Breeding Our Own Chickens
The following is the original version of my article “Heritage Chicken Breeding: Why Not to Rely on Chicken Hatcheries”, published in the April/May 2016 issue of Mother Earth News.
It was added to the site in January, 2017.
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Far too few keepers of backyard flocks give much thought to where their chicks or started pullets come from or how they are bred. Even small farmers raising broilers and eggs for local markets often choose the same hybrid strains used in the poultry industry, and buy in their chick stock from large centralized hatcheries with little thought to the quality of its breeding.
There is no question the poultry industry is capable of ingenious and effective breeding—how else explain market broilers reaching a five pound slaughter weight in as little as five weeks (a child growing at that rate would weigh 349 pounds at age two), or flocks of industrial layers that begin laying in 18 weeks or less and quickly reach a peak average of close to an egg per day? Such marvels, however, are bred to conform to enormously high levels of confinement in climate-controlled facilities and the feeding of highly processed manufactured feeds exclusively. Completely ignored in their breeding are longevity, the inclination of chickens in natural settings to forage their own feed, and even immune system integrity, since industrial flocks are routinely fed antibiotics to ward off illnesses that would otherwise inevitably arise in stressful conditions.
Many home “flocksters” and increasingly even small farmers with market flocks prefer sturdier, more self-sufficient chickens capable of foraging much of their own feed if allowed to range, with more natural resistance to disease and climate stresses. Many would rather get their table chicken and their egg supply from the same flock, so are more interested in the traditional “dual purpose” breeds than the astounding laying and growth rates of the single-purpose industrial super-hybrids.
Unfortunately, most are in for a rude surprise when they order a batch of Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, or other heritage breeds from commercial hatcheries. Far too often the chickens they raise from these chicks don’t measure up to expectations based on breed descriptions they’ve read. A good example is my own experience with Delawares, bred in 1940 from crosses of Barred Plymouth Rock cocks onto New Hampshire hens. My research promised that Delaware hens were excellent layers of large brown eggs and maintained egg production well in winter, yet growth of both males and females was rapid enough, to good size, that for a time they were a foundation breed in the broiler industry. That sounded like an outstanding suite of utilitarian traits to me, so I ordered a batch of chicks from a big hatchery. Imagine my disappointment when I found that my chicks matured at only moderate rates to rather small adult size, and that the hens turned out to be mediocre layers. There was in short nothing whatever outstanding in their performance, either for daily production of eggs or to put Sunday-dinner chicken on the table.
My trials of other heritage breeds—New Hampshires, Rhode Island Reds, Rocks, and many more—yielded chickens that were serviceable enough but didn’t come close to the performance levels for size and egg production as described for example in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. Structural flaws such as crossed beak, crooked keel, and foot deformities occurred more often than one would expect in carefully bred stock. I have heard similar complaints from other backyard and small farm flocksters over the years.
Why is hatchery stock for traditional breeds of such mediocre quality? According to Jim Adkins of Sustainable Poultry Network, large hatcheries routinely practice “flock mating” as their mating system of choice—that is, they simply set aside out of current chick production the number required at maturity to produce the projected number of hatching eggs needed—and allow them to mate willy-nilly. Over the generations the quality of the stock declines, with the resulting flocks—though retaining the appearance of their ancestors—performing more and more as “generic chickens” weak in the utilitarian traits for which these breeds were developed.
What is missing from this approach, almost guaranteeing a decline of the quality of the stock long term? Rigorous selection of superior individuals as breeders. Contrast the “flock mating” approach with that used by Don Schrider and Jeannette Beranger of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (now The Livestock Conservancy) in their “rescue” breeding project with the Buckeye, a hardy, “meaty,” quintessentially American breed developed in the 1890s but almost extinct when the ALBC project began in 2006. Having obtained eggs from three unrelated private flocks, they hatched about two dozen chicks to start. Tracking birds individually using meticulous record keeping, they mated unrelated breeders to produce 250 chicks the following year and 300 the year after that. In each of these years superior individuals were selected as breeders using the “ten percent rule”—that is, only the best chick out of ten was chosen as a breeder of the following generation. Or put another way, all the mediocre individuals were eliminated from the gene pool. What was the basis for selection? Beranger and Schrider’s goal was to enhance the meat quality of their Buckeyes, so they weighed all their growing birds—at eight weeks, again at twelve weeks, and a final time at their target slaughter age, sixteen weeks. But note that relative body weight was only one of their ways of judging potential as meat birds—they also measured skull and back width, heart girth, expansiveness and pliability of the abdomen, keel spread, and other physical characteristics associated with fast growth and large carcass size.
