Breeding Ratios for Chickens and Ducks
How many males do I need in my flock to produce fertile eggs?
Have you ever wanted to incubate eggs from your chickens or ducks and wondered how many male birds your flock needed to make sure most eggs were fertile and will hatch? Will one rooster with six hens be enough? Will two roosters and 20 hens work? How many boy ducks do you need if you want to hatch some eggs from your girl ducks? There are answers in many poultry textbooks and all over the internet. They can vary widely; specific breeding ratios may work better than others.
Hens produce the most eggs, with the best overall quality, during their first year of production. Young roosters tend to be more sexually active than older males and have higher fertility levels. For these reasons, most commercial hatcheries do not keep their breeding birds longer than one laying or breeding season. Raising replacement flocks is a constant process and a very real part of the business.
In small home flocks with only one or two roosters, problems with overall fertility can result from roosters breeding only a few favorite hens, a rooster being over-eager and not successfully joining his cloaca to the hen’s before semen release, or roosters simply being too docile. As roosters get older, fertility also decreases. If you want to increase fertility in eggs laid by older hens, research has shown that replacing an older rooster with a younger, more virile rooster can help boost dwindling fertility.
To find out what actual male-to-female ratios breeders use in the hatchery industry, where maximum fertility is necessary to achieve profit, I turned to the owners of two chick hatcheries for answers.
Etta Culver, owner of Schlecht Hatchery in Miles, Iowa, has spent over 50 years in the hatchery business. Started by her father many years ago, the hatchery has a successful history of producing day-old poultry for multiple generations of customers. I asked Etta what breeding ratios for chicken flocks seem to work best. Etta maintains a one-to-seven ratio: one rooster for every seven hens in the flock. Schlecht’s breeding flocks average about 125 hens each during the breeding season. Thus, for each 125-hen flock, 17 to 18 roosters would also be kept in the flock. Some poultry textbooks teach that breeders can maintain lighter, more active breeds, such as Leghorns and Mediterranean fowl with ratios as low as one rooster to eighteen hens. I asked Etta about this. Having raised Brown Leghorns for many years, she was well aware of these birds’ breeding habits. She replied that these roosters tend to be more aggressive breeders, but such scant ratios are not realistic. Even with these birds, she still maintained a one-to-seven balance during the many years that she raised them.
Christina Sauls, owner of Happy Feet Hatchery in Eustis, Florida, also shared her breeding ratios and what seems to work best. Happy Feet Hatchery maintains smaller flocks, but they individually examine each breeding bird to ensure it meets the Standard of Perfection guidelines. The hatchery specializes in a selection of larger breeds of fowl.
Christina’s minimum breeding ratio is one rooster to 10 hens, but she might go as high as two roosters for 10 hens or a one-to-five ratio. A flock of 20 hens will have a minimum of two and a maximum of four roosters. Going higher is not practiced, as hens can get damaged from over-breeding. Fertility can also drop if the roosters begin establishing dominance among themselves instead of breeding. Christina raises all of the birds in each breeding flock together to keep the roosters from fighting (although some minor fighting is still bound to occur), starting as day-old chicks. She does not add new breeding cockerels or roosters to the established flock. Because of second-year fertility drops, Happy Feet raises new replacement breeders every year.
Christina noted low fertility in some very docile breeds, such as Wheaten Ameraucanas. A very docile breed, the roosters are less-than-aggressive breeders, causing fertility issues in flocks of these birds.
John Metzer of Metzer Farms, a prominent waterfowl breeder and hatchery in Monterey County, California, was very willing to share information about breeding ratios and other issues in managing a flock of breeding ducks.
According to John, Metzer’s maintains breeding flocks of one drake (male duck) for every five hens (also referred to as “ducks”). This includes most large breeds and Runner ducks. John said Muscovy breeding flocks are often maintained at a one-to-five ratio also. The one exception in Metzer’s flocks is the Khaki Campbell breed. These flocks start at a one-to-six ratio because the males of this breed are such aggressive breeders that they can damage the female with too much breeding.
Male ducks have an actual phallus, or penis, tucked inside the vent. At the time of mating, it whorls out from a tight corkscrew within the vent, powered by a rush of lymphatic fluid within the phallus tissue, and penetrates the female’s vaginal tract. High-resolution imaging of mating has shown the entire act completes within about one-third of a second. By constant penetration of the females, repeated trampling from mounting during mating, and continuous grabbling and yanking of the feathers on the back of a female’s head, drakes can seriously injure weaker females. During the breeding season, hatcheries watch flocks closely for injury and overbreeding. They take rapid steps to pull males from the flock to lower the ratios if they see evidence of harm.
Metzer’s raises new breeding flocks every year. They hatch out ducklings for the replacement flocks in July. After two weeks of age, the hatchery supplies them with 17 hours of light per day during the growing period. Depending on the breed, they start laying and breeding between December and February. The flocks serve as breeding stock for 42 to 46 weeks until laying and fertility levels slack off. At that time, the new breeding flock is ready, and the process starts over.
Even if you do not raise poultry commercially, ensuring a reasonable male-to-female breeding ratio and using younger, more virile breeding stock will go a long way in increasing fertility and hatch rates in your eggs.
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.