Breeding Your Backyard Flock
Successful breeding starts with the recognition that diploid species, whether human or chicken, have paired homologous chromosomes in their somatic cells. Thus phenotypes expressed in the F1 generation are dependent on whether the alleles for a given trait are coded for dominance or recessiveness—although they are often neither.
Got that? Me either. Relax.
Setting your goals
If you have an interest in the intricacies of genetics, by all means, learn all you can. Certainly, the competitors in the large poultry shows know a great deal about the interaction of genes to give quite specific results. Their birds are works of art, sketched in DNA. You can achieve the same impressive results—but only with regard to traits, such as feather color and pattern, comb style, etc., which are determined by a single gene.
It is important for homesteaders interested in breeding their own stock to understand, however, that not one of the utilitarian traits likely to be of most concern to them is the result of a single gene. The rate of growth or the level of egg production, for example, or the ability to produce large eggs or resist disease—these result from interactions of many genes, and thus are not subject to selection by targeting individual genes. In some cases—broodiness is an excellent example—the genetic basis for the trait is not even known. Clearly the trait is inheritable—degree of broodiness exhibited in various breeds differs markedly—but no one knows which specific genes are responsible for this complex behavior.
The good news is that breeding for such traits comes down not to detailed knowledge of alleles, genes, autosomes, etc., but to the intuitive, common-sense wisdom that has guided livestock breeding since domestication began: You get the best results (offspring) by mating your best individuals. It’s that simple. The truly liberating implication is that “best” is defined by your specific goals for your flock. You do not have to seek out the expert who can tell you what is best breeding practice in your breeding program, since no one else is in a position to decide what traits are worth emphasizing in your flock.
Do you prefer a pullet with early onset of lay, or one that reaches table-fowl size quickly? A hen who lays more frequently, or lays a larger egg? If you make a lot of scrambled eggs, perhaps you don’t care that some of your hens lay misshapen eggs, while you might be more of a stickler for good egg shape if you sell to a market, or if you’re just enchanted with the simple beauty of a perfectly shaped egg (that’s me). If you raise a breed known for dark shell color like the Cuckoo Marans, do you favor breeders with the chocolate shell color, even if they are not as productive? Which is more important, a hen with higher annual production, or one who keeps her rate of lay better in the slack winter period? You might notice that some of your cockerels build a large frame first, then flesh out to impressive size. Would you prefer a smaller cockerel that reaches table size sooner? No one can answer these questions for you, and no one can give you a genetic formula for achieving the goals you resolve on. Only a refinement of your ability to make appropriate selections over successive breeding seasons will achieve your goals. A lifetime should suffice.
Start with good stock
A major reason to breed your own is that you may well produce better results than many of the commercial hatcheries. Huge operations featuring large breeding flocks and producing hundreds of thousands of hatchlings cannot give the same care to observing and culling for flaws that the small flock owner can. Is it any surprise we are seeing more birds with crossed beak, deformed feet, crooked keel, etc? Most hatcheries breed to the “lowest common denominator” of commercial flock needs, certainly not to your particular homestead goals; and they breed for volume production, not longevity. Finally and most importantly, almost all commercial breeding flocks are raised in high-confinement situations routinely utilizing antibiotics and other medications to make the model work. When you buy commercial hatchlings, every decision behind their breeding has assumed a high-confinement paradigm in which the birds are short-lived, expendable, and dependent on formulated feeds and medications. Hardly the stuff of which sturdy homestead flocks are made.
It is better to start with stock bred to thrive in a homestead or small farm context. Join Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and get in touch with other members willing to share sturdier stock. Then use your own circumstances—of climate, access to forage, predation pressures, management style, etc.—to help winnow the flock and select the breeders that best fit your goals.
When Andrew Christie was developing his strain of New Hampshire Reds, he kept his breeders in pasture shelters through his harsh New England winters. Those who rose to that challenge went on to become a robust strain of super-hardy birds that were a major contribution to American chickendom.
Do not be shy about adopting a similar “survival of the fittest” strategy—it is the key to breeding more robust flocks. For example, if a bird develops a serious eye infection, shouldn’t we reject it from the breeding program in preference to one who in the same conditions avoided the infection? Or suppose one hen gets the infection but recovers without issue, while her sister is left with a blind or recurrently swelling eye—which is the obvious candidate for filling the future gene pool? Such questions are not easy, but in the long run, they are far more important to the quality of the flocks we breed than the question of where to find the latest magic-bullet medication.
If the above seems heartless or uncaring, be assured that I see nothing wrong with intervening to help a bird in distress, or keeping “pet chickens” with obvious flaws to whom we have become attached. Just don’t allow birds with demonstrated weaknesses to serve as breeders. For example, we once had an adorable Old English Game bantam cock with deformed feet whom we named Charlie Brown. Charlie would dance for the ladies, scold misbehaving flock members, and break up fights, keeping us constantly entertained. He lived to a ripe old age before dying a natural death—but I never used him for breeding.
Breed for preservation
A breeding program focused on our own particular goals does not imply a haphazard approach to breeding. We honor both the birds in our care and the work of generations of breeders before us by preserving the unique characteristics of our breeds. Failure to breed for preservation results ultimately in “generic chickens” lacking in the complex genetics from which we can draw for future needs in changing circumstances.
This is not to say there is no place for experimental crosses in our flocks. After all, all existing breeds started as crosses, deliberate or accidental. Making crosses can be great fun, and can fit into overall homestead goals. For example, I am approaching my fourth year working with a cross I call “Boxwood Broodies”—a cross of Old English Game cocks onto proven broody hens of larger size, to produce a working broody subflock with the mothering skills of the OEG, but able to raise a larger number of chicks per clutch.
