At Bramblestone Farm, we keep both Golden Buff and Buckeye chickens, and people often ask why we keep the Buckeyes. They don’t lay as large an egg or as frequently as the Golden Buffs, so why do we keep them?
All About Buckeye Chickens
Well, Buckeye chickens are uniquely American, and they make wonderful dual-purpose (good for both meat and eggs) birds. They are the only American chicken bred by a woman and were bred specifically to thrive under harsh conditions. This makes them exceptional chickens for backyards, homesteads, and breeders alike.
Despite nearly being lost as a breed, today their versatility is rapidly being rediscovered. If you want large, beautiful birds that are good for both meat and eggs, that withstand heat and cold, and that are excellent foragers, then consider the Buckeye.
Buckeye Chicken Beginnings
In 1879, Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio began searching for a chicken that she could raise and sell to earn her own spending money. Prior to marriage, she’d been accustomed to having an income, and wanted a method to continue that income after becoming a farm housewife. She enjoyed the outdoors, exercise, and the challenges of raising chickens, but was dissatisfied with the results she got with the brown Leghorns her husband originally had on their farm. She described them as always being scrawny and in poor condition, and that there was “never a good season for chicken” with that breed.
Mrs. Metcalf tried several other breeds, but none of them flourished (she later wrote that it was her ignorance of proper nutrition and housing that caused them to fail) so she began crossing breeds to create a chicken that would meet her requirements. She wanted a lively chicken that was good eating and a decent egg producer all year around. In addition, it had to survive by foraging on the farm (she didn’t feed a ration or grit), as well as withstand the hot Ohio summers and bitterly cold winters.
Eventually, she crossed Plymouth Rocks with Buff Cochins and got chickens that she described as “lazy, but good eating.” To make the chickens livelier, she procured black-breasted Red Game birds and crossed them with the Rock/Cochin offspring. This produced the first red-feathered chicken she’d ever seen, as well as chickens with a pea comb, yellow legs, and a Cornish body shape. At this point, she realized that the game birds must have contained some Cornish blood, but was pleased with the pea comb and body shape that they contributed. Mrs. Metcalf decided then that she would breed a hardy, red-feathered chicken from this beginning stock (and their farm became Red Feather Farm).
The roosters from this beginning were aggressive, so she spent several years working to eliminate their fighting instinct, and to consistently produce a red-feathered chicken that met her requirements for meat, eggs, and foraging ability. The resulting chickens she described as “large and vigorous and the very best layers we ever owned”, and she began selling them as Buckeye Reds. She described their color as “garnet”, but named them Buckeye because their color resembled that of the ripe Buckeye nut from her home state. In 1902, Nettie Metcalf submitted the birds for admission to the American Poultry Association Standard, and they were admitted as Buckeyes in 1904.
Buckeyes are a dual-purpose chicken with deep mahogany plumage (there is only one color variety), yellow legs and skin, and pea combs. Because of the game bird in their makeup, they do particularly well in free-ranging conditions and are excellent foragers. Roosters weigh approximately nine pounds, and hens weigh approximately six and a half pounds and lay around 200 medium to large brown eggs per year. In the bantam Buckeye size, roosters weigh about 34 ounces while hens weigh about 28 ounces. They are the only American chickens that have a pea comb and have a slanted, short-broad back, meaty thighs, and powerful wings and breast. Their body shape and pea comb make Buckeyes extremely cold tolerant.
They also have unique personalities for chickens. They are very active, and are particularly good “mousers” – it’s unwise for a mouse to venture through Buckeye territory. Being very inquisitive, Buckeyes tend to run toward humans, rather than away like many chickens.
Hens often retain their “setting and mothering” abilities and can go broody, traits appreciated by those wanting to maintain small, self-perpetuating flocks. The chicks grow relatively fast and benefit from a higher protein feed for the first 8 – 10 weeks. Chicken starter feeds typically contain around 20 percent protein, so many Buckeye owners use a game bird or turkey starter at first (which typically contains 28 – 30 percent protein). Buckeye roosters are known for their gentle dispositions, excellent flock protection skills, and a wide range of vocalizations. It’s not unusual to hear everything from a purr to a roar from a Buckeye rooster.
