in daily rations. Nothing is sure, and you cannot force a bird’s nature.

The above two breeds and a few others have a larger mature size and are thus able to successfully cover more eggs during incubation. With the Cochins, however, there is the matter of their feather-booted feet and legs. Such feathering makes it more difficult to keep the nests and eggs clean. The booted hens may even flip eggs out of the nest if their feet are heavily feathered. Such feathering can be trimmed, but many prefer to cross up the little birds to breed away such feathering and produce some larger females. Many purebred flock owners will keep a second flock of crossbred broodies and entrust some of their most valuable eggs to them. Crossing Cochins with Wyandottes or other, larger, clean-legged miniatures will breed out much of the leg feathering.

I suspect that the role and value of bantams and miniatures is only going to grow as more consider adding a few chickens to the backyard and aging baby boomers look for new pursuits in retirement. For many they will be a pleasant hobby, for some—such as color and show breeders—they will be a challenging exercise, and for others they will be a way to gain some control over what is coming into their homes and on their tables.

Many of the bantams and miniatures are quite docile, easily tended by children and older folk. Some are so docile as to not even show a tendency to fly up even to a low roost and thus are termed floor bantams. They bed down at night on coop floors, can be contained with simple fencing, are very quiet in nature, and are not in the least bit flighty.

Some of the very first very well-bred chickens that I owned were Single Combed Rhode Island Red bantams. They came from noted western Missouri poultry breeder, Mr. Morgan Craven, and were a delight to own. I kept several breeding trios in decked coops and would often notice my very practical-minded grandparents just standing, watching the little birds as they strutted and preened. Their little eggs had an almost jewel-like quality. The miniatures were often bred down from their large fowl counterparts or were put together from the miniature counterparts of the breeds that were used to create the large fowl varieties. One account is that along with selecting for smaller specimens the selected large fowl eggs would be set to hatch rather late in the year. With the shorter days, less daylight, and cooler temperatures to contend with, the birds did not develop to such a large size. Gradually, they could be bred down to a size with a mature weight in the bantam fowl range. And while there is only so much that you can put into a smaller package, there are some practical roots that can be drawn upon and cultivated with many of these small birds.

There is a tremendous amount of eye appeal with many of the smaller birds, and they do a pretty good job of selling themselves when displayed to the public. A lot of poultry people producing on commercial levels keep one or another of the bantam or miniature breeds for the challenge of producing something elite in type and appearance. The little birds were never kept in huge flocks, but a new role may be emerging for some producers of the more productive lines in modest numbers. The backyard chicken people have a very real need for producers of quality stock—
particularly started birds in which the sexes can be clearly and easily
discerned. Such birds will have substantially greater value than hatchery-run, as-hatched bantam chicks if they can be marketed into areas where there is a demand for them.

Such folks need not just good birds in small numbers but also much in the way of support and information as to how to care for their birds. If they can find people who can answer their questions and provide them with good birds, they will then continue to patronize them. And savvy producers are beginning to market what they know, first in the price of their birds and then in what they can provide in the way of follow-up sales and support. There are chicken varieties that push the production envelope in many different ways and are deserving of consideration by at least modest numbers of producers seeking something beyond the basic egg or broiler. None will, I believe, be growable to major proportions, but they are becoming more identifiable in the marketplace.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book Beyond the Chicken by Kelly Klober. Learn more or buy this book at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

About Kelly Klober

Kelly Klober
Kelly Klober

Kelly Klober was raised on a small, mixed-livestock farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species—including a range of poultry species. His grandparents, real country folk, raised White “English” Leghorns and sold three hundred dozen farm-fresh eggs along their weekly egg route in St. Louis County, Missouri. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a state farmer degree from the Missouri FFA and has long been involved in 4-H Clubs in a leadership role. Klober is the author of hundreds of articles and multiple books on small-scale farming, including Talking Chicken and Dirt Hog. Klober and his wife continue to farm about 20 miles east from where Klober was raised, with much love and attention to their heritage poultry flock.