The importance of breeding heritage breed chickens to ensure the birds retain their historically beneficial traits is outlined in the article Heritage Chicken Breeding: Why Not to Rely on Chicken Hatcheries. If you wish to embark upon breeding your own flock, you have several options for how you manage the breeding project. Here, I describe and illustrate the three-clan system I use to breed my Icelandics (a landrace breed I have been working with for several years). You may conclude that a similarly managed breed improvement project is within your capabilities as well.
A clan-mating system starts by assigning initial breeding stock to separate “clans” or “families.” The minimum number of clans is three — four or even five would be possible with more management input.
Imagine that we have six breeding birds at the start, three hens and three cocks. We assign each hen and each cock to one of three clans — assume we call them Red, Green and Blue (in that order). We might have good reason for assigning breeding stock to one clan rather than another, but the initial assignment can be entirely arbitrary. Once assigned, however, each bird remains in its designated clan for life.
All the birds can be managed as one undifferentiated flock until we prepare for the breeding season, at which time we isolate the breeding hens and cocks by clan. We mate cock and hen of the same clan together in the first breeding season only.
When the chicks hatch, assign them all to the clan of their mother. I indicate clan assignment by toe-punching each chick — that is, by punching a hole in the webbing between the toes, with the exact location of the punch coded for a specific clan. If well made, the punch is permanent — the clan assignment is for life.
When we prepare for the next breeding season we again isolate all the hens by clan — all the Red hens together, all the Green hens together, and all the Blue hens together. But in this breeding season — and in all future breeding seasons — we place cocks with hens of “the next clan over”: Red cocks mate Green hens, Green cocks mate Blue hens, Blue cocks mate Red hens. As long as we continue to follow this pattern, there will never be a single mating between siblings or half-siblings.
Now it’s apparent why I emphasized that chicks are assigned to the clan of their mother: In this second breeding season, chicks hatched from Red hens, for example, have a Blue cock as sire. But all chicks from Red-hen eggs get toe-punched as Red clan.
Though clan mating may be confusing at first, it comes down to two very simple rules: (1) Chicks are always assigned to, and remain in, the clan of their mother. And (2) after the first season, cocks always mate hens “one clan over.” Cocks and hens of the same clan do not mate (thus never Red cock to Red hen), and cocks never mate hens other than “the next clan over” (thus Red cock to Green hen, but never Red cock to Blue hen).
A final important point to note: Rigorous selection is as much the key to success in a clan-mating system as in any other approach to breed improvement. In this case, however, selection for best traits takes place within the clan. Imagine that we’ve already selected our best Red cockerel to serve in the next breeding season, and now it’s time to select our best Green cockerel. But our very best Green cockerel is not as good as one of the “leftover” Red cockerels. In this case we would forgo selecting the clearly superior Red cockerel, and select the best-we-have Green cockerel to maintain the integrity of our mating system.
Visit my website for a more detailed description of this three-clan system.
Harvey Ussery is the author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (Chelsea Green, 2011). Harvey's goal for 30 years, working with dozens of heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, and geese, has been to integrate his flocks into the total food production endeavor and make them more independent of purchased inputs. Find him online at The Modern Homestead, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.