An important question to ask yourself before buying chickens is do you want eggs, meat, or both? Breeds of chickens are based on their ability to perform as a egg layer, meat-breed, or dual purpose. Egg layers are referred to as layers and meat production chickens are referred to as broilers. For colder climates such as Alaska, breeds that fair best include: Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, Australorp, Wyandotte, and Ameraucanas. All of these breeds are considered dual purpose as they are decent sized for meat production, but do fair well with egg production. With the exception of the Ameraucana, all of these breeds lay eggs varying from light to dark brown. The Ameraucana is a unique breed that lays blue or green colored eggs.
If buying as chicks, you have the option of purchasing straight run chickens or sexed chicks. If you are raising strictly for meat, straight run chicks are going to be cheaper. Straight runs means that the sex has not been determined and theoretically you should have a 50/50 chance of male or female chicks. If the sole purpose of your chickens is egg production, you will need to purchase sexed chicks so you end up with all females. For egg production, you do not necessarily need a rooster. Hens do feel safer with a rooster in the area as this helps with the natural pecking order chickens have and roosters are more protective in the event of predators.
Female chicks are referred to as pullets until one year of age when they are considered hens. Male chicks are referred to as cockerels until they reach one year of age when they are considered roosters. If males are neutered, they are called capons. Roosters tend to have tougher meat. A typical broiler operation is butchering chickens by the age of 3-8 months. If you are not slaughtering by that age, you should be neutering your roosters. The same thing goes for hens once they are older and no longer laying. Older meat might be considered tough is going to taste best when used in something that is slow cooked such as a stew. When determining how many chicks to purchase, keep in mind that pullets will not start egg production until around 4-6 months. During summer months, hens in their prime will lay 1 egg per day on average. Determine if you are raising them for profit or just for your household consumption.
Chickens under 16 weeks can be hard to sex. Once they reach maturity, roosters and hens are easier to tell apart. As chickens mature, their combs and wattles become more pronounced. The comb is the fleshy red crest on the top of a chicken’s head. A wattle is the elongated fleshy skin that hangs under the beak and is used to cool chickens down in the warmer weather. In cold climates these can get easily frostbit, so breeds with naturally shorter wattles fair better in the harsh conditions. Both sexes have combs and wattles, but the males will be much more pronounced than females. Another distinction of the sexes is that the feathers on the neck and tail of the rooster will be much longer and pointed compared to hens. Roosters will grow larger spurs used to fight for hens and help protect the flock. Once chickens grow to about 6 months, they are very easy to identify the sex of.