Breeds, Hybrids, Crossbreeds…Just What Are They?

Anyone who enjoys keeping backyard chickens is truly fortunate but may be confused. Never before has such a diversity of chicken types been available from hatcheries that produce chicks for small backyard flocks.

Catalogs feature chickens ranging from tiny bantams to massive Jersey Giants. Birds come in an amazing assortment of feather colors and patterns. Egg shells may be dark or light brown, white, tinted, green, or even blue. Various bird types are described as flighty, calm, broody, winter hardy, or heat tolerant. Choosing which chicks to order is fun, but with so many choices it can be perplexing.

To add confusion are common terms used by hatcheries. Often a particular bird is called a “breed”, “crossbreed”, or hybrid. There isn’t always consistent use of these terms from hatchery to hatchery. So, just what is a breed, crossbreed, and hybrid?

It was much simpler during most of the 6000 odd years that chickens have been domesticated. Until around two centuries ago most chickens roamed around cities, small towns, and farms. They interbred at random, producing new generations with a hodgepodge of traits. These birds were mongrels but usually well adapted to the local environment. Diversity ruled. Few chickens looked the same, although certain traits emerged in different parts of the world.  For example, small bodied active chickens that lay white eggs trace their ancestry to lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

This jumble of characteristics began changing in the 1800s when the Industrial Revolution enabled millions of people to leave the farm to labor in new urban factories.   Perhaps because their heart was still on the land, many families kept chickens, even in big cities. Their birds produced eggs and meat but also became a passionate hobby.

Before television and the Internet filled idle hours, millions of people attended poultry shows. Breeders developed show chickens in a way that produced standardized predictable appearances and traits. Many of today’s breeds, like the ever-popular Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock were developed then, but dozens of other breeds have been created since to fulfill specific needs or catch eyes at poultry shows.

What Is a Breed?

According to Dr. Susan Lamont, C.F. Curtis Distinguished Professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Iowa State University, a breed is a population that breeds true and is defined by well described externally observed qualities. Breeds are recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) and published in their book, Standard of Perfection.

This simply means that all members of a breed will have similar characteristics, such as size, physique, feather color, and comb type. Mate two members of a breed and their offspring will share their traits. Some breeds have several color variants. For example, the Plymouth Rock is a breed, but within this breed are white, barred, buff, and other colors and feather patterns.  No matter their feather color or pattern, all varieties of Plymouth Rocks have a husky body, single comb, and are  good layers of brown shelled eggs.

Hybrids Fueled the Modern Poultry Industry

During the Twentieth Century scientific breeding revolutionized poultry. College educated geneticists created modern hybrids with the intent to create strains of birds especially efficient in converting feed into eggs or meat. Probably the best known is the Cornish Rock hybrid, developed from the Cornish and Rock breeds.

Prior to the development of hybrid meat strains, chicken was a relatively expensive meat produced by slow growing Light Brahmas, Jersey Giants, New Hampshires and other breeds.  It took much feed and time for these birds to grow to market size, thus making chicken an expensive meat enjoyed mostly on special occasions. The Cornish Rock changed it all. This hybrid produces an eating size bird in half the time on much less feed than the old timers. Credit hybridization with precipitously dropping the price of chicken in the grocery store or on a restaurant menu. Today the average American eats about 60 pounds of chicken meat a year.

Scientists also created hybrid egg layers capable of producing upwards of 300 eggs a year.  Among the best-known laying hybrids are California Whites, a Leghorn based white egg layer, and the ISA Brown, a complex hybrid that is an amazingly efficient producer of brown eggs.

Hybridization is often not as simple as crossing one breed with another.  Sometimes complex series of matings over multiple generations are required to develop sophisticated highly productive birds.

How About Crossbreeds

According to Dr. Lamont, crossbreeding technically refers to mating two or more breeds. The intent to improve traits is usually not a defining factor. Crossbreeding results in chickens that do not breed true and are not registered by the APA.

“In the early days, around 200 years ago, cross breeding was used to introduce a visible trait, like barring (on the feathers) that helped identify sexes at hatching,” she said. Today this is common with hybrid strains where females and males have different colored feathers or patterns. It’s a much faster way to separate the gender of baby chicks than vent sexing, which must be used with most breeds. In vent sexing a highly skilled and experienced hatchery worker gently squeezes the bird’s vent, revealing slight differences between males and females.

Few people enjoying a small flock of backyard chickens keep roosters or have any interest in breeding their birds. For them it doesn’t really matter if they own registered breeds, hybrids, or crossbreeds. Families can pick and choose their chicks based on the traits they like the most. Hybrid layers often are the most efficient at producing the maximum number of eggs, but many true breeds also lay well and connect their owner with the glory days of poultry when attending chicken shows was a passion.  Many hatcheries allow customers to order a diversity of chicks, making it easy for a customer to order a diversity of breeds and hybrids.

