Selective Breeding: How to Breed Chickens
Are You Raising Chickens as Pets, Or Raising Chickens for Profit?
By Dr. Charles R.H. Everett For those of us who are learning how to breed chickens or teaching others how to breed chickens, you must realize that breeds of poultry cannot be maintained. Your fowl are either improving or degenerating with each passing generation. Selective breeding is the only means whereby a flock can be improved: this type of breeding demands culling of all birds that do not measure up to the standard of the breed. Every breeder has a standard; if not, then they are multipliers and not breeders. The written Standards of the American Poultry Association and the American Bantam Association are great places to begin your journey in poultry breeding. These Standards do much more than articulate plumage colors. If you want to learn how to breed chickens, this is where you will discover the best body type for production of meat and eggs; as well as the correct type needed for gameness. It is also best to take the opportunity to visit a breeder of the same poultry you intend to keep if possible. Visiting a local poultry show will also give you a better understanding of the birds’ overall appearance.
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After doing your research, meeting some breeders and hopefully viewing other birds, you are ready to begin learning how to breed chickens. Knowing your flock as you do, what do you desire to see improved: weight, height, production, color? Are you more interested in raising chickens for eggs, or for meat? Don’t bite off more than you can chew. You need to work on improving only one or two things at a time, remembering that type always comes first. This is assuming that your flock shows good health and vigor. If not, then you need to get that right first before moving on. Selective breeding is a process that is a never-ending journey. We are dealing with living organisms. As such, we need to understand one of the basic rules of animal husbandry: Any group will always move toward mediocrity. This is the main reason for our need of selection based upon a standard.
Having determined what we hope to accomplish with this year’s breeding we proceed, with Standard in hand, to make our selection of breeders. When learning how to breed chickens, it always helps if a mentor is able to accompany you in your first or second year of selection. However, this is not always possible due to distance or otherwise. Doing it on your own is not an impossible task though if you have done your homework and have had the opportunity to see first hand what your breed should look like.
Looking at your flock of backyard chickens, you need to ask yourself a really important question: Can I get to where I want to go from here? For example, if you want to begin to enter a competition with your birds, then there is a good chance that you might need to add a show quality bird to your flock. Or, if you are wanting to achieve a higher rate of egg production then you might need to add a bird from such a flock to your own. This is probably something you have already considered during your research and interaction with other breeders before learning how to breed chickens. Depending on what trait your flock is lacking will determine if you purchase a cock or hen. The old adage, which is generally true, is the hen sets the type and the cock the color. We know a lot more about genetics nowadays than when that phrase was in vogue, but it is still good basic advice especially as it has to do with type.
There are a variety of techniques for learning how to breed chickens that have been discussed within the pages of Backyard Poultry. I like to keep it as simple as possible and have developed a technique that works well for me. The great thing about breeding is that you get to choose what will work for you. Actually, single mating is probably the easiest method of all to follow, but most folks want to produce more chicks than single mating can give them. The system of breeding I utilize is really a combination of the Rolling Mating and Clan Mating System. I call it Family Mating. Here’s how it works.
How to Breed Chickens: Family Mating
1. Divide your breeding age hens into two groups or families. The makeup of each family should be made based on phenotype. Thus, all the hens in one family are similar in appearance while the hens in the other group are similar. I utilize colored leg bands to designate the two families. For example, one family will wear a red leg band while the other wears a blue leg band.
2. Begin this system with a cock that is unrelated to my hens. This is also where I can seek to add improvement to my flock based upon my stated goals.
3. Each year you will only breed one family. The families will be designated along Matriarchal lines. By way of illustration, this year I choose to breed the Red Family. All the chicks hatched will carry a red leg band: both cockerels and pullets. When breeding the first year, I will utilize the unrelated cock.
4. Only breed from hens that are as close to the Standard as possible. Here you must consider the overall bird. I weigh every hen to make certain I am maintaining the correct weight for my birds. Let’s say I started with six hens in the Red Family and I have narrowed it down to the top three. Do not be tempted to use those others. They must be discarded: give them to a friend, retire them to the hen house for life, eat them or whatever, but do not use them in the breeding pens.
