Chickens are often called the gateway animal to homesteading. In many suburban neighborhoods, you will find neighbors who keep a small backyard flock to provide their own fresh eggs. We even raise our meat chickens in our suburban neighborhood, having raised all of our chicken for several years. Especially when you are limited on space or by the restrictions mandated by local ordinances, you may be wondering do meat chickens lay eggs.
As a rule, chickens are divided into three categories, egg layers, meat birds, and dual-purpose birds. Egg layers are typically more slender birds that have a higher rate of egg production than other breeds. While most meat birds do in fact lay eggs, they are bulkier birds that lay fewer eggs per year than top egg-producing breeds. Dual-purpose breeds are the best of both worlds, they are decent egg layers with stockier bodies that produce a respectable amount of meat for their breeds.
The American Poultry Association recognizes 53 large bird breeds of chickens in the United States. However, chickens are crossbred by large hatcheries and even small breeders to accentuate the characteristics they are seeking to improve in their flocks. Likely there are hundreds of varieties of chicken breeds in the world.
Heritage Breeds Vs Production Breeds
When answering the question, do meat chickens lay eggs, you must first know what kind of meat chickens you are planning to raise?
According to The Livestock Conservancy a heritage breed is defined as the following:
“Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture. Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.”The Livestock Conservancy
Qualities of Heritage Breed Chickens
According to the American Poultry Association, the APA, a heritage chicken must meet the following standards.
This information is a summary of the standards found at the Livestock Conservancy.
As you can imagine, as a homesteader, animals that possess these qualities would be highly sought after. Hardy animals that forage and easily reproduce on their own and rear their own young are an asset to any small farm working towards sustainable agriculture.
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The Most Popular Production Breed of Chicken
When it comes to meat chickens, the Cornish Cross Broiler is the best-known breed of meat chicken. Raised on both commercial poultry operations for grocery stores and backyard homesteads. The Cornish Cross Broiler is a crossbreed of chicken raised for its high output on minimal input. Meaning its rapid growth rate, in a short period of time produces high-quality meat on less feed and resources. Cornish Cross Broilers can be harvested in as little as 6 weeks of age!
Cornish Cross Broilers are a hybrid breed of chicken raised specifically for meat production. Crossbreeds are not genetically modified, but they have been developed by selective crossbreeding that accentuates the characteristics desired in a fast-growing meat chicken. Cornish Cross Broilers are a cross of Cornish and White Plymouth Rock. While the original parent stock were likely a heritage breed, Cornish Cross Broilers are NOT a heritage breed of chicken.
Cornish Cross Broilers do not meet the standards of a heritage breed. On their own, they do not naturally breed, they have short lifespans, and they reach market weight much too fast. Cornish Cross broilers are prone to health issues including heart, lung, and leg problems that lead to a short lifespan. They will literally die if not processed timely. As a result of their short lifespan, Cornish Cross Broiler hens do not typically live long enough to reach sexual maturity and therefore do not typically lay eggs.
The breeding of commercial broiler chickens is highly guarded. The only way to raise Cornish Cross Broilers is to purchase the meat chicks from an authorized hatchery. While you can certainly crossbreed your own Cornish chickens with White Plymouth Rocks, the results will not be the same.
Our Experiences with Cornish Cross Broilers
Cornish Cross Broilers have a mixed reputation in the homesteading world. Often referred to the Frankenstein of chickens, they don’t act like chickens. They don’t roost, they don’t fly. They are disinterested in foraging. Regardless of how much space you give them, they don’t wander far.
We typically butcher our Cornish Cross broilers in 8 to 10 weeks. We usually butcher the larger chickens at 8 to 9 weeks and give the smaller ones an extra week to grow. They typically dress out over 7 pounds to almost 13 pounds.
Probably the most controversial aspect regarding Cornish Cross Broilers in the homesteading world is that they are not sustainable. You cannot breed your own Cornish Cross broilers on your farm, they MUST be purchased as baby chicks from an authorized hatchery.
Still, I love the chicken! It’s moist, mostly white meat and the size of the chickens is impossible to compare to heritage chickens. As empty nesters, Philip and I can typically get four meals from a single Cornish Cross Broiler.
Even if you are limited in space, Cornish Cross Broilers are easy to raise even in the suburbs. In as little as 8 weeks you can grow a significant amount of meat for your family right in your own backyard!
Heritage Meat Chickens
If the breed of meat chicken you have chosen is a heritage breed, then yes, they will lay eggs. All heritage breeds of chickens are naturally mating and reproduce through fertilized egg production. While these beefy meat birds can produce respectable amounts of meat for their breed size, none that I have tried even come close to Cornish Cross broilers. Still many homesteaders and backyard farmers are committed to raising sustainable meat chickens at home.
The biggest “beef” that most homesteaders have towards the Cornish cross broilers is the inability to breed on the farm and replenish their own breeding stock. This creates a dependence on the hatchery to sustain your family’s meat supply. While this is typically not a problem, 2020 showed us how frightening it can be to be dependent on the commercial food supply. Thankfully there are some great options when it comes to meat birds and dual-purpose chickens that can meet the needs of homesteaders whose primary goal is a sustainable flock of meat chickens.
Popular Breeds of Heritage Meat Chickens
For homesteaders seeking to keep a more sustainable flock by raising heritage breeds, there are quite a few to choose from. Here are a few popular breeds common in the United States.
Quick Links to Common Breeds
Buff Orpington’s are one of our favorite dual-purpose breeds of chickens. They are docile and kid-friendly. A great starter chicken for families just beginning to dabble in chicken keeping. They are good mothers and frequently broody. While we have always raised Buffs in Florida, they are not known for their heat tolerance. They are a cold hardy breed and will lay into the winter months. Orpington’s come in different colors including a Lavender Orpington.
