Chicken Breeds, Hybrids, Crossbreeds…Just What Are They?

chicken breeds. What are they?Anyone who enjoys keeping backyard chickens is truly fortunate but may be confused about chicken breeds.

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 of Chickens

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 chicken 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.

Are Pheasants for You?

Are Pheasants for YouSo you’ve mastered poultry care and are ready for the next challenge, are pheasants for you? These beautiful birds will for sure test your skills, but can be just as rewarding to have as part of your flock.

It’s important to note, that pheasants aren’t for the faint of heart. They require delicate care, and can differ drastically in nutrition and personality compared to poultry. Here are a few basics to consider, if you are serious about exploring pheasants:

Breeds

The more popular pheasant breeds reside in the Ringneck family, including: Manchurian Cross Ringneck, Chinese Ringneck and Extra Large Ringneck. You may also be interested in the Chukar, Melanistic Mutant and K Thunder breeds.

Starting Out

The easiest way to start out with pheasants is to purchase them as pheasant chicks. As with poultry, you want to create a brooder house that protects the chicks from weather, drafts and predators. Heat lamps are important to include into your brooder when bringing home pheasant chicks. It’s not recommended to use wood shavings for their bedding, but instead chopped straw, as they have a tendency to eat the shavings. Adequate space for your pheasant chicks should also be factored in, as with chicks.

Nutrition

Pheasants, in general, require a higher protein starter feed such as Nutrena Country Feeds Meatbird 22% Crumble. When ready to move onto a grower feed, options can include Nutrena Country Feeds Gamebird or Nutrena NatureWise Meatbird poultry feed.

When birds reach 16-20 weeks, maintenance feeds like Nutrena NatureWise Layer 16% Crumble Feed or Nutrena NatureWise Feather Fixer would be a sufficient option.

Remember, just like any other bird, adequate water is highly important. Note that pheasants may be more likely to drown in a water dish, so consider a thin-lipped auto waterer or adding some marbles to your waterer to protect the birds.

General Considerations

  • Pheasants have a tendency to spook easier than other birds, so use caution when working around and caring for your pheasants.
  • Pheasants will pick at each other in captivity, so make sure you have given your birds enough space in the pen, as well as at the feeder.
  • Try not to mix species if you have other birds or poultry. Chickens may have a tendency to pick on the pheasants.
  • The personality of a pheasant is often much different than that of poultry, so recognize that your pheasants may not exemplify the docile characteristics you see in the rest of your flock.

Although a challenge, these beautiful creatures can offer much reward to bird enthusiasts. If you follow these tips, do your research, and provide diligent care, you are likely to see success in the field of pheasant raising!

Growing Meat Chickens at Home

Growing Meat Chickens “Oh we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes, when she comes. Oh, we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes when she comes.” 

Back in 1947 when Gene Autry sang those famous lines in “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” a chicken dinner was a treat served mostly when hosting dinner guests. Traditional chicken dinners came from old hens past their egg laying prime or roosters from heavy breed chickens like White Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, or Buff Orpingtons.

Since then, poultry breeders developed an amazing hybrid that grows at an astonishing speed and revolutionized human diets, making chicken a common meat. In 1960 the average American ate 63 pounds of beef but only 24 pounds of chicken. By 2016 beef consumption had dropped to 56 pounds while chicken soared to 90 pounds.

A dual-purpose breed rooster takes about 16 weeks to reach broiler size, and by then his flesh is staring to toughen. He also lacks the thick breast meat featured in many of today’s recipes. In contrast, a modern Cornish broiler reaches eating size in only six weeks and his tender meaty body includes a deep breast.

Hybrid broilers are amazingly efficient. Back in 1925 an average broiler chicken ate 4.7 pounds of feed for each pound it gained. By 2011 a Cornish Cross broiler ate only 1.9 pounds of feed to gain a pound of body weight. Feed efficiency and rapid growth has made chicken an inexpensive and healthy meat.

Big commercial growers enjoy the cost advantage of scale by buying thousands of chicks and hundreds of tons of feed. Small flock owners must spend more for chicks and feed to produce their own broilers. Then they must slaughter their birds. It likely costs more to raise broilers at home than buy them in the store, but there are outstanding reasons to do it.

