The Perfect Chicken – By Joel Salatin

What’s your idea of the perfect chicken?  Do you want the fluffiest?  The biggest?  The smallest?  The most color variety?  The least color variety?  The friendliest?  The meanest?  The fastest?  The slowest?

Everybody has a dream chicken–at least all Murray McMurray Hatchery customers.  And it’s an eclectic mix of fantasies.  At the risk of sounding pontifical, here’s my dream laying hen:

1.   aggressive grazer

2.   smart enough to run from hawks

3.  never sick; vibrant health

4.  big enough to make a nice stewer (4 lbs. at least) at the end of her productive life

5.  lays 220 eggs year one and 180 eggs year two

6.  purebred (nonhybrid)

Notice I don’t give a hoot about color or feed conversion.  I want longevity, hardiness, and thrift.  Nearly 50 years ago, when I got my first batch of 50 straight run heavy breed specials from Sears and Roebuck (18 pullets and 32 cockerels–yeah, right, straight run) they were bullet proof and big.  Of course, I realize everything is bigger to a 10-year-old, but even up until a couple of decades ago, these standard bred dual-purpose layers typically weighed more than 6 pounds and yielded a nice 4.5-5 pound golden-fat, plump stewing hen.

These Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, Black Australorps and White Rocks were the mainstay of both broiler and egg production.  But as the double-breasted hybrids like Cornish Cross became possible, then popular, then industry-standard, the meat quality of the dual purpose bird gradually fell into obsolescence.

Even traditionalists and backyard breeders began selecting smaller body phenotypes.  Pasturing fell into disrepute as well, reducing the need for brains and brawn.  Routine antibiotic feeding, vaccination, and indoor housing changed the genetic goals.  On our farm today (Polyface Farm) we keep some 4,000 non-hybrid layers in rotated Premier poultry net corrals (electrified portable fencing) or free-range Eggmobiles pulled behind grazing cattle.

In an outdoor setting, our biggest management issues are weather extremes and predation.  But we also have another desire:  high quality eggs.  That means we need birds that hunt and graze aggressively.  We move these flocks almost daily to new pasture areas, giving them unimpeded access to fresh, succulent forage and the full spectrum of insects, worms, and bugs that live there.

Even with that ideal pasturage situation, however, we have quite a variety of egg quality.  In any given dozen, we’ll have several extremely dark orange yolks (indicating high Omega 3 fatty acids–that’s good).  But we’ll also have lighter shades and even a pale egg occasionally.  What’s the difference?  The pale eggs are coming from lazy birds that just hang around the feeders and lounge inside.

To my knowledge, nobody in the world is selecting genetics based on yolk color.  In the world of nutrition, however, yolk color is the gold standard for everything regarding nutrition.  From folic acid to riboflavin, taste and nutrient density all find their nexus in yolk color.  If it’s so important, why is nobody breeding for that?  Because they haven’t been asked.  As the pastured poultry movement takes hold to address the local integrity food tsunami, I’m hoping someone will begin selecting genetics based on yolk color.

The other criteria on my wish list–longevity and hardiness–took second place to egg production.  As the meat industry reduced the need for the dual purpose bird, these traditional dual-purpose breeds could only find value in non-commercial egg production.  The overriding genetic selection criterion was feed conversion to eggs.  That mandated a smaller body phenotype.  When that happened, the birds became more fragile, more flighty (less docile), and more stupid.

Routine vaccination and medication mask genetic weaknesses.  While some in the animal rights movement would charge me with animal abuse, I would rather not treat a sick animal to let its weaknesses self-select into culling-by-performance, rather than create crutches that mask weaknesses.  Why do some birds, even in flocks infected with Marek’s disease or Newcastle’s disease, never get sick?  What could we learn if we didn’t vaccinate or medicate, and simply let survivor genetics reveal themselves and become the new breeding stock?

In my nearly 50 years of raising poultry in a non-industrial commercial setting, I’ve seen profound degradation in hardiness, brains, and thrift.  How do we get back to the functional non-drugged chicken?  We don’t do it by continuing to over-protect, vaccinate, medicate, and confine.  If we’re going to create what I call survivor genetics, we have to give the seed stock the conditions we’ll ask of their progeny.  And we can’t coddle.

I know this may sound terribly mean and unloving to some readers who view their chickens as their children and pets.  Folks, I’m glad you’re out there.  But even so, don’t you want a hardy, thrifty, smart pet?  Please appreciate that those of us at a more commercial scale see more nuances and have a broader comparison basis.  While we may not name our chickens, our desire for their health and happiness is no less acute.

That means if we’re planning to raise the birds out on pasture, we want the parents raised out on pasture.  If we want birds smart enough to head for cover when a hawk circles, we need their parents exposed to some predation pressure as well.  I’d be happy for a bird that lays 20 eggs fewer per year if she stays alive in a chilly rain storm or flees when a hawk comes.  Goodness, I’m just looking for birds who know it’s beneficial to find shelter at night.