What to Expect – Chick Life Stages

You’ve just arrived home with a brimming box of peeping chicks, how exciting! The journey you are about to embark on is an exciting one, so get ready to learn about and love those new fluffy creatures.

Week 1:

Before you go to pick up your new chicks, make sure the brooder is ready to go at home. This will prevent any unnecessary stress, for both you and the chicks. Expect some peeping as the chicks get acquainted in their new environment, learning to drink and eat. They will likely do this for 4 or 5 days. If the peeping seems to be excessive, make sure you evaluate the brooder for anything that may be causing distress. A good indicator on temperature is to evaluate where the chicks are located. If they are spread out, they are likely comfortable. If they are huddled under the heat source, they may be too cold and temperature adjustments should be made. If they are on the edges of the brooder (not under the heat source) then they are likely too hot. Don’t forget, the journey to their new home was a long one, so consider providing some bottled water with vitamins and electrolytes for the first 3 days.

Weeks 2-3:

After the first week, their down will start to turn into feathers, and by week 4 you can expect to see more feathers than down. With adequate food, water and proper temperature, your chicks should be acclimating quite well to their new home. Don’t forget the importance of brooder maintenance during this time. To keep odors at bay and cleanliness paramount, make sure you are cleaning out the brooder once a week and adding fresh shavings. Place the waterer in the corner to prevent dampness throughout the entire brooder.

Weeks 4 – 6:

At this time, you may notice your chicks starting to test their wings. At week 6, the brooder is likely getting a little crowded, and you should consider the transition outside to the coop. It’s wise to choose a nice day to do this, as it will be less of a shock to the birds. It’s important to note that during this transition, you should make sure your chicks are fully feathered so they are prepared for the elements. A gradual integration of new chicks with mature hens may be necessary to prevent older birds from picking on the young birds. A good option is to separate the two groups with a gate or some fencing, so they can be exposed to one another before being fully integrated.

What Is FlockShield™?

With over 60% of a bird’s immune system found in the gut of the bird, maintaining strong gut health is incredibly important. FlockShield™ healthy flock support aids in a strong gut as well as supports the absorption of nutrients. Take a look at this video to learn what FlockShield, found only in Nutrena® NatureWise® Complete Poultry Feeds, is all about!

Duck Tales – the Adventure Continues

The following series will take you on a journey with Nutrena Poultry Expert, Twain Lockhart and his wife as they navigate the ins and outs of duck ownership.  

The duck adventure is progressing along, with these guys really growing fast. At 6 weeks of age, we moved them to their own separate coop, complete with a pond (plastic kiddie pool)! I cannot stress how much they love the access to water. It needs to be changed daily, and they make a muddy mess, but it is so entertaining to watch, so we forgive them pretty quickly.

Speaking of entertainment, these guys are vocal! As I say, they talk to my wife and yell at me.

As the temperatures dropped this winter, a few challenges have arose. Obviously the pond had to be removed. Additionally, we’ve had to provide water access to them throughout the day, as their location doesn’t have running water. We’ve provided some straw for bedding, to keep them warm and that seems to keep them content.

As much as us humans are anticipating Spring, I’d venture to guess these ducks are counting down the days until they see the return of their pond and sunshine!

Bringing Chickens to Your Backyard – Where to Start

Ever since chickens were domesticated before the dawn of history, they’ve been constant companions.  As people settled Europe, Asia, the Americas and even remote Pacific islands they brought chickens along to provide eggs and an occasional tasty stew. For centuries nearly everyone knew how to manage a flock.

Then, about a hundred years ago, chicken husbandry shifted. Previously, most people lived on farms or in small towns. Nearly every family kept at least a few chickens. The flock was a source of income for many. Children were often responsible for caring for them, and they had excellent mentors. Parents and grandparents showed how to care for birds and butcher one for special meals.

That changed as the Industrial Revolution encouraged millions of people to migrate from farms to cities. Following the Second World War massive suburban growth sprawled over the countryside, and suburban town governments usually created ordinances to ban farm animals.

Generations of mentoring came to an end with suburbanization. And now, most Americans are now three or four generations removed from the farm. Today’s parents and grandparents know where to find eggs in the supermarket but lack any knowledge of chicken husbandry.

Fortunately, that is changing. Many suburban dwellers have become uneasy with their disconnect from the land. They want to produce wholesome food in the yard while helping their kids recognize that meals come from the soil, not the store. Modern urbanites and suburbanites face a dilemma. Producing food and caring for animals require skills that have been largely lost.

Unlike cattle, sheep, or hogs unsuited for suburban life, chickens are the one farm animal that function well in a tiny backyard. They’re small, relatively quiet, and can be raised in tiny coops that fit in even the smallest yard. Chickens mesh well with gardening while converting food scraps into delicious eggs. They are the perfect food-producing animal to raise in tight places with high human density.