Crosses can yield surprising results. I once crossed New Hampshire Red cocks onto White Jersey Giant hens. None of the offspring were any possible combination of red and white—rather, they were all varying mixes of black and red. This was puzzling until I remembered that the White Jersey Giant actually began as a white sport of the Black Jersey Giant (more than sixty years ago). Charles Darwin referred in one of his books to a crossing of two decidedly non-broody Mediterranean-class breeds, all the daughter offspring of which expressed the broody trait. Isn’t it comforting that, just below the veneer of our manipulations of domestic breeds, lie the complexities of their own deep wisdom, ready to express themselves in new and surprising ways with a single roll of the genetic dice.
Selecting for homestead traits
If we are breeding for homestead traits (as opposed to the fine points of comb and color), the following factors might guide our selections.
Health, vigor, and an ability to adjust to stress such as rapid weather changes
Positively, this means selecting those individuals who best thrive in the particular stresses and challenges of our own circumstances. Negatively, it means culling against weakness of any sort, whether demonstrated susceptibility to disease, or structural flaws like crossed beak, crooked keel (breastbone), and deformed feet.
Assuming you are able to raise your birds on pasture or free-ranging, birds who get out and “rustle their own grub” should be favored as breeders over those that prefer to hang around the feed trough.
Whether we see broodiness as blessing or bother depends on our goals. I hatch new stock under natural mothers exclusively, so I value the mothering trait. On the other hand, like anyone, I want that steady supply of incomparable eggs. My solution is to keep a subflock of working broodies (Old English Games, Dorkings, and my Boxwood Broody cross) for mothering duty. Among this group, any hen who fails to brood is culled to the stewpot. At the same time, I keep a subflock of Silver Spangled Hamburgs, typically a non-broody breed, to keep egg production up. In this group, any hen who goes broody is culled.
Behavior and temperament
Some behaviors are somewhat “set” in a given breed. For instance, Mediterranean breeds tend to be more excitable, more likely to get upset when we approach. Certain breeds such as the Oriental games tend to be more aggressive. Of course, almost all behaviors are greatly influenced by management practices. Within the parameters of best management for good temperament and the limitations imposed by the breeds we are working with, however, we might select breeders on the basis of behavior and temperament.
With regard to aggression, any cock that is aggressive toward people unprovoked is ruthlessly culled in my flock. With regard to aggression among cocks, the question gets more complicated. I find that my Cuckoo Marans cocks are generally pretty “laid back,” and work out dominance-submission questions easily. Old English Game cocks, not surprisingly, are a good deal more aggressive with each other; and investing more care to prevent mayhem is necessary if I want to work with this breed. Still, I usually cull a “homicidal maniac”—a more than usually aggressive cock. (See “Working with the Cock(s) in the Flock” for more on managing aggression.)
Selection regarding aggression in hens might be pegged more to the management situation. For example, if hens with clutches of chicks are completely free-ranging, “Touch my babies and you die!” is good. In a more confined situation, we may prefer “Hey, Matilda, really sweet chicks—why don’t y’all come over and play!”
Longevity has been largely ignored in the commercial breeding of poultry, and indeed many homesteaders have unconsciously played along through a “two years and out” approach to their laying flocks. But we would be wise not to throw out the genetics for longevity in our birds. Not only does it require more time and resources to bring a new group of birds to maturity more frequently, but the genes for longevity are apparently the same as, or closely linked to, the genes for health and vigor. Homesteaders should make longevity a factor in selection. If Matilda and Henrietta are producing eggs at the same rate but Matilda is a year older, why cull Matilda just because she has completed her second laying season? Doesn’t it make more sense to cull Henrietta, and pass on Matilda’s genes for longevity and maintenance of production?
Whatever your specific goals, it is important to have an understanding of the various breeding systems that have been used—line breeding, rolling matings, out-crossing, etc. My preference is the clan mating system, for the best compromise between rigorous breeding practices and a level of record-keeping that doesn’t drive me crazy. Another benefit of clan mating is the maintenance of genetic diversity for a long time before I have to bring in “new blood” from elsewhere. However, any time I find good individuals outside my flock, I can work them into the system to diversify the gene pool.
Selection in practice
Whatever system you use, careful selection of breeders is the key to success. Selection is a hands-on as well as a visual process. Handle the birds to determine body style or flaws such as crooked keel that are hidden under the plumage. Note especially conformation of the breast, whether narrow and pointy, or broad and plump. When I am selecting Old English Games, for example, I always favor plumper cocks with broader breasts, in preference to the lean, compact body style favored in a bird intended for the fighting pit.
As always, it is much less stressful (for both the birds and for you) to handle fowl at night. Of course, visual inspection of the birds is impeded at night; so perhaps a hand selection and isolation at night can be followed by further visual inspection the next day.
A scale for weighing your birds is a good investment—it’s amazing how much the weight of birds that look the same size can vary. A little trick I’ve learned when weighing fowl: When you lay the bird in the scoop of the scale, hood its head with your hand as closely as you can without touching it, then release the feet. The bird remains quiescent for the second it takes to get your reading. Grasp the feet again before removing the “hood” of your hand over the bird’s eyes.
On the male side, selection is a matter of weight, age, body conformation, temperament, plumage, comb style, etc. You can also track comparative fertility if you want to get detailed enough in your record keeping, though a fertility problem in a well-managed homestead flock is unlikely.
On the female side, nest-trapping is the key to selection—you have to know actual performance of individual hens to make informed decisions. Without trapping, you cannot track key traits in breeder selection such as onset of lay, egg production, rate of lay in relation to body size at any given point in the hen’s development, egg size, longevity related to production, egg shape and color, etc. Without trapping, you will not know “who is laying that wonky egg that is driving me crazy?”
See “Making and Using Trap Nests”, a pictorial of the construction and use of a trap nest design that has worked for me.