Breeders can create anything their goals articulate.  The goals of pastured poultry producers are different even from back yard chicken coop operations.

About 15 years ago we had two rogue layers (Rhode Island Reds) who wandered away from the eggmobiles and lived half a mile away from the house for an entire summer.  They never received an ounce of feed, yet thrived and even laid eggs–we found their nest.  But we couldn’t find where they spent the night.  They stayed healthy and productive throughout the season.  A predator never found them.  I remember mentioning at that time:  “If we could take those eggs and hatch them, just think what kind of pasture-perfect birds we’d have.”  We never did, but the idea has intrigued me, especially as I’ve seen what I call the genetic nose-dive even in non-hybrid specialty poultry.

The upshot?  This spring, we purchased six different dual-purpose heavy bird varieties from Murray McMurray Hatchery, 100 each.  We also purchased an incubator.  We’re keeping the cockerels and hope to breed these birds to each other after 2 years–the survivors.  If we keep breeding the old survivors back to each other, I’m hoping that in 20 years we’ll create a Polyface-centric, dark-yolked, grazing, smart, docile, long-lived chicken.  And I really don’t care if she’s purple with pink polka dots.   Here’s to the pastured poultry nutrient dense future.

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28 Responses to The Perfect Chicken – By Joel Salatin

  1. Teresa says:

    I’m watching my hens outside from my window as I type this. I bought chickens originally for my daughters when they were small, and now have owned them for 20 years. Excellent article. I agree with Joel on several points. Living rural, we have several predators, hawks, coyotes, foxes, owls, etc. Our birds are out during the day and fenced at night. Even so, we have had some attrition from predators despite our best efforts.

    What we haven’t had is illness, poor laying, aggression or stupidity. Our chickens are lively, hardy, friendly and sweet. I won’t tolerate an aggressive rooster, so ours are always friendly. Excellent layers and mothers and highly intelligent. The extra benefit is an insect free garden as well as safe nutrition for my family. :)

  2. Maria says:

    I totally agree with Joel, and that’s eggs-actly what’s I’m breeding for in my flock of chickens. I did buy an incubator and hatch out chicks this spring, but they were raised by broody hens. While broodies don’t lay while they’re laying eggs, it takes most of the work out of raising chicks. I keep them in plastic dog crates in an enclosed area during the night, but during the day they run with the chickens. By the time the broody abandons them, the rest of the flock has accepted them, and they already know so much more about foraging than when I’ve raised them. Yes, I have gotten quite a few roosters, but I caponize them and grow them out for meat. They’re not as large as Cornish Rocks, but hey, it’s still meat! And they’re such good foragers that I don’t have to feed them as much grain as the Cornish require.
    I don’t have a livestock guardian dog, so I do have to fence them. But I make sure they have plenty of grass to graze and compost / food scraps to glean from.

    My dream chicken that’s I’m breeding towards is called the Wildflower Easter Egger:

    1. active grazer/forager

    2. predator savvy

    3. hardy & healthy

    4. lays well for at least 2 -3 years

    5. extra roosters & old laying hens for meat

    6. Colorful feathers and wide range of egg colors

  3. Pingback: What free range chickens really eat | Providence Farm

  4. Derek says:

    I am a big fan of Joel, and very intrigued by his methods. I have to say, once again, he hit the nail on the head. You want the best traits, you have to start with the traits you want, at least some of the traits you desire anyways. Along the way, the other traits can be added in as they are found. Why even produce a cross breed though? Yeah some will do amazing things I know. But if you breed a pure bred heritage breed bird with the traits we desire with another purebred heritage breed of the same with a few more traits we desire, eventually you will have the most awesome, free ranging, predator sensing, egg laying, meat producing heritage bird you can. If you continually breed to the standard, you will never get this type of bird. Sometimes you have to venture out into the lands, observe, and buy breeders with these traits. It’s common sense as he says, you can’t get results like this in confinement type environments.

  5. You have made some good points there. I looked
    on the web for additional information about the issue and found
    most people will go along with your views on this site.

  6. DebbiSu says:

    I like the ‘wish’ list for the chickens. I would also add a good brood hen that would raise the chicks without need for the heat lamps and confinement for the young chicks.

    • Becky says:

      This is exactly what I’m looking for, as well. We’re ordering a straight-run of the heavy breed assortment, and hopefully will get some broody ones in the mix.

