Once you get serious about
making your chickens a working part of the homestead, you’ll be faced
with a thorny issue. Buying chicks from a hatchery every year
puts you on a treadmill going nowhere — you’re stuck with whatever
genetics the hatchery selects for, which generally means appearance and
ability to reproduce quickly in a hatchery environment. If you’re
more interested in chickens that forage well, taste particularly good,
or who are devoted mothers, you’ll have to learn to breed your own
should I select for?
The great thing about
breeding your own chickens is that you can decide what matters most to
you. That said, it’s best to focus on the all-around bird, not on
a single trait. Try to steer clear of inordinately fast-growing
birds — these may seem like a good choice for broilers, but they tend
to have immune weaknesses and won’t do well on the homestead. On
the other hand, do select for large eggs since these tend to equate to
stronger chicks (but don’t expect large eggs until your pullets are
around 28 weeks old.) Finally, don’t keep hens who continually
lay oddly shaped or textured eggs since these traits are heredible.
do I know which birds are showing the traits I want?
is where breeding can get tricky, and the answer depends on which
traits you’re selecting for. You can build trap
nests to get an idea
of how many eggs each of your hens lays in an average week. For
broilers, consider tracking rate of growth and mature size by weighing
each bird alive at 8, 12, and/or 16 weeks, then also keep track of
carcass size of birds you cull and eat. Unless you’re extremely
observant, you’ll probably also need to label individual birds with leg
or wing rings or foot notches so you can tell them apart.
One trait most
homesteaders should select for is resiliency. That means birds
who will forage as much wild food as possible and who can handle cold
winters and hot summers. Don’t be afraid to utilize environmental
extremes to make favorable homesteading traits more evident. If a
hot spell stunts some of your birds, delete them from the flock.
do I do with birds who don’t live up to my standards?
The trick to improving
your flock is to cull rigorously. That means you may only keep
10% (or even fewer) of your best birds every year, turning the rest
into dinner. Remember, your flock will never be better than your
worst birds — don’t keep that runt around for sentimental reasons.
do I prevent inbreeding?
This is a tricky
question since the average homestead flock is probably going to be too
small to be entirely self-sufficient. However, you can take steps
to maintain genetic diversity by avoiding mating brothers to sisters at
all costs, and trying to minimize parent-offspring matings. Two
methods can help
- Rolling matings —
Separate your flock into two groups: the old roosters with young
pullets and the old hens with young cockerels. At the end of the
season, cull the oldest birds. Now your young pullets and
cockerels have turned into your old hens and roosters, and can be mated
to this year’s youngsters in two new groups.
matings — Divide the flock into three or more matrilinear
families. Each year, mate the sons to the next family down the
line, eating the cockerels after they’ve been bred for one or two
seasons. The females always stay in their own family and can be
kept as long as you want.
Dividing your flock into
two or three groups sounds daunting, but keep in mind that this complex
arrangement may only need to last for a month or so. If you’ve
marked your birds so you know which group they belong to, you’ll just
need to separate the flocks for a couple of weeks in the spring to
flush excess sperm out of the hens’ systems, then collect eggs for
another week or two to hatch out into this year’s babies.
can I read more about breeding my own chickens?
I’ve summarized the tips
above from Harvey Ussery’s The
Keep in mind that his description of the process is
twenty pages long — I highly recommend that you read his book if
this teaser post makes you decide to try breeding chickens on your own
homestead. Good luck!
separate flocks simple.