In the first of a mini-series, Andy Cawthray looks at the wide variety of chicken that have been developed to meet a range of needs. This time — the layers
Different breeds for different needs — layers — by Andy Cawthray
As the New Year approaches, people start to plan for the season ahead and for many folks this takes the guise of what to grow, but for some it could well involve a venture into working with livestock. While chickens are perhaps not perceived in the same light as sheep, pigs or cattle, for example, they are still a form of livestock and, in fact, one which is accessible to the micro-holder or the back garden enthusiast. They also come in a variety of forms developed in order to address a range of needs and, over the next few months, I will be taking a closer look at how these different breed types appeared, their characteristics and how their husbandry can vary.
The back story
Until recent times, almost all domesticated chickens were viewed as egg layers. The primary purpose of the chicken was to lay eggs — and lots of them. This took priority over the provision of meat for the table and only when the bird ceased being productive would it be culled and used for food. Many countries and regions carefully developed their own specific breeds best suited to their local environment. Consequently, there is a wide range of breeds with a long history, some dating back to the early 18th Century, such as the Lakenvelder, and others, like the New Hampshire, only emerging as a breed in the early 20th Century. Unfortunately, for the pure laying breeds, it was during the first half of the 20th Century that the modern hybrid layer appeared in the poultry world and went on to take command of the commercial egg market as we see it today.
What are they like?
Chickens that fall within the egg laying category are usually smaller in size than those that are bred for meat or sit within the dual purpose category. The reason is simple: they put their energies into laying eggs and not into putting on body mass. They also tend to come into lay sooner than other types of chicken. The intent is to have them reaching maturity by 20 weeks of age and to lay as many eggs as possible within the first few years.
They are often excellent foragers, too, scratching and digging industriously for additional titbits, a trait that contributes towards their efficiency by minimising the feed costs for maximum output. Their nature is sprightly though shy and they can be very wary of their keepers, who need to show a patient and relaxed approach if they are to successfully tame the birds.
These breeds also fall into the ‘nonsitting’ category, meaning that they scarcely go broody. This is a trait not favoured in laying breeds and over the centuries broodiness has been selected out through careful breeding. If the intention is to raise laying breeds from fertile eggs, alternative hatching methods will be needed, such as an artificial incubator or a willing broody hen of a different breed.
The laying group of breeds tends to be lighter in the body, more agile and, in most cases, quite capable of short flight. As such, high fences or roofed in runs are required to stop them straying too far if free ranging is not an option. They are predominantly clean legged and so cope well on wetter ground or more muddy conditions than those with foot feathering. The breeds are designed to lay daily for as long as daylight hours allow and this can equate to 280-plus eggs in the first year.
It is good management practice to weed out the poor performers if there is an intention to breed replacements. Birds that have good feathering towards the end of the season, or ones still laying eggs with heavy pigmentation, are infrequent layers and should not be bred from.
With this in mind, it is important to note that the output of a particular chicken can also depend upon the bloodline it comes from. Many of the breeds or colours within a breed that were once excellent layers have changed over the years and, although the breed may remain visually the same, some are now developed for exhibiting, so check before you purchase stock.
NEXT MONTH: The background, characteristics and general husbandry needed for the breeds classified as dual purpose.
Chickens that fall within the egg laying category are often excellent foragers too
Until recent times, almost all domesticated chickens were viewed as egg layers