Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 4th Edition: Breed Selection, Facilities, Feeding, Health Care, Managing Layers & Meat Birds

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 4th Edition: Breed Selection, Facilities, Feeding, Health Care, Managing Layers & Meat Birds

by Gail Damerow


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Households everywhere — whether rural, suburban, or urban — keep chickens, and the numbers continue to rise. This fully redesigned edition of the best-selling classic includes full-color photos and illustrations plus a larger trim size to ensure the next generation of farmers finds it just as appealing as ever. Likewise, updated information and expanded sections mean that tomorrow’s farmers will also find this edition a valuable resource. In particular, new in-depth sections highlight FDA requirements and medication guidelines, natural health care, and recent scientific insights into chicken behavior and communication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612129303
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 12/26/2017
Series: Storey's Guide to Raising Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 196,640
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gail Damerow, author of The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition, has written extensively on raising chickens and other livestock, growing fruits and vegetables, and related rural know-how in more than a dozen country skills how-to books, including the best-selling Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Encyclopedia, and Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks. Damerow is a regular contributor to Backyard Poultry,Countryside, and Rural Heritage magazines. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, where they operate a family farm with poultry and dairy goats, a sizable garden, and a small orchard. 

Read an Excerpt



The fun of raising chickens begins right from the start, when you get to choose which color, shape, and size to have. With so many options, you should have no trouble finding the perfect chicken — one that's both picture-pretty and ideally suited to your purpose. Your reasons for keeping chickens will influence your list of breeds to consider, and within each breed, you will encounter differences among varieties and strains that may or may not suit your purposes.


No one knows exactly how many chicken breeds exist in the world. A breed is a genetically pure line having a common origin, similar conformation and other identifying characteristics, and the ability to reliably produce offspring with the same conformation and characteristics.

The latest edition of the American Poultry Association's American Standard of Perfection describes and depicts the one hundred-plus breeds currently recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA), a group that started out as the nation's premier organization for the poultry industry but has since narrowed its focus to exhibition. The American Bantam Association (ABA) publishes its own standard, which doesn't always agree with the APA standard. Along with those listed in the two standards, other breeds are available in North America, and many more exist in the world. Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds offers color photographs and detailed descriptions of most breeds found in North America. (See the Recommended Reading list for publishing information for all books referred to in this guide.)

All birds within a given breed share the same skin color, number of toes, carriage, and feathering. Skin color may be yellow like the skin of Cornish, New Hampshires, and Wyandottes, or white like that of Australorps, Orpingtons, and Sussex. Most breeds have four toes, but some, such as the Dorkings, Faverolles, and Houdans, have five. The carriage may be more horizontal, like a Plymouth Rock's, or more vertical, like the Shamo's.

Plumage offers yet more variety. Most roosters have pointed neck and saddle (lower back) feathers, but Sebright and Campine cocks are hen feathered, meaning they sport the rounded hackle and saddle feathers of a hen. Naked Necks have no feathers on their necks at all. Other breeds have feathers that form a beard (Faverolle, for example), boots down their legs and feet (Brahma), puffy topknots (Polish), or long, flowing tails (Yokohama).

Birds of most breeds have smooth, satinlike feathers, a result of tiny hooks, called barbicels, that hold a feather's webbing together. The feathers of Silkies, though, lack barbicels, making the birds look as if they're covered with fur. The feathers of Frizzles curl at the ends, giving the birds a permed look. Besides being a distinction of the Frizzle breed, frizzledness is a genetic condition that can be introduced into any breed.

For practical purposes, the various breeds may be grouped according to whether they are primarily laying breeds, meat breeds, dual-purpose breeds, or ornamental. The APA divides the breeds into two classifications: bantam and large. Bantam breeds are one-fifth to one-fourth the size of large breeds. Some bantam breeds are miniature versions of a corresponding large breed; others are distinctive breeds in their own right. Because bantams and their eggs are small, they are considered to be ornamental.


Large and bantam breeds are subdivided into a number of classifications. While these classifications are established primarily to group breeds and varieties for show purposes, they are helpful in understanding the relationships among the various breeds.

Classifications for large breeds indicate their places of origin: American, Asiatic, Continental, English, Mediterranean, and Other (including Oriental). Each large breed is listed in only one class.

Bantams are classified according to specific characteristics: by whether or not they are game breeds; by comb style; and by the presence or absence of leg feathering. Among bantams, the same breed may be represented in different classes by distinctive varieties.