Nothing beats the pride of producing food at home, whether home grown tomatoes or broiler chickens. They just seem to taste better than supermarket counterparts. Growing winter chicken dinners yields satisfaction as well as meat. Many hatcheries sell Cornish Cross and Red Ranger hybrid chicks all year. Ordering some to arrive in early fall will fill the freezer before Thanksgiving.

Cornish Cross Broilers are super achievers that produce the most meat on the least feed in the shortest time. These are single purpose chickens bred for meat only. Hens are slaughtered when they reach eating size and aren’t good layers. Cornish Cross Broilers get so heavy so quickly they have a hard time walking and prefer to stay by the feeder and eat. They need a special high protein diet and careful management.

Red Rangers or Red Broilers are a hybrid well suited for small flocks. They grow slower than Cornish but faster than dual purpose breeds and lack the health problems of faster growing broilers. Rangers enjoy foraging outdoors and can be raised with standard breeds. They produce the meaty breast most people enjoy and are ready for slaughter by 12 weeks. Hens can be kept and will lay about 175 eggs a year.

Before anyone buys broiler chicks they should determine how they are going to process them. Slaughtering and dressing chickens can be done at home for personal use. Several You Tube videos show how to do it in graphic detail. Another option is to bring live birds to a processing plant. Usually state laws require that dressed birds offered for sale be processed in a licensed plant.

Most urban chicken ordinances are written allow homeowners to keep a few laying hens and prohibit slaughtering. However, many families who raise chickens are part of a network of other poultry raising families. Some may live outside city limits where birds can be brought for processing.

Growing broilers in a small flock is more challenging than tending laying hens, but growing healthy in a backyard coop is satisfying and makes delicious winter meals.

Care and Feeding of Meatbirds

Chick Care
The basic care of meatbird chicks is similar to other types of chicks. You’ll need to provide a heat source along with free choice fresh water and appropriate feed. An important part of raising meatbirds is allowing for enough space for them to grow. With a growth rate that is

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.
A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

second to none, these birds will become too big for a brooder that seems the right size in just a week or two. Make sure to plan for expansion of your brooder to allow the space to get bigger along with the chicks. A dry and clean brooder is always essential; this will keep the birds comfortable, discourage the development of flies, and help prevent disease.

Dual purpose breeds are traditional breeds like Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, etc. They can be raised for eggs or meat. These birds are the slowest to finish and are typically harvested around 22 weeks of age. They have less developmental problems than hybrid meat breeds, and they will usually yield less meat.

Red Rangers are a type of meat chicken that provides a ‘happy medium’ between dual purpose breeds and Cornish Cross. They should be harvested around 12 – 14 weeks. They aren’t as delicate as Cornish Cross and have less developmental problems. In addition, they do better foraging than a Cornish. Their meat yield is in between a Cornish and dual purpose.

Cornish Cross is a hybrid and is the most common meat chicken. It makes up the majority of meat purchased in stores or consumed in restaurants. Cornish are very economical with their feed to meat conversion, which means they grow very fast –  they

A typical Cornish Cross bird
A typical Cornish Cross bird

are usually ready to harvest around 8 weeks! A few things to be aware of with this breed: because of their rate of growth they can have problems with organ failure and leg issues. These birds do not do well when comingled with other breeds – it’s best to keep Cornish separate. Additionally, they are ONLY suitable for meat production – do not try to keep them long term.

Feeding meatbirds
For dual purpose chicks, you may choose to feed a meatbird ration from the start. However, if you have straight run chicks and are not sure which are males, you can start the  batch on chick starter and then switch the ones you will harvest to meatbird feed once their gender becomes apparent.

For faster growing hybrid birds, you’ll want to feed a specific meatbird ration from day one. This will ensure that the birds are getting certain amino acid levels and protein amounts to encourage muscle development and growth. Because meatbirds have been developed to put on muscle mass quickly, the ration must be balanced to make sure that nutrients are present for skeletal and internal organ development as well. If the correct ration is not fed, the birds are more apt to fall victim to common maladies like organ failure and leg issues. Follow these simple feeding recommendations to help avoid complications:

  • Feed free choice the first 3 days of life
  • After 3 days, allow 12 hours with feed, 12 hours without