Taking Control – Breeding to Establish Traits You Want in a Backyard Flock
By Doug Ottinger – If you were asked to list which characteristics make the best laying hens, what would you write down? Most people would probably choose things like an ability to lay lots of eggs, strong shell strength and high interior quality. A backyard poultry keeper might also value traits like calm and friendly dispositions, a variety of colored eggs, hens that will keep laying eggs for several years, or hens that will go broody and hatch out new baby chicks.
If you are raising chickens for eggs, have you ever thought of trying to breed, hatch, and raise some of your own replacement pullets? If you have a place to raise a few baby chicks, and you can also keep a rooster for breeding, why not try breeding some of your own? If there are desirable traits you want to reproduce in your flock, there is no reason not to try it. Remember, in a home flock, the best laying hens are the ones that have the traits you like the best!
New to breeding chickens? You do not need to be an expert on genetics or poultry breeds. Start doing some reading. Talk to others who have also bred chickens. As you start to breed the birds and see the results, you will understand what you are reading and researching. If you are new to breeding, my recommendation is to start small. Begin with what you have, or what you can afford. For most people, two or three hens and one breeding rooster is generally enough to start. One rooster will usually suffice in keeping six to eight hens fertile. If you are breeding for improved egg production, pure-bred birds may not be the most important concern. As you start working with the birds, you will undoubtedly find one or two breeds you like better than others, and you might choose to start breeding those breeds in pure form. As you start out though, keep it simple and keep it fun!
Remember, as you breed your best laying hens, the hen who lays the eggs is only half of the equation. Fifty percent of the genetic material comes from the rooster. Certain traits are heavily influenced by the paternal side. Egg size, the intensity of egg color and even how many eggs a hen will lay in her lifetime, are some of these. Since a rooster does not lay eggs, how will you know which rooster to use? Select your breeding roosters from a line of chickens that has the desired traits. If you don’t have this information, select a breeding rooster from a breed known for the traits you want.
Hens and roosters are usually kept together in a breeding flock. A ratio of one rooster to six or seven hens is usually adequate for most breeds. Sometimes sexually active roosters can be too hard on hens, especially if there are only two or three hens. Signs may include featherless backs from the rooster’s claws during mating, damage to the comb or back of heads where he grabs with his beak or even damage to the bare skin on the back. If you see these signs, and you have enough eggs for your hatching needs, separate them for a while. Remember, most hens will produce fertile eggs for at least five days after successful mating. So that you can separate when necessary, it is always a good idea to have at least two or three small pens built, before you start getting too deep into the breeding project.
Inevitably the questions arise, how do hens lay eggs and how do those eggs become fertile? While a hen has two ovaries, it is usually only the left one that is mature and productive. Each egg yolk is produced by this ovary. When the yolk reaches full size, it is released from its protective membrane and drops into the oviduct or egg tract. Each yolk has a microscopic egg cell, on its exterior, ready for fertilization. If the hen has recently mated with a rooster, the sperm cells are stored in the oviduct, near the ovary. One of the sperm will bond with this egg cell, and the egg becomes fertile. The egg then travels through the rest of the oviduct, and the layers of albumen, or egg white, shell membranes, and shell layers are all applied. In most hens, the oviduct is a little over two feet long, and winds around in the left side of the abdomen.
A general rule of thumb is that it takes at least five generations to establish a trait. Some traits might take longer, some less. In the case of breeding hens for the longevity of laying, this could take a few more years. If you have the time and want to gradually work on it, why not? You will just have that much more time to perfect other traits as well!
Many breeders prefer to incubate eggs in an incubator. However, if you have a broody mama hen, you’ve got a real treasure. Bantam hens are often notorious for being dedicated mothers. Some breeders keep bantams for their mothering abilities. Not only will they hatch their own eggs, they will hatch the eggs of other chickens, ducks, pheasants, and turkeys. While setting on the eggs and raising the babies, many breeders keep them separated from the rest of the flock. However, I knew one breeder who kept a large mixed flock and let the bantams and babies stay with the flock with no problems.
The hardest part of breeding is culling or getting rid of birds who do not have desirable traits as well as the extra roosters and the hens who have stopped laying. Culling is very important to any successful breeding program. I recommend that you decide what you will do with these unwanted birds before you start a breeding program, and set this part of it up, just like you do the careful selection of the birds you want to keep.
|Desirable Traits to Reproduce||Why Trait is Important||Hereditary or Not||How to Reproduce Trait|
|High Shell Quality||Important for eggs used for food and for hatching.||Yes||Set and hatch only shells with strong shells. Can improve in three generations.|
|Early Maturity (Age at First Egg)||Birds that develop earlier are better layers.||Yes||Breed only hens that mature early.|
|Calm Disposition||Calm disposition is not associated with the best laying, but desirable in a home flock.||Yes||Influenced by both parents. Must mate a calm hen with a calm rooster.|
|Long Laying Life||Egg laying begins to decline after the first year. In home flocks with less stress, laying can continue for years.||Yes||Breed only hens with laying longevity.|
|Broodiness||Desire to incubate and hatch eggs has been bred out of many breeds. Egg production can be cut back but natural mothering instinct can be worth the trade-off.||Yes||Can be reintroduced into a flock with selective breeding.|