Most breeds are subdivided into two or more varieties, usually based on plumage color. Some varieties are established based on feather placement or comb style. Plumage color ranges from a rainbow of solid colors to patterns such as speckled, barred, or laced. Wyandottes, for example, come in several varieties based on color, including solid hues such as buff, black, and white, as well as patterns such as gold or silver lacing.

Varieties defined by feather placement might have, for example, feathers on the legs or under the beak. Frizzle bantams may be clean legged or feather legged. Polish, Booted Bantams, and Silkies may be either bearded or non-bearded.

The most common comb style among chickens is the single comb, a series of upright sawtooth zigzags. Varieties defined by comb style might have buttercup, pea, rose, cushion, walnut, strawberry, duplex (cup or V), or carnation combs. Among breeds with varieties defined by comb, Anconas and Rhode Island Reds each have two varieties — single comb and rose comb. Leghorns are an example of a breed that comes in different colors and different comb styles; among the possibilities are buff, black, and silver, with either single or rose combs.


A strain, or line, is a related family of birds bred with emphasis on specific traits. Strains bred by fanciers are derived from a single breed, selected for what the owner perceives to be superior qualities. Whether or not these chickens may be called purebred is a matter of contention. Some people argue that they cannot be called purebred because chickens have no registry and therefore no papers as proof of lineage, so the term more accurately should be called straightbred.

Whatever you call them, your only guarantee is the owner's word. And it's not uncommon for these breeders to outcross to another breed to avoid close inbreeding or improve certain characteristics such as size or feather color.

Commercial production lines are often hybrids — parented by a hen of one breed and a cock of another — developed for efficient egg or meat production. Commercial meat strains and brown-egg layers are usually true hybrids. Commercial white-egg layers, on the other hand, are not hybrids in the strictest sense, since they are bred from different strains of the same breed and variety — single-comb white Leghorn.

Whether hybrid or purebred, birds within a strain are so typical of the strain that an experienced person can recognize the strain at a glance. An established strain is usually identified by its developer's name — commonly a corporate name — for meat or egg production strains, and the breeder's name for noncommercial strains, such as those bred for exhibition, fly tying, and illegal cockfighting.

Learning about strains becomes important if you decide to specialize in a specific breed and discover your chickens do not entirely fit the published breed profiles relative to such things as temperament, rate of egg production, size or shape, and so on. You then have the choice of seeking a more suitable strain or developing your own strain through selective breeding.

Breed Selection

Way back in time, all of today's many breeds, varieties, and strains had a common origin: the wild red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia. Over tens of thousands of years, chicken keepers selectively bred their flocks to favor different combinations of characteristics related to economics, aesthetics, and other factors, such as aggressiveness or duration of the cocks' crow.

The availability of all these various breeds, varieties, and strains ranges widely from common (and therefore inexpensive) to extremely rare (and therefore quite dear). While crossbred production strains are as common as dirt, pure strains of some breeds can be hard to come by. Not every hen that lays a blue egg is an Ameraucana or Araucana, for example, and most hens sold as New Hampshires are crossed with Rhode Island Reds or some other production breed. Indeed, among the brown-egg-laying "pure" New Hampshire hens I once bought, some laid blue eggs.

Layer Breeds

If you have never seen or tasted homegrown eggs, you will be amazed at their superior color and flavor. All hens, unless they are old or ill, lay eggs. Breeds known as "layers" lay nearly an egg a day for long periods at a time. Other breeds might enjoy longer rest periods between bouts of laying, or else go broody — when they have such a strong nesting instinct, they'd rather hatch eggs than lay them. Still others may be just as prolific as the typical layer breeds but eat more feed per dozen eggs. Efficient laying hens share four desirable characteristics:

* They lay a large number of eggs per year.

* They have small bodies.

* They begin laying at 4 to 5 months of age.

* They are not inclined to nest.

The best layers average between 250 and 280 eggs per year, although individual birds may exceed 300. Compared to larger hens, small-bodied birds need less feed to maintain muscle mass. Purebred hens rarely match the laying abilities and efficiency of commercially bred strains but can still be efficient enough for a backyard flock. Since a hen stops laying once she begins to set (nest), the best layers don't readily go broody.