Raising chickens isn’t complicated, but it can seem that way for novices who want to keep a small flock but lack mentors to learn from. Fortunately, the growing backyard chicken phenomenon is increasing acceptance of these docile animals in both cities and suburbia. It’s unleashing a torrent of books, websites, and magazines that help and encourage newcomers. Chicks, feed, supplies, and information are increasingly stocked in urban and suburban stores.

So, how does a person with no chicken experience learn how to start and care for a backyard flock? It is really not difficult. In many ways caring for chickens is similar to tending a family pet. Chickens, like dogs and cats, need safe housing and nutritious food. Anyone who has successfully kept a pet already knows the basics of animal care. Chickens have some special needs. Here are a few tips:

CHECK LOCAL ORDINANCES

In recent years dozens of city councils have responded to the surge of interest in backyard chickens by changing ordinances that once banned the birds.  Typically, ordinances specify the number of hens that can be kept, usually four or six, and forbid noisy roosters or slaughtering of chickens in town.

The first step in keeping chickens is to find out if it’s legal. Almost all towns have a link on their website to access ordinances. Look for an animal or animal control link. A second way to learn is to call the city clerk. Usually this person is familiar with ordinances. In many cases there will be good news. Far more towns allow chickens now than they did a decade ago. If they are not legal locally, take heart. It may not be hard to encourage the town council to alter the ordinance to allow families to keep a small flock.   Dozens of model ordinances are readily available for a local government to use as a model.

Surprisingly chickens are perfectly legal in many of our largest cities. Dozens of flocks live in New York City, for example. Some are in community gardens, enabling even residents of massive apartments to tend a flock in a nearby park. Ironically, small towns in farm country often ban chickens inside city limits.

LEARNING

Assuming that keeping chickens is legal, the next step for a newcomer is to learn how to maintain a flock. As chicken husbandry grows in popularity that’s becoming easier.   Odds are almost certain that someone’s keeping chickens nearly everywhere. They’ll offer encouragement and knowledge but finding them can be a challenge. Using social media is one way to connect with them. Other ways to learn include:

Backyard Chicken Classes:  Nature centers, city park departments, county extension offices, and stores that sell chicks and supplies often offer basic workshops for beginners. These are excellent ways to learn about chicken care and meet others who share a passion for keeping a flock.

Reading:   Most public libraries stock chicken care books. These are also usually sold in stores that sell chicken supplies.   Websites, like this one, provide outstanding information.  Finally, one of the best sources of information comes from chick hatcheries.  Most will send a free paper catalog, and all have websites. In addition to providing information on breeds nearly all online and paper catalogs include chicken care tips. They are a wealth of information, and most hatcheries are happy to help newcomers.  A question posed in an email or by a phone call is likely to lead to enthusiastic help and information from hatchery staff.

GETTING READY

Once someone has decided to keep chickens and done research, it takes time to prepare for the exciting day when chicks arrive. Coops can be homemade or purchased. Some tiny ones can be bought as kits at farm supply stores or ordered online. They are easy to assemble and work fine. Brooders are easy to make but must be ready before chicks arrive. It doesn’t need to cost a bundle or be complicated.   People handy with tools can save money by building their own coop, nest boxes, feeders and roosts. Brooders can be made of a big cardboard box heated with a light bulb.

START SMALL

A key to success in keeping chickens for the first time is starting small and simple. A mini coop housing four hens of easy to manage breeds is an ideal way to gain experience managing a flock. Starting small is inexpensive and easy yet yields the experience a new person needs to expand the flock later.

That the majority of today’s children grow to maturity removed from food production is a modern tragedy.  A few chickens in the backyard, combined with a vegetable garden, are an ideal family project that yields tasty food while connecting people to the earth that sustains us.

Winter Water

Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.

Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.   Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.

For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.  Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.

Let Electricity Do the Work

By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies.  They all work. Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing.  Thermostats soften the electric bill.

A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs. These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.  A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.

Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks. It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.

Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens. Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production. Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.

If There’s No Electricity

Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Take advantage of free heat from the sun.  Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
  2. Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
  3. Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink.   Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.

Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores. They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake. Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail. Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid. Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected. Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.

Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof. Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.

When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.  Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.

Feed It Forward with Nutrena

We believe animals change lives. We want to help.

That’s why we created Feed It Forward™, our giving program to help organizations that share our belief in the life-changing bond between animals and people.

Do you know of a deserving organization that could benefit from a Feed It Forward grant? We’re offering grants to qualifying organizations, we’re raising awareness for their amazing work, and we’re continuing efforts to help animals in immediate need in disaster-struck areas. Visit www.FeedItForward.org for more information and application details.

