In order to choose the best birds for our chicken breeding program, we rate each bird on certain characteristics we are selecting for approximately every 4 weeks beginning at 8 weeks of age and ending at 24 weeks with occasional ratings as an adult. The things we are rating for now are not exactly what we were rating for when we started, though similar, and I expect our process to continue to evolve as we go along, learn more, and get more experience. Ideally, we would have someone who could teach us chicken breeding and selection first hand, but since that isn’t an option we are doing the best we can to learn as we go.
We have rated and selected from three clutches thus far. Our first one was rated at 8, 12, 17, and 23 weeks, and then also at 7.5 months. Our second clutch has been rated at 8, 12, 16, and 24 weeks. And our third one has been rated at 8, 12, and 16 weeks thus far. We keep all the rating data on spreadsheets and are able to compare not only within the clutch, but also back and forth between the clutches. Such as, how does this clutch at 8 weeks compare to the last one at 8 weeks. This is coming in very useful and I think it will really help us as we go along. Theoretically, we would expect to see the scores increasing in each clutch overall as we go along, because the higher the score the closer it is to the ideal bird we are aiming for. If we find our scores falling over time, we will know there is something wrong with the breeding and selection. Those things need to be looked at in a big perspective, not on individual birds because there will always be individuals that are not what we are looking for.
So, what are we selecting for and rating our birds on?
The first thing we are aiming for, especially since our started flock came from a hatchery, is good egg-laying conformation. If the bird’s body is built well for laying eggs she will lay more eggs, more often, and for a longer time. We would like to breed hens that don’t end their egg-laying career at 3-4 years of age. From what we have read, a well-built bird could lay well up to the age of 8.
We rate their egg-laying conformation with 4 different “measurements”; chest, back, tail, and internal conformation.
We are looking for a nicely wide and deep chest. When viewing and scoring the chest we are looking for balance (not overly narrow nor overly broad, but more towards the broad side) and we are comparing it to the individual bird. What I mean by that is that a smaller bird will clearly not have as broad of a chest as a bigger bird if we are just talking actual inches of broadness. However, a smaller bird, whose chest is not as broad as the bigger bird’s is, could have a broader chest in relation to the rest of his body than the bigger bird does. So we are looking at each bird as an individual whole. How does this bird’s chest fit it’s body? Is it narrow and shallow compared to it’s body? Or is it broad and deep?
This measurement is not an actual measurement, it is subjective, which does somewhat weaken our scoring system. However, we have realized that seeing a balanced bird is just that, very visual. We can see with our eyes the birds that look closer to the ideal balance that we are looking for. So, with the chest, we look at the bird from the front, standing normally. When viewing them this way, we are also looking at their leg set and how the legs hook into the body. Are they very narrow-set, or too wide set, or cow-hocked? We don’t actually rate the leg set, but we do note down on our paper if we see one drastically either way. Again, it comes back to balance of the whole bird. We then pick up the bird and palpate the chest and upper back, feeling the width and depth and also checking for crooked keel. A bird with crooked keel is automatically removed from the potential breeding list and put on the sell/butcher list.
Once we have looked and then examined we score the bird on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the farthest from what we are looking for and 5 being the perfectly balanced chest for our program.
We view the bird’s back from above. We are looking for a nicely shaped rectangle. It shouldn’t be too narrow, nor too square. And it definitely should not look like a triangle. Many birds from poorly bred stock are very triangular, with a narrow back end. This is not ideal for laying because there isn’t enough space back there for good reproductive function. Yes, the tail comes to a point, but that is not the triangle we are talking about here. We are looking more at the shoulder set back to the thighs, and it should be a nice straight line, not a narrowing line. And again, we are looking for a balance from above. It always comes back to a balanced bird.
The back is also scored subjectively, from 1-5.
The tail is viewed from behind, preferably with the bird’s head lowered. This gives us a good view of whether or not it is pinched. In a pinched tail the feathers will close together. A good tail will form a triangle sitting atop the behind. Different breeds have different tails, so we take this into consideration when looking at the tails, but the concept of pinched is still the same.
Again, we score on a scale of 1-5, 1 would be a completely horribly pinched tail, 5 would be a nice open triangle.
The internal conformation score is an actual measurement, not subjective. We pick up the bird and measure the space between the pubic bones, the distance from the bottom of the keel to the pubic bones, and then give a score for the softness of the belly. Because it is a measurement, it doesn’t have a range. But the highest score we have ever given, to a fully mature actively laying hen, was a 7.
After egg-laying conformation, we are selecting for size. We want to have dual-purpose birds that will provide us with both eggs and meat. So we are aiming for heavier birds. We weigh the chickens at each rating. Since we are rating with higher scores being better, the heavier birds get higher scores. Weight doesn’t get to overshadow the other scores though, because we don’t want huge birds. So often, when doing our final selections, we remove weight from the score and see how they rate, and then put it back in and see how they rate. In this case we don’t necessarily always choose the heavier bird because sometimes the lighter bird actually has a better score overall when not taking their size into consideration. So a well-balanced, smaller bird. But, we do care enough about weight that a very small bird that is well balanced wouldn’t make it into the program.
The last thing we are currently rating is the comb size. We get really cold winters here, sometimes down to -30F. We have dealt with frostbite on combs and it isn’t good. Since we are aiming to breed a bird that does exceptionally well in our climate, comb size is the first consideration for that. We score combs from 1-3, with 1 being a huge floppy comb and 3 being a small, tight to the head comb. We are only rating this on 3 points, instead of 5, because we want it to have less weight on the overall scoring since this early in our breeding program it isn’t quite as important as the conformation issues.
After all those items are rated, we add all the numbers together to get that bird’s score. We also check the bird’s wings for split wing and mark that down on the sheet. If a bird has split wing at 12 weeks or older they are removed from the potential breeders list. We also look them over for beak and head deformities, as well as foot deformities such as bent toe. Any birds with obvious defects are removed from the potential breeders list.
Lastly, we just look the bird over as a whole. We have a picture in our head of what a nicely balanced bird with good size looks like and we are looking for that. We put a star on the sheet by our favorites overall, the ones that just look good as a whole. Often, these birds are the ones that have the highest score, but we have also had it that these birds are in the second or third position, but once fully mature they make it to the top position. Which would indicate that we can, to some degree, see a well-built bird when it is younger.
That is how we are rating and selecting for our chicken breeding program. We are hoping to improve our stock and end up with nicely built dual-purpose birds that do well in our climate and lay well late into their life.