5. Next year go through the same process and breed only the hens of the other family. I can utilize the original cock if unrelated and any cockerel from the other family group. After this second year, it will always be red leg band cocks to blue leg band hens or blue leg band cocks to red leg band hens. This allows me to practice inbreeding, but not in such a detrimental way as to harm my flock or frustrate my goals.
This system of selective breeding is easy to maintain and requires a minimal amount of record keeping. It is most effective if a good group of chicks is hatched each year and then culled severely hard. You should hatch as many chicks as you can adequately feed and house. Remember culling begins in the brooders. You will learn not to tolerate a listless chick or one with crooked toes or beak. At any sign of weakness, culling should take place immediately. I try to keep six to ten hens within each family and three stags.
The selection process continues from the brooder all the way to maturity. Once the chicks have reached this stage, I will take all the pullets and compare them to their mothers. Hopefully, I will see a marked improvement, but perhaps not in all of them. I will keep only the best. If one or two of the hens are better than most of the pullets these will be retained as well. Otherwise, I will replace the existing hens with the new daughters that demonstrate the improvement set forth in my original goals for the year. These pullets and hens will then produce eggs for the family until called upon the year after next for the breeding pens.
By waiting a minimum of two years before any hen is bred I am helping to ensure longevity in my flock. In other words, a hen must be able to demonstrate good health for two years before being utilized in the breed pens. I do not breed pullets except when starting this system. Some hens might even be four or six years old and yet still retained as breeders in this system. I do prefer to use cockerels with these older hens. You need a good active male; cockerels provide this for you. In breeding chickens, you must have youth on one side of the breeding equation be it the hen or the cock.
You will most likely notice considerable improvement of your flock your first and second years utilizing selective breeding with the Family Mating System. Don’t become arrogant or puffed up with too much pride. What you are experiencing is the result of selective pressure which may or may not have been applied to the recent ancestors of your birds depending on the source for your original birds. This is especially the case if your original chicks came from a hatchery. You are still in the learning stages of the art of breeding. Becoming a knowledgeable breeder does not come from a couple of good years in the breed pens; it comes from being able to learn from each new experience with the birds. You will truly learn how much skill is involved in breeding when you look at the chicks hatched in the third and subsequent generations after all vestiges of heterosis are passed.
There will even be years when you are uncertain if any progress was made at all. If operating with a closed flock, you will begin to see unwanted characteristics rising to the surface. This is because you are stirring the genetic pot and recessive genes that might have lain latent for years will now have the chance to manifest themselves. This is just what you want! There is no way to eliminate such traits unless inbreeding is practiced. The Family Mating System allows for inbreeding to take place in a controlled environment.
Learning how to breed chickens is not an “instant gratification” process – after four or five years of breeding you will be in a better position to determine if you need other genes added to your pool; assuming you choose to add a bird that shows traits your flock is missing, do so with caution. You will also be adding lots of other unseen traits that may show up rather quickly when added to your flock.
The best way to add a new bird into the breeding flock is through a “sidemating.” In other words, the bird is not thrown directly into the overall breeding system. For example, let’s say you obtain a new hen. Breed her to one of your cocks and toe punch all the chicks so as to make them easily identifiable from the others you hatched.
Then observe as you’re learning how to breed chickens: Do they feather as quickly? Do they grow as well? Do they manifest the trait you were looking to include in your flock? Do they show some weakness you were not aware of before the mating? After getting answers to these questions in a satisfactory way, save a couple of the pullets and mate them to a cock of the other family next year. Again, marking the chicks in such a way as to interpret the good and bad they will bring to your flock. If you now decide to keep them, take the best pullets from this second generation and add them to the family you hatched that year. This may seem likely an overly cautious approach to you at this point in your breeding, but trust me, this is a tried and true method practiced for generations by practical breeders of all types of poultry.
I wish you well on your adventures in learning how to breed chickens. There is always more to learn—much more. Along the way, you will encounter folks who really prove to be helpful. You will also find many that are very willing to give advice about things they really know nothing about. Learning to tell the difference between the two is part and parcel of the world of chicken breeds.
What are your recommendations for someone learning how to breed chickens? We would love it if you would share your advice, recommendations, and stories with us.
The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) is happy to offer breeding guidance to members. You can join today by mailing $15 to Dr. Charles Everett, 1057 Nick Watts Rd., Lugoff, SC 29078.
Originally published in the April/May 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.