  7. Donna Wilson says:

    I live in a part of Florida that five years ago was a mile long dirt road with my closest neighbor 5 miles away. Today, that same road is paved, 4 lanes with streetlights! the down side is obvious, no privacy for this country girl, but the up side is people that moved in around us ride their golf carts to my little honey stand in my front yard and buy my raw honey and they pay me $5 a dozen for my free range eggs! they all want to see my “farm”. They cant believe that my 70 chickens and 16 peacocks sleep in the tops of the trees, even when the nights are in the teens.
    Last year I started feeling bad about it so after 34 years without one, I broke down and built a beautilul coop, lot of good that did me , only a few of my newer chicks will stay in it. After reading this blog I am mad at myself that I let a bunch of Cutesie poodle tote’in golf cart driving kind hearted people apply pier pressure to my good common sense ! my fault!
    I do get that a coop is a must for most people ,but if my girls want to feel the breeze at night ,then I’ll just keep on with possum/coon patrol and keep them happy. ( and smart! ) ’cause folks……THIS is normal !!

  8. Julie says:

    Well thanks McMurray for getting a nice blog from Joel Salatin. I’ve been wondering what he may have had to say about pet chickens, and he is in support obviously. Everyone who loves eggs should either be raising their own flock or buying from someone who is. Lets keep the chicken-ness in the chicken!

  9. Terry says:

    I couldn’t agree more. My 6 and 4 year old asked to hatch baby chicks. We don’t have a rooster so I ordered some fertilized eggs from a gentlemen in Tennessee. He’s a small farmer breeding his own flock and selling eggs for incubation on the side. This spring was extremely wet for Iowa and we had a huge Buffalo knat hatch. The only pastured chicks that survived in my area were the 6 we hatch from this gentlemen in Tennessee. The rest were straight from the hatchery via the local farm store. There was definitely some difference in genetics for these lucky birds. All are alive, happy and productive today.

  10. Elaine says:

    I expect 365 eggs year 1,2,3, etc. My Black Australorps back when except for 1 broody could be counted on for an egg a day for years and only missed a day for a double yolker. I had one that was laying good at 7 years. They were very healthy but some were very stupid. I bought White Leghorns that were “spent” battery cage hens destined for slaughter in less than a month if not sold. Most had stopped laying and were almost bald but a few were dominant hens still laying & fully feathered but their egg shells were very thin. In a fairly short time all were laying an egg a day and had good hard shelled eggs. They free ranged with the other hens & also got layer feed. I recently got some black sex link pullet chicks that I hope will do well as layers and foragers. They have already caught insects and are very lively and athletic. They were not vaccinated and were started on non medicated feed. I will never kill or eat my birds since I am a vegetarian. I think broody birds can be an asset if they are smart and good at raising chicks. I used to have a Silky who was a good mother. She was my favorite bird.

  11. Caretaker says:

    While I agree in general, the purebred thing confuses me. Perhaps your speaking to commercial hybrids rather than the apparent hybrids you intend to make. I’d prefer hybrid vigor although I do appreciate the option to obtain heirloom varieties. I’m at 25 birds on 2.5 acres. I’d like some broodiness too, but I think I’ll be trying to keep a few of a broody breed rather than adding in another unnatural process (incubation). Of course, I have the luxury of not having to balance the books….

  12. Doris Fillion says:

    Totally agree. On a small scale Hobby Homestead we decided from the start to not vaccinate or medicate. Lost a few birds to Mareks.. but within a couple of years that stopped happening. Do not have pasture the birds, but do deep litter… which seems to offer immunity to chicks and hatching eggs from other sources.
    Yes yes yes: Breed strong survivors.

  13. Kimberly says:

    I agree and I try to only raise heritage breeds that are know for these qualities.

  14. Brad says:

    Joel, let me know when you have 100 of those “super chicks.” I will buy them and I bet tons of other will also! :-)

  15. Laurie says:

    What a great project!! I wonder if Joel (LOVE him) is going to keep breeds separate or let them interbreed and get a wonderful flock of crosses. Could be very interesting.

  16. Brenda L says:

    In the early 70’s I purchased a variety of chicks from MM, all dual purpose. The Aracaunas performed the best by far. They don’t get huge, don’t require much feed, lay good (pretty, easy to sell) eggs regularly and are plenty big enough to eat. Bought some more in 1980 from MM when I lived in Maine. They took the nasty winters in stride. All my chickens were free range and had to learn to stay alive, hide well, and come home at night. Those who didn’t disappeared either via a predator or the stew pot. Had to give them up for lots of years because of situations. Have ordered this last spring again from MM, this time all Aracaunas. Seems there’s a Dominique in there too…the ‘extra chick was a Dominique rooster and I also have a hen. Whatever, these chicks were started in the greenhouse, protected by my Anatolian Shepherd dog, then moved to a renovated greenhouse (covered with plywood and roofing) with a smallish 10′ x 40′ pen. Now I open the gate at daybreak to let them out to play and range then close the gate at dusk (or later if I’ve been at work). They know to hide when a hawk flies over, they fly well and freely when they want to, they come when called and have begun laying eggs a month early. They get a coffee can of feed once a day and spend all day clearing my yard of bugs, worms, caterpillars and weed seeds. Nothing better than actual free range chickens. Eggland’s Best are NOT.

