What's the best breed for your backyard?

This is the time of year when a lot of people are thinking about getting chickens and the time when hatcheries have the most varieties available. But what to get? There are hundreds of breeds, but most are either not cold-hardy enough to handle a Wisconsin winter or too fragile or flighty for beginning chicken keepers.

Everybody has a personal preference and the best chicken for your backyard flock might not be the same as your neighbor’s. But there are a few things to keep in mind before ordering your chicks. Here are some questions put together by a national chick supplier. You might want to ask other questions as well, but these make a good start. Check the original website for more.

1. Do you want to raise egg layers or meat birds? Poultry guides identify several breeds as dual-purpose, but my experience has been that the meat from dual-purpose birds is inferior to meat from broilers. Different chicken breeds lay different colors of eggs. If you have an egg color preference choose a breed of laying hen accordingly.
2. How much space do you have? Bantam breeds are mini birds; great for small spaces. They require a minimum of 1 sq. ft. indoor space, 4 sq. ft. outdoor space per bird with 6 ft. flight height. Standard size hens require a minimum 1.5 sq. ft. indoor space, 8 sq. ft. outdoor per bird with 3 ft. flight height.
3. How harsh is your climate? Cold hardy birds are bred to live comfortably in the chill of northern winters. Breeds with smaller combs are less likely to get frost bit. Some breeds have extra feathering as beards or on legs to help keep them cozy.
4. Are you interested in preserving a heritage breed? The Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breed as a historical livestock breed, rugged and naturally adapted to the local environment over time. For the most part these are animals that thrived before industrial agriculture. The conservancy maintains a conservation priority list for endangered poultry breeds on their website, LivestockConservancy.org .
5. Which breeds catch your eye? The best breed for your backyard is undoubtedly one you want to look at and interact with every day. My fascination with hatchery catalogs is in part because I love to look at full-color glossy pictures of all the beautiful bird breeds. I attend The Ohio State Fair for the sole purpose of checking out the poultry barn champions.

Whatever chick you pick, all chicks require heat at 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit in a bedding-filled brooder for the first two weeks of life. Decrease the brooder temp by 5 degrees each week thereafter. Special chick feed is formulated for quick growth and easy digestion. Fresh, clean water every day is critical.

Last but not least, make sure to wash your hands before and after handling chicks. Salmonella is spread by direct contact with animals that carry the bacteria. Good hygiene and biosecurity will keep your birds and your family healthy.em>