Some of the Mediterranean breeds, especially Leghorn, are particularly efficient layers. These breeds, and a few others specializing in egg production, tend to be high strung, however, and therefore not much fun to work with, especially if you take up chicken keeping for relaxation. Another characteristic of Mediterraneans is that they lay white-shelled eggs.

Commercial brown-egg hybrids lay nearly as well as Leghorn-based strains and are not as flighty, because they're derived from breeds in the American classification, which tend to be more laid-back than the Mediterraneans. A popular brown-egg strain is the Hubbard Golden Comet, a buff-colored bird called "the brown-egg layer that thinks like a Leghorn." You can expect 180 to 240 eggs per year from a commercial-strain brown-egg layer.

Purebred brown-egg layers generally lay fewer eggs than commercial hybrids but still lay respectably enough for a backyard flock. Shell color ranges from pale tan to dark brown. The darkest eggs come from Barnvelders, Marans, Penedesencas, and Welsumers, although none of these breeds lays spectacular numbers of eggs.

Many breeds originally developed for laying did quite well in their time, but their laying abilities don't stack up to the production rate of scientifically bred modern strains. Then, too, many breeds that once had superior laying abilities are now bred for exhibition, where production is less important than appearance and therefore not high on the list of traits considered necessary for breeding-stock selection. If you have your heart set on a fancy breed that doesn't lay well, your options are to look for a strain bred for production as well as appearance (which is rare), expand your flock to obtain the requisite number of eggs (requiring the expense of more space and feed), or develop your own laying strain (an option that may take years but could be fun as well as rewarding).

The most efficient laying breeds all tend to be nervous or flighty. Kept in small numbers in uncrowded conditions, with care to avoid stress (such as being chased by dogs or children) and extra time spent ensuring their comfort around people, these breeds can work fine in a backyard setting.

After a few years, layers become spent, meaning they slow down in production. At that point they don't have much meat on their bones, since their energy has been concentrated on laying. A good layer fleshes out slowly and never would have made a good meat bird in the first place. If your poultry interest leans toward grilled chicken, consider a meat breed instead.

Meat Breeds

People who raise chickens for meat enjoy better-tasting, more healthful, and safer poultry than is generally available at the supermarket. Any healthy chicken may be prepared for dinner, although some breeds are more suited to meat production than others. Efficient meat strains share four characteristics:

* They grow and feather rapidly.

* They reach target weight in minimum time.

* They are broad breasted.

* They have white feathers for clean picking.

The more quickly a bird grows to butchering weight, the more tender it is and the cheaper it is to raise. The most efficient meat strains were developed from a cross between Cornish and an American breed such as New Hampshire or Plymouth Rock. The 1- to 2-pound (0.5 to 0.9 kg) Cornish hen (as a commercial marketing ploy, sometimes called a Cornish game hen even though it's not a game breed) is nothing more than a 4-week-old Rock-Cornish hybrid. A commercial meat bird eats just 2 pounds of feed for each pound of weight gained. A hybrid layer, by comparison, eats three to five times as much for the same weight gain.

Raising a hybrid meat flock is a short-term project. You buy a batch of Cornish-cross chicks, feed them to butchering age, dispatch them into the freezer, and enjoy the fruits of your labor for the rest of the year. Since these birds aren't around long, performance as a meat bird (the ability to grow quickly on the least possible amount of feed) takes precedence over appearance.

Purebreds are not as efficient as hybrids at converting feed to meat, but some are heavy bodied enough to make respectable meat birds. Because of their slower growth, their meat is more flavorful than that of a fast-growing hybrid. Breeds originally developed for meat include Brahma, Cochin, and Cornish. Although the Jersey Giant grows to be the largest of all breeds, it does not make an economical meat bird because it first puts growth into bones, then fleshes out, reaching 6 months of age before yielding a significant amount of meat. Many backyard chicken keepers, regardless of their chosen breed or purpose in having them, hatch an annual batch of chicks and put the extra cockerels into the freezer.

Dual-Purpose Breeds

If you want the best of both worlds — eggs and meat — you have two choices: keep a year-round laying flock and raise a batch of meat birds on the side, or compromise by keeping one dual-purpose breed. Dual-purpose chickens don't lay as well as laying hens and don't grow as fast or as big as meat birds, but they lay better than meat birds and grow faster and larger than laying hens.