  17. Georgia Ruocco says:

    I raise Pearl White Leghorns and Araucanans. I thought Leghorns were the industry standard for laying amount. I’d like to ask what you think about Araucana Breed. .
    Their yolks are dark and delicious.

    Thanks,
    Georgia

  18. Natalie says:

    My daughters and I are new to backyard chickens, starting last January. We LOVE our bantams, as pets who produce eggs (that’s how we convinced hubby). But as city/suburb kids, the amount of injury and death in the flock has been pretty trying. They are so fragile! I knew that bantams might require winter heat, but we weren’t prepared for their general lack of hardiness. I’m not interesting in taking chickens to the vet. I would certainly appreciate a bit sturdiness bred into even chickens who will be pets.

  19. Dempsy Winans says:

    I noted that you’d like to have hens that lay 220 eggs the first year, then 180 the second. No mention of a third year… why is that? I know production can fall off as the chicken ages, but am not sure just how much it falls off. My wife and I have been raising a variety of breeds in our back yard (we live in a city that allows up to 5 hens and no roosters on a small lot like ours) for the past 5 years, or so, and we change out birds every two years but we wonder just how much less they would lay if we kept them for 3 years.

  20. Elizabeth Redfern says:

    You are right! We started with a collection of dual purpose purebreds, a number of “Cornish” who died, got crippled an so on, our vet had a steady parade of these until we figured out it was the birds themselves, they were not engineered to live beyond 3 months and we realized there was a big difference. Our dual purpose birds on the other hand were wonderful! Time passed. There was a period where we only had old birds and then bought some “dual purpose” purebreds from a production line. They ate each other, and no distraction, change in food, or firm words helped. I did some reading and realized that the ability to live in a flock also has to be selected for. We have a new crew of well bred dual purpose birds from a good source (McMurray) and they are jolly, healthy, smart birds who forage and figure things out. I have been involved with purebred dogs for 50 years this year and you do get what you breed for and select for. Dual purpose foraging birds have wonderful eggs and they taste better too. And what about insect and tick control? They are fabulous hunters! The chicken is a wonderful bird, and is one of the best of the domestic food sources we have. They survive on so little, help us so much and I can only see a bright future for them if we recreate and maintain the bird that has fit with humans for so many thousands of years!

  21. Pat says:

    Great article. After having a terrible experience, my first go around owning chickens, with MG infected birds, who infected and ultimately caused the death of my original 2, I will be buying from McMurray in the spring. I loved the heritage RIR I had and would like to try them again, along with Wyandottes, leghorns, buff Orp, and maybe an Americuana. Strictly for eggs, and yes, they will be pets!!!

  22. Willam says:

    Wow, that was good.
    I agree totally, we need more purebred, hardy, productive and sustainable chicken traits. I like the part about brains and brawn, it was very true.
    Thanks.

  23. Terry Golson says:

    I agree with Joel – let’s focus on traits that make chickens hardy, productive and pleasant backyard animals. So, I’d add onto the list to never breed a people-aggressive rooster, no matter how handsome. Also, cull the broodies! (I write a lot about broodiness and other issues of backyard chickens on my blog.)

    • Ann says:

      Why cull broodies? They do all the work raise smarter better foraging chicks, and are fun to watch.

      We let all our broodies have a chance at being momma. I currently have one that hatched 11 chicks of various breeds. Those chicks are only given enough feed in the evening to lure them back to their coop for lockup. They are twice the size of chicks hatched in an incubator and raised by me. What momma is teaching them to eat must be better than what I’m providing.

      I have another group of hens cobrooding a batch of White Bresse and Basque that I’m treating the same way. I let them out in the morning give them a bit of feed and lock them up at night. Not sure what they eat otherwise, but they are growing really well. I prefer to have old hens teach young chicks what life is all about.

      • Terry Golson says:

        If you have a lot of land, can keep a rooster, can deal with 50% of your hatched chicks being roos, then keep the broodies. But, if like most backyard chicken keepers, you’re limited to 5 hens, then you don’t want one of them sitting in a nesting box all day, growling at the other chickens. If you’re a farmer who needs to make money on your laying hens, then you don’t want them going broody and not laying. If you like broodies, then get a few hens just for that purpose, like cochin bantams. What you don’t want is to develop a laying breed that wants to brood and not lay.

    • jimmy says:

      I want the broodies when one goes broodie I let her have her way and a pin of her own . I get best chickens from them.

  24. Colin says:

    It’s great to see somebody else really appreciating the old breeds! I’ve got a flock of New Hampshire reds with a few Rhode Islands, Australorps, and Barred Rocks thrown in to keep things interesting, and watching them roam the pasture is fantastic!

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