Note the contrast between free-for-all flock matings based on random selection, and the time and care spent in a more hands-on selection of only a very few superior individuals as breeders. In the highly competitive hatchery industry, this level of investment of time in selection is unlikely. Is it surprising then, that—in sharp contrast to my sad experience with mediocre Delawares—within three generations of improvement breeding, the ALBC Buckeyes increased an average of one pound live weight at slaughter, and reached the desired weight in sixteen weeks rather than twenty?
Since breeding practices in the big hatcheries we’ve come to rely on for stock are not likely to change, more of us should seriously consider the option of breeding our own. That is, the only way to ensure breeding improved strains of utilitarian chickens is to take the breeding of our stock into our own hands. That’s not as difficult a project as we might imagine. Even many experienced flocksters would be surprised to learn how easy it is to organize a breed-improvement project, even at the home flock level. Of course, a serious breeding project will not be practicable in backyard flocks of a dozen chickens or so. In my own project I aim for a breeding flock of thirty-six hens and six cocks (two males and a dozen females in each of three “clans”), though I could trim those numbers a bit if necessary. Certainly the numbers required to mount a serious breed improvement project are well within reach of any small farm serving local markets for eggs and broilers.
Fortunately breeders who have applied the basic principles used in the pioneering ALBC project have proved their effectiveness with other heritage breeds as well. All have accepted as fundamental the need to cull stringently. Will Morrow started his fine line of Delawares with 250 hatchery eggs—that is, eggs most likely representing the same mediocre quality that furnished my own Delaware chicks, as noted above—and brought his stock up to the breed standard weights (as specified in the Standard of Perfection) within two generations. Again, the key was rigorous selection: In the first year he kept only 10 percent of the initial 250 chicks to serve as breeders. Since that time, he retains only 5 percent of cockerels (fewer males are needed for breeding) and 20 percent of pullets.
A couple of interesting things to note about both these breed-improvement projects: Though the ALBC Buckeye project and Will Morrow’s Delaware project selected heavily for meat qualities, in fact in both cases egg production increased as well. And the speed at which mediocre stock was brought up to standard weights (and better rate of lay), while impressive, shouldn’t be too surprising. Though the heritage breeds have been sadly neglected, their basic genetics for superior performance are already in place. That is good news indeed for anyone considering an improvement project with almost any of the heritage breeds—their latent genetic potential may be the basis for very rapid progress in a breeding program.
Keeping only one in ten for breeding—does culling this severely seem extreme? Flocksters who think of their chickens as pets might well think so. But remember, for any wild species nature is a mercilessly ruthless “culler.” One reason a ground-dwelling species such as the Red Junglefowl (ancestor of our domestic chickens) reproduces so precociously and so prolifically is the relentless pressure of predators. Of course we all try our best to protect our flocks from predators, but if we aspire to breeding for improvement, we must assume the role of the predator—that is, the role of removing from the gene pool all less fit individuals and allowing only the superior ones to reproduce.
The need to cull large numbers of chickens in a breeding project is scarcely a problem—the culls serve as the family’s table chicken. Maybe there will no longer be a need to raise a separate “meat flock.” At my place, any bird who needs to be culled, of either gender and at any age, is “meat chicken.”
Environmental challenges can play a role in selection as well. When Andrew Christie was breeding his unique strain of New Hampshires in the 1920s, he kept his birds in pasture shelters through his harsh New England winters, selecting only the hardiest as breeders of the next generation. The environmental challenge where I live in the mid-Atlantic is more likely to be our hot and humid summers, so I cull any bird who “wilts” in those conditions.
Immune system weakness should always be eliminated. In my own flock, any bird of any age who shows signs of illness is culled immediately, no exceptions. If this seems cruel, I ask: How much more cruel would it be to saddle future generations in my flock with a predisposition toward illness?
Not all of us can generate chicks in the numbers required by a literal “ten percent rule” every season. I have found, for example, that hatching more than six dozen or so chicks per breeding season would be impractical for me. While keeping 10 percent of male chicks as breeders is easy enough, the percentage of pullets I need to keep as replacement breeders is more likely to be 40 percent or so. Though that level of selection should ideally be more severe, it will have to suffice, with the trade-off that my improvement goals may take longer to accomplish.
