A few weeks ago I mentioned that we were planning to do some chicken breeding, and now I am finally getting around to letting you in on the current plans (which will be changing and evolving constantly through this learning process).
First, let me update you on the sick roo. The next day, he was about 50% better, and the day after that he was totally back to normal. I have no idea what it was that made him act like that. But it is gone now. I am very relieved! We are continuing with our scaly leg mites treatments, and their legs are still looking pretty irritated, so I wouldn’t say improvement yet. I’ll keep you posted on how it all works out in case any of you have to deal with them in the future.
Now, on to the chicken breeding plans.
When we started the farm and got the chickens (which weren’t our first chickens ever, but were our first in a “farm” environment where we have more options) we didn’t really think about breeding them. We were still on the road of buy-replacements-from-hatcheries-every-couple-years. Then we found out that one of the younger “hens” we bought was not only a lot younger than we were told, but also was not a hen at all but a rooster, and so we started toying with the idea of letting one of our hens raise some chicks (from the eggs fertilized by our roo) if any of them became broody.
During the time right before and right after we got our new chicks I spent a lot of time researching chicken raising, and then moved into breeding research. I found out several things about hatcheries and hatchery birds that I was not at all happy about, and confirmed those things as I went to friends houses and examined their hatchery-obtained flocks. There are many concerns, but one of my biggest concerns with hatchery birds was how short of a time they productively lay, due to poor breeding. From my research I found out that a well-bred hen can productively lay (4 eggs a week or more) for up to 8 years! Now, that is probably a bit of a stretch, but even if we could increase a hen from 2-3 years up to 5-6 years that would be really great. Hens laying well for more than 2-3 years is not what I have seen and experienced with any of my birds nor my friends and acquaintances. From what I understand, a lot of it has to do with conformation and a few important conformation faults that are being perpetuated in the hatchery flocks. The thought of not having to cull and replace hens every few years in order to have a productive farm is VERY appealing to us. Now, I am not trying to tear down hatcheries, and I am not aware of every single hatchery and what their flocks look like, and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with people getting their chicks from hatcheries, this is just what I’m finding in my experience the experience of those around me and it isn’t what we are wanting for our farm.
After finding this out, and in addition to our desire to be self-sustaining and running things as naturally as possible on our farm, we decided we would not be buying any more chicks from hatcheries. But that left us with a potential dilemma – our current flock is many different breeds and our current roo is a mixed breed (though the new cockerel is a pure bred and we haven’t decided yet if he is staying). Can we mix breeds and end up with good stock or do we need to stick with pure breds? Different people will give you different opinions on this, and I don’t have time to go into all those details, but what it comes down to for our farm is that we decided to mix our breeds, selecting for qualities that are important to us and that make for strong, productive birds in our area.
It reminds me of our seed saving plans and what happens when you save the best seeds from the best plants in your garden. Over time, you end up with versions of plants that survive best in your exact environment. They are resistant to the pests in YOUR yard. They are tolerant of YOUR climate. Saving seed over time is a great way to improve your production in your own garden and to make strains of plants that are bred just right for your environment.
We see it as the same with our chickens. We will be creating our own breed of sorts that is selected for exactly what we want and need at our farm. We have jokingly started calling them (the them that don’t actually exist yet) our Rocky Mountain Chickens.
As we went through all this learning and decision-making our friends, who have chickens, heard us talking a lot about it and they have decided to jump in with us on this adventure to improve our stock and raise our own chickens. They have a large flock and also have a rooster. This is great because we now have access to more hens to choose from to really get the best to start with. And the other benefit is that we can each line-breed our own lines and then cross them across to each other’s flocks – giving us more genetic diversity to work with. The final benefit is that we get to start a little sooner because they have a large flock of full-grown birds, which can be bred now, whereas with our flock of pullets we need to wait several months.
This is going to be quite an adventure, especially since none of us have any experience whatsoever with breeding chickens. There will definitely be some trial and error. But we are avid learners, and have experience in many other animal breeding type situations. My higher education is in animal science with a focus on equine science and breeding – so I totally understand the concepts of selective breeding and genetics and all that – I’ve just never done it with chickens. So we will be doing what we have done many times over with our farm – we will be “winging it” – haha.
There will be success and failure and lots of learning and fun!
First step is to make a breeding plan, deciding what traits we are breeding for, how to measure them and what priority order they are in. I’ll share our breeding plan with you in a future post.
For now, I am studying a book called “The Mating and Breeding of Poultry” by Harry M. Lamon and Rob R Slocum. It was originally written in 1920 and reprinted in 2003. I like to read livestock raising books from the early 1900s and older. While more current books provide a lot of information and we (we referring to humans who breed livestock) have, over the years, improved production in livestock through the use of new methods, we (personally) are more interested in having a farm that functions much like the family farms of the “olden” days that were used to produce food for one family and maybe some extra to sell or trade with neighbors that didn’t have what that family had. So I find these older books immensly useful and am constantly on the look-out for these types of books. Often the ways they promote in these old books seem simpler and healthier for the animals.