We have spent a lot of time researching and discussing different scenarios for our chicken breeding program. We have finally landed on a plan that we feel will work just right for our situation and we are very excited about it.
We are going to start by using a Rolling Mating system. That means breeding the “older” males to the “younger” females and breeding the “younger” males to the “older” females. Older in this case means not their first season and younger means first breeding season birds. For simplicity we are using the word cockerels for the younger males, roosters for the older males, pullets for the younger females, and hens for the older females. So we will breed roosters to pullets, and cockerels to hens. Our upper, bigger coop will house 10-12 hens and 1 cockerel during each breeding season. Our lower, smaller coop will house 6 pullets and 1 rooster during each breeding season.
We would like to aim for being as natural as possible, and thus are hoping for a few hens that will go broody; hatch and raise our chicks for us. If all goes as planned, we will have a “broody coop” next to each of the other coops. It will be a small coop with one nest in it, with a small wired pen attached that also attaches to the pen of the main coop. The nest and the coop would both be on ground level so chicks can easily get in and out. The plan would then be that when a hen goes broody we move her to the broody coop, where she is closed away from the flock but can see and interact through the wire with them. She can set and hatch her eggs undisturbed, and then at some point in the chick’s lives we will open the small door between the pens and leave it open for them to integrate with the flock. As they get older, the broody coop will have a roost put in it so that we have space for all the chicks and their mother to roost at night until they are big enough to go into the large coop. We want to breed broody tendencies into the flock, so we will be selecting for it.
If we are unable to come up with a broody hen then we will be using an incubator to hatch the eggs and we will brood them ourselves.
Our first season will be a little different as we get started. We currently have a flock of pullets with one cockerel, and two adult hens with one adult rooster. Of those two adult hens one is very old, but possibly a broody and we would like to try to get some eggs from her to raise. The other adult hen is either half or full sister to our rooster and is a bantam cross, so we aren’t wanting to raise any chicks from her with our rooster. We have selected the 5 pullets we want to breed this year, as well as that one older hen. The pullet’s eggs will be mature enough in August to hatch chicks from them (so we will likely need to use an incubator this year since a hen probably won’t go broody that time of year, but we will be trying to encourage her). We have put those 5 pullets, plus the older hen with our rooster in the smaller coop. We will breed what we can from them at the end of summer/early fall. In addition, if our friends who want to do this breeding program with us are able to get some hatching eggs from their flock we will add those to the mix. The pullets that aren’t of breeding quality are living up in the big coop along with the cockerel and our bantam cross hen, and we will just be collecting their eggs for sale and eating.
Late this fall we will then theoretically have a flock of young pullets and cockerels from our hatchings. We will select one cockerel from that to keep and butcher the rest. We will choose between our older roo and our younger roo (the current cockerel) as to which will get to be the breeding rooster next year and we will cull whichever one we aren’t keeping. We will also select from the pullets which ones will be the breeding pullets for spring 2014 and we will probably sell the rest. All the pullets that were bred this summer will be kept and moved up to the big coop for the winter to produce eggs for us. Then, in the spring, we will go through and select the 12 hens we want to use for breeding and the rest will be butchered. So that will leave us with 12 hens and one cockerel up in the big coop and 6 pullets and one rooster down in the lower pen.
We will then start our normal rolling breeding plan spring of 2014 with breeding happening at both coops and hopefully a broody at each coop raising the chicks. In the fall the culling of roosters and cockerels will take place, and the selection and sale of pullets will take place. And then in spring the selection and culling of hens takes place.
The benefits to rolling breeding for us are that the size and space management issues work for our farm and with our flock size there will be quite a bit of line-breeding happening, which we want. First, we only need two separate coops/pens, which is exactly what we have. Also, we can select for things such as longevity, egg production, winter production and hardiness in the older hens and still be able to select and decrease our flock size to manageable numbers each year through the pullet selection. One of the traits we are aiming for is longevity and cold hardiness, but that is a trait that can’t be seen in the first year. This way, the really great hens will stay in the breeding program year after year, and we will be adding in the new younger stock as well. I think this will really help with our selection goals. Lastly, we wanted to stick with a plan that includes some line-breeding so that through careful selection we can make good progress towards our goals.
That is our current plan. I’m sure it will evolve and change as we go through this new adventure and learn as we go…but you have to start somewhere!