Fun Facts About Buff Orpingtons
Jersey Giants were developed in the United States in New Jersey. Originally bred for large roasting chickens to rival turkeys, these gentle giants are the largest chicken in the United States. They are considered a rare breed, having been replaced by Cornish Cross broilers, however, their breed is in recovery due to the conservatory efforts to maintain the breed. Originally bred as a black feathered bird, their coloring has evolved and white is also an accepted color of the breed. Though the black variety is about a pound heavier than the white feathered variety. Jersey giant chickens are a docile breed; however, they are intimidating because of their size. Males can stand over 2 feet tall!
Fun Facts About Jersey Giants
Plymouth Rocks are the oldest recognized breed in the United States. They come in seven accepted colors and plumage standards. Barred, white, blue, partridge, and buff are just a few of the variations. Plymouth Rocks are good foragers and like to free-range. They are good mothers though not overly broody. Plymouth rocks are docile and trusting birds that are good birds for families with children. Plymouth rocks are a heritage bird, that has been cross bred to develop the Cornish Cross broilers.
Fun Facts About Plymouth Rocks
Want to learn more about Raising Poultry for Meat?
The Cornish chicken was first known as the “Indian Game” chicken. They are a heritage game bird that is the other half of the hybrid cross to develop Cornish Cross broilers. They are a muscular chicken well known to produce 1-pound Cornish game hens. Cornish are tight feathered birds, without a lot of fluff. They are stockier than they look. Not known for their temperament, they will likely “rule the roost” in most chicken yards and roosters can be aggressive. They cannot fly due to their size and are more vulnerable to predators.
Fun Facts About Cornish
Originating in Australia and brought to the United States in the early 1900’s this dual-purpose breed is an excellent egg layer. The current record is 364 eggs in a 365 period! They are gentle chickens though roosters are protective of their hens. Australorps are known as shy birds, but once they warm up are family friendly. They are a good breed to be confined in coops.
Fun Facts About Black Australorps
Rhode Island Reds
Rhode Island Reds are one of the most popular and well-known chickens in the world. There are two lines of Rhode Island Reds, one a heritage line and the other a production line of birds known for their egg production. The heritage line lays about half as many eggs per year as the production breed, but they will lay for more years. The hens are easygoing, broody hens and good mothers. The roosters can be protective and aggressive at times. They are hardy chickens that lay eggs even in the harsher temperatures of the year, either hot or cold. The heritage line of birds has darker colored feathers than the production line of birds. They are known for their rich mahogany-red color feathers.
Fun Facts About Rhode Island Reds
The American Bresse chicken is a newcomer to the chicken scene in the United States. They are NOT recognized as a heritage breed by the American Poultry Association though their French counterpart can be traced back over 500 years in France. They are quickly becoming quite popular among homesteaders in search of a good dual-purpose bird that can be sustainably bred on the farm. Bresse are active foragers perfect to free range with good temperaments. They are best known for their white feathers and blue legs, though they do come in a black feathered variety. Bresse produce marbled meat, regarded as the best-tasting chicken in the world. Though they don’t produce as much meat as larger birds, their meat is sought after by chefs as it is tender and flavorful. They are good layers, laying an impressive number of eggs for dual-purpose chickens.
Fun Facts About American Breese
Brahmas are a large breed of heritage chickens with feathers on their feet! They have a calm temperament great for families, but another large bird that may appear intimidating. They are extremly cold hardy! Bulking up and laying into the cold months of the year. The feathers on their feet provide warmth, as well as their tight feathered bodies with good down coverage. A good dry enclosure is important, as the feathers on their feet can build ice up between their toes causing frostbite. Due to their size and weight, they are unable to fly, making them easy to contain. Hens are broody and good mothers. Being extra large birds, they come with the appetite to match.
Fun Facts About Brahmas
Choosing the Best Chickens
Choosing the right chickens for your farm is a personal choice depending on what your goals are for raising chickens. Dual-purpose chickens are a great way to raise chickens for both meat and egg production that can meet the needs of your family. Especially if you are limited on space or local ordinances restrict the number of birds you can keep, dual-purpose birds are a great way to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Some families choose chickens specifically for their breed selection, researching characteristics they desire in poultry. Others choose egg-laying hens strictly based on the colors of eggs they lay seeking a colorful egg basket. Some families choose chickens based on the temperament of the birds. While others choose chicks strictly based on the availability of local birds.
Raising Poultry on Kowalski Mountain
For us, I love the Cornish Cross Broilers! The bulky all-white chicken is a short-term project that means we can quickly raise a lot of meat for our family in just a few weeks. I plan on raising Cornish cross broilers as long as they are easily available.
However, Philip is very committed to a sustainable farm that allows us to raise our own meat animals exclusively on the farm. He does not want to be dependent on outside resources. For that reason, we have decided that America Bresse chickens will be the main egg-producing chickens for our farm. This will allow us to raise a sustainable flock that meets both our need for eggs and meat chickens. Luckily, there is a local farm that breeds black America Bresse chickens close by. Our hope is the dark-colored birds will be less susceptible to aerial predator attacks allowing our birds to free range more frequently.
Still, I will admit, I am a fan of a pretty egg basket, so likely I will choose a few different breeds that lay pretty eggs to add to the mix. Practical, sustainable, and beautiful! It’s all about balance!
What are your favorite chickens to raise on the homestead? Share in the comments!
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.