Join the movement by reading and sharing the Feed It Forward stories that inspire you, and encouraging organizations that you know and work with to apply for grants. Make sure to stay connected with the Feed It Forward movement on social media and our website.

A Feed It Forward Story: Andrew and the flock

The flock at Zachariah’s Acres has helped thousands of guests with special needs build confidence and life skills. For the members of the YMCA Service Without Boundaries program in Oconomowoc, WI, seeing the flock of picking, pecking, egg-laying chickens is the highlight of their week. Especially for Andrew, a member of the YMCA program who lives with Down syndrome. That is why we’re so happy to support amazing places like Zachariah’s Acres.

Duck Tales – Nutrition Know-How

The following series will take you on a journey with Nutrena Poultry Expert, Twain Lockhart and his wife as they navigate the ins and outs of duck ownership.  

There’s a wealth of knowledge to gather when thinking about nutrition for your ducks. One surprise for us right out of the gate, was we noticed these little guys REALLY put the groceries away. A feed that has worked great for us is Nutrena Nature Wise 18% Non-Medicated Chick Feed, free choice, meaning as much as they want. We also supplement with vitamins, electrolytes, and brewers yeast for birds. Baby chicken feed does not have quite enough Niacin for ducks as they can have leg issues if not given enough. This was the reason for the additional supplements. It’s important to note, you do NOT want to use medicated chick feed, as the medication Amprolium is not approved for waterfowl.

Our ducklings will stay on this starter for about 6 weeks, then we will switch them over to a 16-18% Layer Feed. Most waterfowl breeders recommend not exceeding 18% protein to avoid a condition called angel wing. Many also like to dilute the feed with some scratch or oats. Additionally, it’s recommended to continue to supplement with brewers yeast.

As with any birds, water access is important. I was reminded how much ducks love/need to keep the mucous membranes in their nostrils wet at all times, hence the continual mess in and around the water bowl. This serves as a great reminder to not try to brood baby chicks with ducklings. Changing out water often and allowing an absorbent surface for the waterers are very helpful tip for new duck owners.

Check back next month for more duck tales adventures as we dive deeper into the winter care for ducks.

Winter Is Coming

The temps are dropping, and for some of you, even the snow is starting to fly. It’s that time of year where we are busy preparing for the upcoming holidays, but there are additional preparations that need to be made – to your chicken coop!

Weatherization of your coop is vital in ensuring your feathered ladies survive and thrive the cold winter months. A quick checklist for sealing the coop up can make the task easy and achievable.

Consider the following:

Clean and disinfect

  • Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
  • Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.

Pitch out and deep-bed your coop

  • Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust, or straw.
  • Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
  • Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
  • Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.

Feed and supplement your birds correctly

  • Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
  • To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.

Check for drafts

  • Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
  • Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
  • Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.

Set up any heat lamps and water heaters

  • Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
  • Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
  • If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand and have safely located the lamp.

Decreased Egg Production: Molt and Winter Lighting

Molt is the natural cycle where birds lose feathers and gradually regrow their plumage. Molt usually occurs when the days start to shorten in late summer and it can go well into the fall season. The feather shedding process can take as long as 16 weeks to completely cycle through and has the potential to greatly decrease egg production in your chickens. When chickens molt, a lot of the energy in their bodies is used to regrow feathers and less energy is available for egg production. Many chicken owners will see a huge drop off in the number of eggs they find in the nesting boxes this time of year. However, there are a few potential shortcuts to reduce the impact of molt on your birds. Nutrition plays a huge role in getting through the molting cycle and having a proper diet can reduce the length of time your birds are in molt. Feeding an adequate level of protein and proper amino acid profiles can greatly help boost energy levels in your birds. A product like NatureWise Feather Fixer, that offers 18% protein, can be a great option for molting birds. This product is meant to be fed as a sole ration and it has the potential to get your girls through molt several weeks faster than if they were on a traditional layer diet.

Another key factor in decreased egg production in the fall is related to diminished sunlight. Chickens usually need between 12 and 16 hours of daylight to maintain maximum egg laying potential. With daylight getting shorter in the fall, you can introduce supplemental lighting to maintain egg production for your flock. Setting up a generic 75 watt light bulb in your coop will produce enough light to keep egg production at a similar level to those long summer days. We do NOT recommend using a heat lamp in your coop. Heat lamps generate a lot of heat and can become a fire hazard. The purpose of the light bulb is to generate enough light in the coop to “trick” the chickens into thinking it is still daylight outside. It’s recommended to have the light set to a timer and have the light come on early in the morning rather than extending daylight later in the day. This way the chickens are awaken by the light bulb and they can use it as an alarm clock to start the day. If the light is set on a timer at night, the chickens may not expect it to go off and it could disorient them or cause stress when it suddenly gets dark in the coop.

There’s no doubt that reduced egg production is a challenge, but with some small adjustments you can help your flock get back on track.