Chickens are so much fun: They are easy to work with, and they are a great addition to any farm. But before you bring your feathered friends to the county fair you should learn what the poultry judging experts are looking for!
Chickens all fit into one of a few categories: meat, egg production, dual purpose, or ornamental. Most of the chickens carried at local supply stores such as Tractor Supply, Runnings, and Rural King will be meat, egg production, or dual-purpose birds. Many of the dual-purpose birds will be judged on production qualities, so let’s dive into how to judge production birds!
When judging your production bird you’ll judge them on pigmentation, handling quality, abdominal capacity, plumage condition, health and vigor, and the head — in that order. Judging hens is easy, so don’t be a chicken, let’s learn how to judge!
We have to start with a cool thing that a hen’s body does. Let’s think about a classic egg layer, a leghorn. A young pullet is going to have bright yellow pigment around their eyes, in their beak, earlobes, feet, vent, shanks, and hocks. That yellow pigment is called xanthophyll, and young birds will store it up in those places in their body, but when the hen starts laying eggs, the xanthophyll is what gives the yolk a bright orange color.
So, when you’re judging pigmentation in older hens, you’re actually judging the lack of pigment. Ask yourself if this hen has lots of yellow pigment, or does she appear bleached in the feet, vent, eyes, earlobes, beak, shanks, and hocks? A bleached bird indicates a top layer.
While you’re examining pigmentation of the vent you’ll also want to take a look at the shape and size of the vent. A large vent with an oval shape indicates that she has been laying lots of big eggs with ease. A vent that is small, dry, cracked, dirty, full of pigment, or not oval in shape indicates that this bird is just not a top egg layer.
To judge the handling quality of your bird you want to pick her up and assess the feel of her pubic bones, skin and abdomen. To sum up the main objective with the handling quality, you’re looking for flexibility.
The pubic bones should be easy to find, thin, and flexible if you pinch them. This shows that the pubic bones aren’t inhibiting your hen from laying lots of big eggs. You’ll want to pinch a little bit of skin below the pubic bones and feel how thin it is. If it is thin, then your hen doesn’t have much fat cover, which is exactly what you’re looking for. You’ll want to feel the abdomen and ask yourself if it is soft or hard. If the abdomen is hard that indicates a thicker fat cover — no fat hens!
Assess the width and depth of the abdominal cavity. The width of the abdominal cavity is measured between the pubic bones, and you want at least three fingers width between them. The depth is measured from the pubic bones to the keel bone, and you’ll want to be able to fit four fingers in this area.
The depth of the abdominal cavity is important for assessing the production capabilities of the hen. Eggs are big! Can this hen comfortably fit a big egg in her abdomen? Remember, handling quality assesses the flexibility of the abdomen and bones, while the abdominal cavity assesses how much room there is. You want the abdominal cavity to be roomy and have the ability to hold an egg, and the bones and skin flexible enough to allow the hen to lay the egg comfortably.
You are looking for a bright and shiny hen with full feathered coverage! If the hen is in molt, and she is missing feathers, then her plumage condition is not great. A hen with great plumage condition would be a hen who is fully feathered, all feathers are neat, clean, and not broken, and her axial, primary, and secondary feathers are all present.
If you hold your hen and spread her wings out like a deck of cards, you’ll notice that one feather in the center of her wing is about half the size of the rest of them. The little feather is the axial feather, and it separates the primary and secondary feathers. This axial feather should be present and in good condition.
After checking out the axial feather, count how many feathers are between the axial feather and the tip of the wing, these are the primary feathers, and there should be ten of them. Next, count the feathers from the axial feather down to the base of the wing, these are the secondary feathers and there should be fourteen of them. If some of the primary feathers are smaller than the axial feathers it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with your bird, it just means that it is going through a molt, and those feathers are still growing back. But at the time of the show, you want your bird in full plumage.
Health and vigor
For the health and vigor of the bird you’ll assess the head, face, comb and eyes. You’re asking yourself if this bird looks healthy and bright, or does she look tired and unhealthy.
Starting with the overall shape of the head, the hen’s head should be wide between the eyes and flat on the top. Her face should be smooth, free of much loose skin, and be bright. The comb should appear bright, red, smooth and waxy, and finally her eyes should be big and bright. You don’t want your hen to be sick or tired, especially on show day.
Head and head parts
Assessing the head and head parts isn’t quite as cut and dry as assessing some of the other aspects of the hen. What you’re always looking for is a bright comb, bright eyes, waddles and ear lobes that are free of loose skin, no wrinkles around the eyes, a head that’s wide between the eyes, and an overall balanced appearance.
The reason that the head and head parts aren’t as easy to lay out the groundwork for is that all the breeds have different aspects you’re looking for. The American Poultry Association has a Standard of Perfection that lays out all the breed characteristics for all the accepted poultry breeds. These characteristics include the color of the earlobe, type of comb, and to a degree the head shape and feathering around the head. If you’re a serious poultry person, you should get the Standard of Perfection, or call up your local 4-H office to see if they have one to borrow.
Although all breeds are very different, if you have a production hen or a dual-purpose hen, this is a great way to start judging your bird. Check out what class your bird fits in with this guide from Colombia county’s university of Wisconsin-Madison Extension.
There aren’t a ton of resources on showing poultry because of the differences in breeds, but my go-to resource for help on poultry judging is the University of Georgia. They published a great PowerPoint with pictures and descriptions, and they have a series of videos on judging live birds, carcasses, eggs, and meat.
Hopefully now you’re ready to win your next poultry show!
Elizabeth Maslyn is a born and raised dairy farmer from Upstate New York. Her passion for agriculture has driven her to share the stories of farmers with all consumers, and promote agriculture in everything she does. She works hard to increase food literacy in her community, and wants to share the stories of her local farmers.