The Chicken Codex – Breeding a Better Bird, Part 2: Planning for Breeding Season

Reader Contribution by Jeanette Beranger
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Diversity Makes for a Stronger Flock

You do not get ready for breeding season by simply putting your roos and hens together. In this chapter I want to start with the basics for newbies. Novice breeders typically get started with their birds from one source such as a hatchery or a breeder. This leaves you a bit limited for diversity but I figure everyone has to start somewhere. At some point you will need to locate unrelated birds to help get diversity into the flock. For now we’ll assume you have sourced your birds from one place and don’t have any pedigree or baseline information on them beyond the breeder’s name. You probably don’t have many birds and are trying to decide how to begin. We’ll start with numbers. Normally I like to see at least five hens for each rooster. Fewer than that often leads to hens being over bred and pestered. If you have less than five, keep watch to make sure they are not being injured by an overzealous roo. You should have a pretty good idea of who’s staying or who’s going by weeding out poor specimens or birds that may be aggressive. For our flock we used selection techniques originally described in an amazing book known as The Call of the Hen by Walter Hogan. It was first published in 1914 but just about everything still holds true by his selection methods. He was a brilliant poultryman whose book is easy to follow. You can find a free copy on line or you can visit The Livestock Conservancy’s website for a modern overview of the techniques and images.  Of course there’s some great information in the beginning of the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection (if you don’t have one…get one.) Later in the year when it’s time to assess your 2017 hatch, we’ll go into much greater detail about basic selection techniques and help you figure out what’s going on under the feathers.

My cull birds were decided back in December but I did not make the final cuts until just recently. We’ve already weeded out those that are not best when compared to the APA standard so the last thing we look at is personality. In November and December many roosters are not quite as actively amorous as they are becoming now. With “love” on their mind I think it’s important to make sure they are gentlemen with the ladies. Proper courting behavior includes siding up to the hen and flapping a wing in a gesture to see if she is receptive to breeding. Males we find that aggressively chase hens, jump on their backs, and pull feathers out of their head or neck is not what we want to propagate. Sometimes we will be a bit more lenient to bad behavior only in the beginning as young cockerels figure out how to make the hens happy. If they consistently act aggressive, they won’t be in the breeding flock for long, if at all.

One of the most valuable animals we’ve had was our senior Buckeye rooster only known as “the big guy.” He was amazingly gentle with the hens despite his enormous size of over nine pounds. The reason he was so valuable to us was that he ruled the coop with an iron claw when it came to bad behavior from any other male. We kept him well beyond his breeding years because even after he stopped breeding much he believed it was his full time job to teach the boys proper manners, and that he did. Any cockerel he found abusing a hen was promptly scolded and made to move on. He did so without injuring the boys but they definitively got the message. One day he even defended me when a fairly large cockerel decided to jump at my leg as I came into the pen to feed the flock. (Needless to say that boy got a one way ticket to the freezer.) In the end “the big guy” died defending his beloved hens which enabled them to escape from our neighborhood Red Tailed hawk. Luckily he had already trained the next generation of roosters to behave themselves.

Now that the flock is whittled down to the very best you need to make sure all the birds are properly identified and that you start a baseline of information for each of them. Proper ID enables you to track progress in your flock. Every breeder has preferences on how to ID your birds. Some like leg bands, others wing bands, and some folks even tattoo their birds. I use wing bands out of habit because I’ve seen how quickly leg bands can become too tight on a fast growing meat bird if you don’t pay attention. Once a form of ID is on your birds you can begin your baseline data such as date of hatch (even if it’s approximate), sex, where the birds came from, weight, and any noteworthy observations about the bird’s body such as “great heart girth” or “thick legs.”

Weighing birds on a regular basis is very important so that you can track if they make breed standard weight and also if any of the birds have an unexpected weight loss not visible because it’s hidden under the feathers. I like to use a fish scale for weighing birds. You can get a really nice digital one for about $16-20. Mine can go up to 110 lbs. (not that I expect any 100 lb + birds!) and is accurate within one ounce. I put the birds in a cleaned out bucket (kitty litter buckets with snap down tops work great) and hang it on the scale.

I suspect most folks reading this probably have one flock and one coop and are not to the managing of multiple bloodlines stage yet, so we’ll keep things simple for now. You may not have multiple bloodlines but don’t make the mistake of keeping only one rooster for your flock. I’ve heard too many times from folks on how the only rooster is unexpectedly lost to predators or neighborhood dogs. Do yourself a favor and build a small coop to house an extra rooster or two just in case. After you hatch yourself a good number of chicks from your primary roo, he can be switched out or the extras can be culled or sold.

Conditioning your birds for breeding takes at least a month before you start collecting eggs for hatching. If you are feeding layer pellets, as many flock owners do, know that it contains only the minimum needs for your hens to produce eggs, not to hatch eggs. The formulation does not take into consideration the nutritional needs of a breeding bird. I’ve repeatedly asked feed company reps about collecting data on the fertility and hatchability of eggs produced by hens on their diets and I’m always stunned that not a one has any idea about that at all nor have they put any thought into it. It was suggested by my friend, Leghorn breeder extraordinaire, Don Schrider, that game bird breeder (aka growth and plumage) diet with be a better choice to work with. It’s more expensive at around $20 / 50 lbs but it improved my hatchability dramatically since I began using it. If you can’t get a product like that then you will need to do some serious vitamin supplementation to ensure your birds get what they need beyond what’s in layer diet. I also like to offer compost from the local organic fruit and veggie market when I can and free choice oyster shell. The hens eat it the oyster shell like candy when they are in heavy lay. I leave it to them to determine if they need it or not. They seem to know best.

The last point I want to cover is the National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP). If you plan to sell or ship chicks or hatching eggs, your flock will need to be certified annually. You can do this through your local agricultural extension service. The inspector will come to your farm and get a drop of the blood to test for several salmonella related diseases. They may also swab your birds’ throats to test for avian influenza. The cost of the tests varies state to state but I think it is worth it. It’s the very minimum you can do to prove that are working to maintain a healthy flock. There are certainly other tests you can run but this is the one that you are required to have by law.

So get your hands on your birds, get them in condition, get them health tested, and hop on your computer to start that Excel sheet!

You can read Part One here.

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