Choosing the Best 4-H Show Chickens
What’s the Best Breed for 4-H Chicken Showmanship?
Poultry is one of the most popular projects in 4-H and I often get asked how to choose the best show chickens. Why is the poultry project so popular?
Chickens are relatively easy and inexpensive to raise while they also provide useful products — either eggs or meat. Secondly, the land and space needs for chickens are minimal. With the increase in municipalities that now allow chickens in residential backyards, many city kids that may not have access to any other 4-H livestock programs can raise and show chickens. It’s also fun because they are just amusing critters. Plus chickens can teach kids a lot while they prepare for chicken showmanship and they will benefit from the responsibility of owning and caring for their birds.
There are many popular modern breeds of poultry as well as heritage chicken breeds, so narrowing down the best for show chickens is hard to do. Knowing your goals and interests is a good place to start. Here are some questions to consider:
- Do you want to raise poultry primarily for their eggs or for meat, or do you just want chickens as pets?
- Do you want your birds to be fun and friendly to interact with or just good at producing a product for you?
- Is there a particular feature you’re interested in such as egg color, exotic looks, size, or ability to hatch chicks?
- What kind of climate and housing will they be raised in?
Egg Layers versus Meat Chickens:
There are many egg laying breeds and not quite as many meat breeds. Some are considered dual purpose, raised for both eggs and for meat. The meat-specific breeds will grow and mature much faster than egg layers or dual purpose birds and they will only be with you for one season. Typically, meat birds will be entered in the 4-H poultry show differently than egg laying breeds (a pen of three versus individually).
Popular meat breeds include the Cornish and Cornish Crosses. They are cold-hardy, fairly docile, and they mature quickly. Another meat class of poultry is the turkey. There are two main types: broad-breasted and heritage, and both make great 4-H projects. Like the Cornish or Cornish Crosses, the turkey project will be one season as compared to the egg-laying project (where you may have the same bird for many years).
Some popular dual purpose birds include Australorps, Delawares, Jersey Giants, and Langshans. The downside of raising dual purpose birds for meat is that they mature slower than meat-specific breeds.
When narrowing down which egg-laying breeds will be best as 4-H show chickens, consider the following factors:
Temperament vs. Production:
Some people want chickens as pets while others just want lots of eggs or good meat. Just about any breed of chicken can become socialized and easy to work with if they are handled frequently from a very young age. But some breeds are known for being more docile and friendly while others are excellent egg layers but more high-strung or aggressive. My favorite calm and docile breeds that are also good producers include Ameraucanas, Jersey Giants, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, Speckled Sussex, and Wyandottes. Other excellent laying breeds that might not be quite as calm and friendly but are above-average egg producers include Andalusians, Leghorns, and Minorcas.
Special Features and Characteristics:
- Egg Color:
I love to have a basket of mixed-color eggs so I often choose breeds based on the color of eggs they lay. Ameraucanas are great for various shades of blue and blue-green eggs. Brown egg layers include Australorps, Brahmas, Delawares, Dominiques, Jersey Giants, New Hampshires, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons, to name a few. If you can find them, Marans are fun for their beautiful chocolate brown eggs. Of course, the traditional white eggs are nice, too!
- Exotic Feathers (or lack thereof):
I’m a sucker for those exotic-looking birds such as the fluffy, feather-footed Cochin and the goofy, poof-topped Polish. I usually have a few of these in my flock even though they are not the most productive layers, simply because they are so fun to look at! On the other end of the spectrum, I have friends who love the Naked Necks because they are exotic in their own bare-necked way.
For some kids when considering the best show chickens, size is of the essence. Many Bantam breeds might not be desirable from an egg-laying perspective, as their eggs are quite small, but are cute and easy to handle. One of the most popular kid-friendly true Bantams is the Silkie, but many other breeds come in standard and Bantam size, too.
- Good Mothers:
Some 4-H kids might want show chickens that are good at hatching their eggs and will be good mothers for their chicks. Some of the broodier breeds of chickens include Australorps, Brahmas, Chanteclers, Cochins, Dominiques, Dorkings, Orpingtons, and Silkies.
Climate and Housing Concerns:
Do you live in a very cold climate or a hot one? Will your birds be confined to a coop or be free-range? Some breeds are better adapted to these situations than others.
- Cold Hardy:
For those colder climates, some of the hardier breeds include Ameraucanas, Anconas, Australorps, Chanteclers, Cochins, Orpingtons, and Plymouth Rocks.
- Heat Tolerant:
If you live in a very hot climate, you might want to consider some of these breeds: Andalusian, Buttercups, Leghorns, Malays, and Minorcas
- Hardy in Cold and Heat
Some breeds are just hardy in any kind of climate so if you live somewhere with a wide variety of temperatures, these breeds might be right for you: Brahmas, Naked Necks, New Hampshires, Rhode Islands, and Silkies.
- Well-adapted to Confinement
While all show chickens should have some access to the outdoors and fresh air, a few breeds are better suited for smaller areas of confinement than others, including: Chanteclers, Favorelles, Houdans, and Silkies.
- Prefer Free-Ranging
These breeds might get restless and nervous in confinement and much prefer the ability to be free-ranged: Anconas, Buttercups, Hamburgs, and Malays
- Happy Either Way — Confined or Free-Ranging:
If you plan to have a smaller coop and enclosed area but also allow for some free-ranging, these breeds enjoy both lifestyles: Ameraucanas, Australorps, Brahmas, Buckeyes, Cochins, Delawares, Dominiques, Dorkings, Jersey Giants, Lakenvelders, Naked Necks, New Hampshires, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, and Rhode Islands.
One final thing to consider as you choose your breed of 4-H show chicken is which bird you will use for showmanship. This is the part where you show off what you know! Typically you take one bird in and out of a cage in front of a judge, handle and manipulate the bird to show and describe all the body parts, and then answer any questions about poultry that the judge may ask while you stand there holding your bird. Any breed of chicken can be used for 4-H showmanship if they are handled regularly from the very start. Of course, the calmer and more docile breeds may be a little easier to work with, and many kids prefer showing a bantam or a smaller breed for showmanship rather than a Jersey Giant or other large breed as your arms will get quite a workout with these bigger birds. I have known a few kids who loved to show turkeys for 4-H showmanship, though, so really kids should just pick the bird in their coop that they enjoy working with and handling the most!
Kate Johnson is a 4-H leader and Fair Superintendent in Boulder County, Colorado. She lives on a small farm where she raises chickens and occasionally turkeys, along with a host of other critters. To see her animals and learn more about her farm, visit www.briargatefarm.com