Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: Thrifty Chicken Breeds by Anna Hess

In the third book of her Permaculture Chicken series, Hess does a nice job of synthesizing chicken breed recommendations and statistics from other chicken authors (Gail Damerow, Harvey Ussery, Jenna Woginrich, Robert Plamondon), chicken surveys (Mother Earth News, Backyard Chickens forum), and hatchery catalogs, as well as her own experience.  This book has fewer external citations than some of her other books, but that may be because the content she would need to cite isn't out there--the main point of the book is that a homesteader needs to experiment for himself and find or make chickens that work well in his particular flock.

Hess is quick to note that different folks choose chicken breeds for different reasons, and folks who pick breeds for the same reasons in different climates might get different results. In short, take everyone's advice on chicken breeds (including hers) with a grain of salt: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, with that context set, Hess' own experience is especially valuable because she's worked with many different breeds, and has refined (is refining) her flock as one big optimization exercise with the following variables:

•Egg production
•Meat production
•Foraging ability
•Predator resistance
•Flightiness-friendliness spectrum
•Broodiness/chick-rearing ability

Because there is a lot of overlap (and some mutual exclusivity) among these variables, prioritization is necessary. For example, light (weight) breeds might produce more eggs and forage well, but can be flighty enough to escape fences and wreck gardens, while only providing minimal meat after egg production drops. Are the extra eggs worth these drawbacks? If you don't like meat or vegetables with your eggs, they might be!  Fortunately, we put together a handy dandy chicken breed selection chart to help out.  It tries to combine some of the content of the book, and some from our own experiences.  Of course, some simplification is required in the conversion to flow chart format, so you'll have to read the book for more details.

The key to finding the optimum for your own flock is genetics, which Hess feels is best worked out at home. That is, don't rely solely on commercial hatchery strains to get what you want--do some experimenting on your own! A diverse flock is one way to balance these variables, and gives the homesteader more genetics to choose from when refining preferred traits across generations of chickens. Of course, many hatcheries carry their own genetic lines, and, if you're going to start with hatchery birds, it helps to start from hatchery strains that have been geared toward production rather than appearance.  Or, another way to look at choosing your chickens:

However, for all the emphasis on selecting and refining good genetics, the 'how-to' of implementing these points is the weak part of the book. Hess mentions hatcheries (especially non mainstream hatcheries), swap meets, and trades with neighbors as suitable ways to introduce new genetics, but she doesn't say which overall method or which hatcheries she prefers.

Similarly, although to a lesser extent, the section on refining flock genetics could be expanded. The book doesn't say explicitly how often new genetics should be brought in, although Hess' Incubation Handbook recommends bringing in a new rooster every year. Also, Hess clearly records a lot of observations about her chickens. Maybe it's just us and our nerdy love of data, but we thought it would have been helpful to see a photo of her 'chicken lab notebook' or a screen shot of her chicken spreadsheet to see what kind of system she's worked out to discern chicken performances in terms of feed consumption (and egg yolk/chicken fat color), egg production, and behavior traits.

However, these shortcomings are overall quite minor. The information on different breeds and the approach Hess lays out for getting the most bang for your chicken buck make this book another great addition to the Permaculture Chicken series and an outstanding value, especially considering the price. We highly recommend it!

What kind of chickens do you raise on your homestead?  Which breeds, varieties, and strains have you found to be most productive for meat and eggs?  Let us know in the comments section below!

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