The Chicken Codex — Breeding a Better Bird, Part 1: Thoughtful Chicken Keeping

Reader Contribution by Jeanette Beranger and The Livestock Conservancy
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Welcome to the first post of what I hope is a not-so-average blog on poultry. I’ve named it The Chicken Codex with the goal of “enlightening” new and emerging poultry keepers by providing a broad perspective on what it takes to breed and perfect poultry. I write this for those that want to take their backyard chicken (and other poultry) efforts to the next level and become competent breeders that produce productive and healthy birds that can provide delicious products for your family’s table.

Over the years I’ve become a certifiable chicken nut but channel that passion into useful breeding projects for the birds on my farm. My current project is with the critically endangered Crèvecœur chicken. It was, in its heyday, the ultimate table bird in France. Sadly, through some unfortunate events, they were nearly wiped out during WWII. They have never recovered and my job, as I see it, is to bring them back to being a premium table bird.

I’ll be upfront in that I don’t raise pets. I produce birds that meet breed standard and are productive for meat and eggs. A lucky few end up as pets for others but typically not on our place. I love the birds and treat them with all the respect and kindness they deserve from when they hatch up until the day we serve them on our table.

As Temple Grandin puts it so eloquently, “Raising livestock and poultry is ethical when done right, but the animals must have a life worth living.” We do our best to make it so on our farm.

Advice for Beginning Breeders

I work for The Livestock Conservancy, so obviously, my focus is on heritage breeds, but all of the topics and principles to be discussed in this blog may apply to any breed, whether they are rare or not. First off, let’s start with the basic philosophies needed to put things in proper perspective for the new breeders reading this blog:

• If it was easy (or cheap), everyone would do it.

• There’s always someone else that knows more than you so keep an open mind and give credit to those that walked the path with the breed before you did.

• Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket – literally. If you get hit by disease, natural disaster, or predators, years of work will be down the drain if you don’t share your genetics when you are able to with other producers.

• Do what is best for the flock and don’t accumulate “pets” or poor specimens that do not contribute to your breeding program. Not every bird is meant to be a breeder so have a plan for what you will do with your extras. Giving them away as pets is not a long term viable option – it’s wishful thinking.

• One of the most useful pieces of advice passed down to any poultry keeper is, “You get only what you tolerate.” If you have sickly birds that need antibiotics in order to thrive, or nasty roosters that jump on you whenever you enter the coop, then that’s what you will get. What can you live with?

• Be generous in sharing information on your successes and failures so others may learn and be fruitful in their poultry endeavors.

• When you walk out into your coop and see all of the effort pay off in the form of a beautiful and productive flock, you are on your way.

• Have fun. If you don’t truly enjoy it, get another hobby.

That said, it’s an exciting prospect to become a breeder of quality poultry. You may have had a taste of successfully maintaining a flock and now want to break free of being dependent of others to be more self-sufficient. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s worth it if you know what you are getting yourself into. That’s why I am here and will help you figure all that out.

‘Standard of Perfection’ for Poultry Breeding

I want to begin by clarifying what I refer to as a breed so we are all on the same page. In the case of poultry that is fairly easy to do. There is this brilliant book put out by the American Poultry Association (APA) for over 100 years called the Standard of Perfection. This is the “poultry bible” that describes in great detail which birds are recognized as breeds by the APA and what they should look like.

The important thing to understand about this book is the breed descriptions were written by a panel of experts that knew the breed best at a time when it was in production for its original purpose. It gives a breeder reasonable goals to shoot for in order to make their birds shine.

There is another Standard of Perfection put out by the American Bantam Association that does the same for the diminutive bantam cousins of the large fowl birds. For heritage breeds, The Livestock Conservancy’s website is also a wealth of information and expands to include a few breeds that are not recognized by the APA or ABA. Those exceptions are listed, because they are considered an important genetic breed for conservation by The Conservancy. For the purposes of this blog, we will be discussing mostly large fowl but many of the principals are similar for both large and bantam fowl.

How to Choose the Right Bird for Your Needs

The first important step to make on the journey toward self-sufficiency is to decide what do you ultimately expect of your birds? Not a complicated question, but there are many facets to the decision-making process in order to finally select a species and breed that will meet your intended goals.

What do you hope to accomplish with the birds? Will they be meat, egg, dual purpose, or show birds? Each breed was created with a specific purpose in mind so whittle down your list of prospects to those that help you reach your goals.

Sometimes breed history will give you some important clues to what the birds were intended to be so familiarizing yourself with that background information may be useful. Among that group of breeds that might work for you, take a look at their adaptations for weather and environment similar to where you expect them to live.

Don’t fight Mother Nature, because she works for cheap but can be an expensive adversary if you have to battle her constantly. For instance, a Leghorn chicken is nicely adapted to hot conditions but may not be the best pick for a cold climate, because its large comb and wattles will be prone to frostbite. A large-bodied Brahma chicken, on the other hand, will have little trouble in the cold with a short pea comb and wattles, but will be challenged to effectively radiate its massive body heat in a hot climate. The Brahma also has feathered feet and will need to be on well-drained soil, whereas the Leghorn is clean-legged and can cope better with muddy conditions. Sure, each will survive in both climates and conditions but will need extra help from their owners to do so efficiently.

Choose Wisely

The very last question you ask yourself before you make a breed choice is “Do you like the breed?” I see so many people jumping the gun by first selecting an appealing breed without much thought as to how it will fit with their expectations. In the end, many fail because of poor thinking and planning. It’s like Indiana Jones choosing the right Holy Grail in a sea of cups. Choose wisely.

Speaking of planning…In the next post, we will discuss planning for your first breeding and flock-raising season. The new year is the time for beginnings and advanced planning at this time will be crucial if you are to have a productive spring.

Jeanette Berangeris an animal expert, field researcher, rare breed conservator, photographer, and chicken nut. She is Senior Programs Manager atThe Livestock Conservancy, where she is the primary field person working directly with farmers, scientists, and enthusiasts to discover and conserve endangered breeds while cultivating a new generation of rare breed stewards. Connect with Jeanette and The Livestock Conservancy on Facebook, Twitter, andYouTube.

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