Dual-purpose breeds are the classic backyard chickens. Their chief advantage over a laying breed is that young excess males and spent layers are full breasted and otherwise have an appreciable amount of meat on their bones. Their advantage over a meat breed is that the hens lay a reasonable number of eggs for the amount of feed they eat.

Most breeds in the American and English classifications are dual-purpose, although many others, including some of the breeds typically considered ornamental, are equally versatile. Among these dual-purpose breeds, some are slightly more efficient at producing eggs, while others grow bigger and tend to go broody, tilting them more toward use as meat birds over layers. These characteristics vary not only from breed to breed, but differ from strain to strain within the same breed. As among egg-laying breeds, dual-purpose strains developed for show are generally prettier than they are useful.

A few hybrids have been developed as efficient dual-purpose birds. The most popular of these hybrids are the Black Sex Link and the Red Sex Link (so-called because the chicks' sex may be determined by the color of their down). The Red Sex Link lays about 250 eggs a year. The Black Sex Link lays slightly fewer but larger eggs and weighs 1 pound (0.5 kg) more at maturity. If your purpose in keeping a dual-purpose flock is for self-sufficiency and to that end you plan to hatch your own future replacement chicks, hybrids are not the way to go, since they do not breed true.

Low-Maintenance Breeds

Some breeds are inherently more self-reliant than others. Chickens that have been bred in confinement for generations are generally less aggressive foragers than breeds that have been allowed to exercise their foraging instinct. In the South, for example, you commonly see Old English Games wandering along country lanes. As the closest domesticated kin to the ancient wild jungle fowl, they are not as plump or prolific as the dual-purpose breeds but compensate by being almost entirely maintenance-free.

Breeds that are not aggressive foragers, or should not be required to forage, include those with heavy leg feathering or large crests. Leg feathers inhibit scratching the ground to turn up food. Crests offer head protection in cold weather but inhibit vision, making crested breeds easier prey. Crests are also known to freeze in wet winter weather. In freezing weather, breeds with tight combs such as cushion, pea, or rose cope with the cold better than breeds with large single combs. If you plan to pasture your birds, choose a breed suitable for your prevailing climate.


Excerpted from "Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gail Damerow.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Choosing a Breed
  Breed Selection
  Purebred versus Hybrid
  Which First Chicks or Eggs?
  Examining Birds
  Getting Started
2 Fowl Disposition
  Fowl Language
  When the Cock Crows
  Peck Order
  Fowl Intelligence
3 Shelter
  Free Range
  Fenced Range
  Portable Shelters
  Permanent Shelters
4 Feed and Water
  The Natural Chicken
  Feed Choices
  Feeding Routines
  Feed Storage
5 Routine Management
  Weather Considerations
  Coop Cleanup
  Dealing with Manure
  Trimming Procedures
  Handling Chickens
  Enterprise Integration
6 Health Care
  Health, Disease, and Disease Resistance
  Poisons and Other Hazards
  First Aid
7 Laying-Hen Management
  Egg Formation
  Layer Nutrition
  Controlled Lighting
  Distinguishing Layers from Liars
  Egg Issues
  Flock Replacement
  Egg Sales
8 Eggs for Eating
  Egg Collection
  Egg Quality
  Egg Safety
  Nutritional Value
  Preserving Eggs
9 Managing a Breeder Flock
  Rise and Fall of Breeds
  Breeding Plan
  Methods of Breeding
  The Gene Connection
  Inbreeding Depression
  Culling for a Healthy, Hardy Flock
  Feeding Breeders
  Mating Logistics
  Artificial Insemination
  Sex Determination
10 Hatching Eggs
  Egg Collection
  Natural Incubation
  Incubating Eggs Artificially
  Candling the Eggs
  The Hatch
  Chick Identification
  Record Keeping
11 Chick Care
  Natural Brooding
  Mechanical Brooders
  Brooder Features
  Feed and Water
  Chick Problems and Solutions
12 Exhibiting Your Chickens
  Why Show?
  Selecting Birds for Show
  Rules of the Game
  Coop Training
  At the Show
  After the Show
  Become a Master Exhibitor
13 Managing Meat Birds
  Meat Breeds
  Management Methods
  Feeding Meat Birds
  Broiler Health Issues
  Production and Marketing Choices
  Readiness for Butchering
14 Meat on the Table
  Cutting Up
  Storing Poultry
  Sanitation and Safety
Recommended Reading
Metric Conversion Charts

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