Buckeye Chicken History
After admission to the Standard, Buckeyes were a very popular homestead chicken for nearly fifty years because of their hardiness, productivity, foraging ability, and inquisitive nature. However, after World War II, poultry production commercialized and moved indoors, and the Buckeyes were never selected by commercial producers. That, along with the demise of backyard flocks in the US during the last half of the 20th century, caused Buckeyes to become classified as critically endangered. In 2003, there were less than 72 known breeding birds left in the United States.
Most of the remaining Buckeyes also exhibited decreased productivity when compared to the birds originally bred by Nettie Metcalf. Because of increased availability of chicks from large hatcheries, once commonly known selection techniques for maintaining chicken breed productivity were largely lost in the US, and the productivity of many non-commercial breeds declined. So in 2005, The Livestock Conservancy began a program to recover the Buckeye’s original characteristics – striving to return Buckeyes to the productive breed it once was.
The Livestock Conservancy Rescues the Buckeye
In 2005, The Livestock Conservancy selected the Buckeye breed for their pilot chicken breed recovery project. The purpose of the project was to see if traditional selection techniques found in early to mid-20th century poultry texts could be used to return a rare breed to the productive homestead breed it once was. The program was highly successful, and after just three generations, the Buckeye chickens grew to size two weeks faster, weighed a pound more, had improved egg production, and again matched the published American Poultry Association Standard for the Buckeye breed.
The recovery project was very successful, and today, Buckeyes descended from the Livestock Conservancy project birds are making a comeback as excellent purebred chickens for flavorful meat, good egg production, and even exhibition.
For meat, Buckeyes mature slower than commercial factory chickens, and the meat is consequently more flavorful. Most commercial chickens are raised to the age of 8 weeks, whereas Buckeyes are usually raised to the age of 16 weeks. This produces meat with a richer, nuttier flavor, but it’s also more muscular and needs to be cooked with tenderness in mind (i.e. slow cooking or brining). Because of the outstanding flavor of the meat, Buckeye chickens have been included in the Slow Foods Ark of Taste.
Buckeye egg production is typically described as being between 150 – 200 eggs per year; however, after the recovery project, egg-laying improved to 175 – 240 eggs per year. Since then, some breeders have continued to work at selecting Buckeyes for egg production, and today there are Buckeye lines that are known for production rates even higher than those of the Livestock Conservancy descended birds.
In 2007, one of the project descendants shocked the chicken exhibition world by winning Reserve Grand Champion in the American class at the Ohio Nationals. Since then, Buckeyes have won numerous Reserve Grand Champion, Champion American, and Champion Large Fowl awards, and in May of 2013, again made history when a Buckeye was awarded “Best of Show”.
Buckeye chickens are increasingly popular, and on the “good news front”, in 2011 Buckeyes were upgraded from “Critical” to “Threatened” status based on 2010 census data reporting more than 2,400 birds. Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 5,000 Buckeyes, and Mrs. Metcalf’s “garnet” birds have indeed become the red-feathered jewels of the chicken world. If you’re looking for an exceptional backyard or homestead chicken, be sure to consider the Buckeye.
New Buckeye Strains
The original Bramblestone Farm Buckeyes were from the Livestock Conservancy “strain” described above, which were developed from the Urch, Pearce, Brown and Rhodes flocks beginning in 2006. The strain was developed to promote diversity of lines and more rapid growth in the birds, rather than necessarily promoting either egg or meat production. And although we really enjoyed those original Buckeyes, we did wish for better egg production.
The latest Bramblestone Buckeye’s came from Crains Run Ranch, and were bred by Mr. Jeff Lay. In 2002, Mr. Lay began breeding Buckeyes for improved egg production, and today the “Lay” strain of Buckeyes are known for their excellent egg production. They were developed from Buckeyes from the Brown (OH), Rhodes (MA), Pierce (RI), and Urch (MN) flocks. See Raising Buckeye Chicks to read our lessons learned when raising Buckeye chicks.
More Information/Finding Breeders
The American Buckeye Club – The American Buckeye Club is dedicated to the preservation of the Buckeye Chicken and is a place for Breeders, Hobbyists, Fanciers and Poultry Enthusiasts to share information about this exceptional breed of fowl. http://americanbuckeyeclub.org
American Buckeye Poultry Club – The American Buckeye Poultry Club is a registered non-profit breed club created in 2008 to promote and support the Buckeye chicken, both large fowl and bantam. http://www.americanbuckeyepoultryclub.com