But what precisely should we be aiming for as we do all this culling? What traits should we be aiming for in our future breeders? Why, whatever traits we wish! This is the beauty of breeding our own, and the potential pay-off for the effort we put into the project: With careful selection we can enhance those utilitarian traits most important to us. Breeding our own chickens is exactly analogous to saving our own garden seed. Even gardeners who do not save their own seed understand that those who do are rewarded with improved crop plants over the seasons—plants that are ever more robustly adapted to yielding well in the gardener’s own specific conditions of soil, climate, cultivation practices, and insect and disease pressures. Intelligent selection of breeders and management of matings can result as well in poultry of better health, hardiness, and production, ever more finely attuned to our own conditions, management practices, and production goals.
I have been raising Icelandic Chickens exclusively, and breeding all my own stock, for four years. Icies are a landrace (rather than a tightly defined breed), characterized by a lot of genetic and visual variability (see photo at top of this page), and I select first of all to keep that variability. They are hardy and robust, adept at evading aerial predators, and are skillful foragers of much of their own feed if given range—I select to enhance all those traits as well. Since I hatch using natural mothers exclusively and I like to hatch early in the season, all in one big “wave,” I select for early broodiness and dedicated mothering skills. Of course good egg production is important to me, so I favor the better laying hens when selecting, especially those who maintain good production in winter. On the other hand, a more self-sufficient chicken such as the Icelandic will naturally be on the smaller side, so it would be foolish for me to try to select for birds the size of turkeys. However, any “runt” among the growing chicks gets culled immediately.
We will not succeed in a breeding project in the long run if we allow haphazard, free-for-all matings in the breeder flock. It is important to choose a mating system that ensures, positively, that we maintain maximum genetic diversity possible with the numbers of breeders we’re able to work with—and, negatively, that we strictly avoid too much mating of individuals too closely related, such as parent-progeny or sibling and half-sibling matings. Maximum genetic diversity ensures maximum chance that traits needed for our birds to thrive in our own conditions and management practices and to meet our production goals will be expressed in some of the offspring. While it is true that mating closely related individuals—even brother to sister—with great care can have good results, allowing a lot of random sibling and half-sibling matings year after year is certain to lead to inbreeding depression, a decline in vigor and performance resulting from heightened expression of negative recessive traits.
Fortunately there are a number of mating systems to choose from, ranging from simply bringing in one or more unrelated cocks from trusted outside flocks each breeding season, to complex pedigree systems requiring close tracking of every mating of every individual through the generations. Since I prefer to maintain a closed flock as much as I can, and don’t have the patience for the level of record-keeping required in a pedigree system, I use the three-clan mating system which is for me the best compromise between necessary breeding rigor and overly burdensome record-keeping.
A serious breed improvement project may be a stretch for many homestead flocksters. Almost all farmers supplying local egg and broiler markets, however, deal with flocks large enough to allow for the stringent selection required to breed for better performance. Small farmers really do have the option of breeding unique strains of their preferred heritage market breeds that are superior to stock available for those breeds anywhere else.
An interesting example of the possibilities is the Sustainable Poultry Network, founded by Jim Adkins of western North Carolina. Jim worked for years in the poultry industry before despairing of its industrialized approach and its exclusive use of hybrids bred for confinement systems, a major factor in the decline of the heritage breeds. He left the industry in order to teach on heritage breeds and poultry breeding at major conferences, and has served as well as a licensed professional judge in countless poultry shows in this country and abroad. In 2010 he founded SPN as a platform for workshops and for offering mentoring of small farmers in poultry breeding and production for market. SPN currently certifies about seventy small farms all over the country dedicated to breeding their own stock, using heritage breeds exclusively, and breeding in ways that preserve the purity and genetic diversity of these breeds and returning them to the levels of production, of both meat and eggs, for which they were developed. Note that Jim teaches a mating system different from the three-clan mating system I use. But it is one that involves separation of breeders into three groups and is guided by the goals of maximizing genetic diversity and avoiding inbreeding depression, while producing marketable birds as soon as possible.
It may be that you agree on the urgent need for better breeding of our home and market flocks, but simply cannot commit to a breed improvement project yourself. If so, you can support the breeding of improved strains by purchasing your chicks or hatching eggs from those who are doing this important work, in lieu of continued reliance on mass-market hatcheries. Many of the farmers in the Sustainable Poultry Network sell chicks. Maybe an SPN certified farm could be your source of superior stock for Buckeyes, Delawares, New Hampshires, Dominiques, and even more unusual heritage breeds such as Dorkings, Cornish, and Chanteclers.