Our Greatest Challenge: Breeding a Productive Chicken!

Reader Contribution by Jim Adkins
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Several years ago when we started the Sustainable Poultry Network I never realized what we were up against! All I wanted was to see the breeds of poultry that I loved so much to not disappear! And I realized that for my favorite breeds to not disappear we had to put them back to work! Putting them back to work means they must be productive again; producing meat & eggs and being economically sustainable.

For 50 plus years the historical, heirloom breeds of poultry have been nothing more than “eye candy” birds! Something for people to look at in county fairs, at poultry shows and in their backyards. Just in these recent years I have realized that this is a far greater challenge that is going to take a while to overcome. Take the Delaware chicken as one example; this breed along with the New Hampshire were the top two meat birds in our country until the industrialized, Cornish Cross came along! In its peak of production, the Delaware was ready to process at the growth rate of 12-14 weeks! Since its decline over the last 50 years, we have seen this bird hardly ready to be processed in less than twenty weeks. Let me assure you that is not good for timely economics! We have a great challenge on our hands. With just about every breed of standard bred, heritage poultry, we have work to do. They are not producing like they once were.

Why is this? The primary issue at hand is breeding! Every breed of poultry that our breeders are working with within SPN,  needs improvement when it comes to rate of growth and egg production. 

This is why the majority of my time in these recent months has been spent doing research, reading books and writing new coaching material for our breeders. Lots of new content that you will see as I teach at our coaching clinics and eventually it will be available on our website! If these birds are going to be economically sustainable, we must address these issues both in the classroom and in the breeding pens.

Our new research and coaching material will include first and foremost, what does it really take to be a superior breeder of these birds? Let me assure you, not just anyone can do this. It takes a special person!

In our newly developed material you will learn about the history and qualities of each breed. We’ll introduce you to the basics of breeding and why breeds were bred with certain shapes and types! You will learn about colors and color patterns. Where they came from and how they were developed.

In this process of improving  the production of these birds you must learn the principles of reproduction and the necessity of selection. Remember this, your birds are lacking production because, somewhere along the line there was a breakdown in proper selection. You must be very selective with every generation of your progeny.

And then there are the principles of line breeding and inbreeding. This is huge and we must better equip every breeder with the knowledge and skills or our favorite breeds will never be effective producers again! Once we learn these things in the classroom, how then do we make the transfer to the breeding pen? How do we get economic profit out of the slow growing chicken? How do we get high egg production out  of these old breeds of poultry? I am more convinced than ever that it must go beyond the classroom. We must provide the practices for you to take back to the farm. So, we are developing all new material so that you can have the step by step instructions of breeding.  This will include the tough job of “dual purpose” birds – which includes all American Breeds of poultry. How do we get the New Hamps, Wyandottes and Rhode Island Reds to produce good eggs and meat? If you spend too much time on carcass development you end up with an overweight bird that does not lay productively. If you select for egg producing qualities only,  you end up with a great egg layer who produces ugly, scrawny meat birds. Breeding dual purpose breeds take a lot of determination and patience from  anyone who breeds these birds. 

Another huge part of this process is record keeping. Think about this;  why would you breed from a hen that has poor egg production? If your wanting to produce a female that has a high rate of egg production, why would you use a hen that molts several times a year or is broody all the time? Why would you breed from a cock bird who has a slow rate of growth? In order to properly tackle these challenges you and I must keep track of all these details. Learning how to track egg production and rate of growth. Keep track of all those broody hens. Keep track of molting. Keep track of the amount of eggs being laid by each of your hens. I know this may sound somewhat tiring but this is the only way we are going to be successful in producing standard bred, productive fowls.

Breeding is by far our greatest challenge! Many will begin with great excitement for the challenge but only a few will stick with it! The satisfaction of seeing these birds restored to production with bring great fulfillment. Let me assure you that I believe in what we  are doing! The mission and core values of  the Sustainable Poultry Network motivate me every day. But I must also confess, I never realized what we are up against! But let me also assure you, we are committed to “stay the course” and keep providing the coaching, training and mentoring you need to become a profitable success.   

This is one of many reasons that you should attend one of the many educational courses that SPN provides; they include workshops, seminars, coaching clinics and the (5) day Sustainable Poultry School – held annually.  You will get more than just the beginner stuff! I guarantee you, the content of the training material is not being taught anywhere in North America!

If you find yourself resonating with these words, I want to encourage you to take a look at our website and see what opportunities await there for you!