Raising heritage breed chickens becomes more fun if we don’t buy chicks annually but instead hatch their eggs to develop a distinct flock of our own. Our attempt to improve each generation is a challenge that includes some knowledge of genetics, the characteristics of the breed and the personality traits we value. I tend to focus on choosing the right rooster because one male can fertilize 10 to 15 hens; choosing the right rooster makes the biggest impact on the quality of the flock.
Ten years ago, I began with a handful of Colored Dorking chicks and now have a flock of 15 hens and their rooster, “Buddy.” I was pretty proud of my flock until this spring’s egg-incubation was a big failure. The problem lies with Buddy, so let me tell you where I went wrong so you can avoid the same pitfall.
When discussing how to choose the right rooster, we first need to ask the question, choosing the right rooster for what? There are two factors that are most important to get the flock we want:
1: Phenotype refers to how the bird looks — as opposed to the genotype, or what other characteristics its genes carry. If we want to help preserve heritage breed poultry, such as the Dorking chickens or the Narragansett turkeys at our farm, we want to help preserve the characteristic appearance of each breed.
The American Poultry Association (APA) Standards of Perfection book is best place to find the specific phenotype for each breed. It can be purchased here, but is expensive. Our library carries it, so I just borrow it for an occasional perusal. The information for your particular breed can also be found online.
The APA Standards of Perfection describes the Dorking chicken as: “having a rectangular body carried horizontally which is rather long, deep and moderately wide…The cock weighs about 9 pounds.” The description continues by describing the ratio of head-to-body, the tail and the appearance of the comb. I choose a replacement cockerel when they’re about 18 weeks of age. Although I can’t see them as mature roosters at that time, I can at least choose the best looking (phenotype) of the lot.
2: Personality of the rooster is probably as much of a factor to us homesteaders and breeders as is the appearance of the rooster. Most personality traits are based on how much vigor a particular male has. “Vigor” can be defined as “physical strength and good health,” but most of us would instead define vigor as how we want the male to act. Therefore, when choosing the desired personality, our decision is based on the amount of vigor a rooster has.
Some of us give priority to a male that will protect our hens. This requires a male with dominance and courage. Let’s call that a “high-vigor” rooster. Most of us also want a “nice” rooster that won’t spur us or hurt children. Let’s call that personality a “low-vigor” rooster. And for those of us wanting offspring, we need a male that will get his hens fertile. Let’s call that a “medium-vigor” rooster. High, medium, low--no wonder it’s tough to choose which rooster is best!
I’m focusing on rooster vigor this year, because I believe this is where Buddy falls short. His great-granddad spurred me at every opportunity and I vowed to breed a nicer rooster. I intentionally bred lower-vigor roosters with each successive generation, until I got Buddy. He doesn’t spur people, but unfortunately, he seldom bothers to mount his hens.
So, where do I go from here and what will I do differently? Buddy does rarely hop on a hen and did actually get three of 24 incubator eggs fertile this past spring. Unfortunately, they didn't produce a cockerel. Therefore, I will attempt to incubate eggs again this summer with hopes of getting one or two cockerels from which to choose Buddy’s successor.
I will then attempt to go back up the scale of vigor in choosing roosters. I’ve learned that a cockerel can be lower on the pecking-order with other young cockerels, but still develop into a rooster with high vigor. Therefore, I can give some priority to phenotype, and don’t necessarily have to choose the cockerel that appears most “aggressive.” But I will also give priority to vigor. This year has taught me that I want fertile eggs and not a pet rooster!
Finally, I’ll be watchful next year to see how “vigorous” the new rooster is acting. If I have any doubts about his ability to get the hens fertile, I’ll go ahead and hatch more eggs even while still evaluating his vigor. The survival of heritage breeds is dependent on us choosing the right rooster with the correct amount of vigor.
Mary Lou Shaw and her husband grow most of their own food on their homestead with a large garden, orchard, bees, and rare-breed animals. These animals include Dutch Belted cows, Dorking chickens and Narragansett turkeys. Learn how to grow your own food with Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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