Next up in our managing chickens series we are going to share how we manage our chicken breeding program at Willow Creek Farm. To read previous posts in this series you can use the following links:
Any breeding program starts with keeping a rooster, or a few roosters, with the hens. We have found keeping roosters, when it is the right rooster(s), to be very beneficial to the flock. Many people have heard horror stories about mean roosters. We had heard those stories before we started breeding chickens as well. We even have a few of our own stories of mean cockerels, but our stories end very quickly and always with the same destination for that cockerel – the stew pot. We refuse to keep cockerels or roosters that are aggressive to humans, or the farm dog, or the hens. We want our farm to be a safe, harmonious place, and we do not want to continue to pass the aggressive traits down to the next generations. Breeding aggressive males just leads to more aggressive males.
We handle the cockerels regularly as they are growing up, as well as handle “their” girls regularly in their presence as well. We have found that the males are usually aggressive when we are catching their girls, so we do this often to get them used to it and to quickly remove any males that show aggression towards us. We have also had very young cockerels that show aggression without provocation at a very early age, like 7-9 weeks of age. Often, when we enter the pen to feed or water they immediately come after us. In those situations we label that pen off-limits to children and we manage the situation long enough to get the male to a good butcher weight. However, there have been times that we have butchered as early as 12 weeks just because we were so tired of dealing with an extremely aggressive little cockerel.
Just a quick sidetrack here for those who are wondering, a cockerel is a young male chicken, and a rooster is a sexually mature male chicken. At our farm we use the term cockerel for a male bird that has not completed his first breeding season and a rooster is a male bird that has completed his first breeding season. We use these terms in this way because of the type of breeding rotation that we do, which will be discussed later.
Once we have weeded out the aggressive males we find that keeping males is great for the flock. The males alert the females to danger, and then, as they all run into the coop fleeing danger, the lead male goes in last (what a gentleman!). Also, when the males find a yummy treat they call all the hens over and share it with them.
Lastly, a good male will “dance” for a hen before he breeds her instead of just aggressively grabbing her and jumping on. It is nothing like the fancy dances of many wild birds. He drops his inside shoulder as he circles her and kind of shuffles his feet. Much of this behavior has been bred out over the years while other things were selected for, so we have had trouble finding roosters that really “dance.” But our roos do give at least a little dance, and we remove ones that are aggressive when breeding the hens. Hopefully, over time, our breeding program will produce roos that dance more and more.
Even with roosters that are not aggressive, sometimes the female’s backs can begin to get torn up because of the frequent breeding. When this happens we have little jackets that I make and we put them on the females to give their back a break. You can read about those here. One caution about jackets is that it makes it a bit harder for the ladies to dust bathe well and can lead to parasite troubles (such as mites and lice). So the duration of jacket wearing needs to be limited, and under the jacket, especially under the wing-pits (like armpits) needs to be checked often. We also will sometimes switch around the pens so the females that are getting damaged are living without a male for a while.
Selecting Breeding Stock
When we first decided to breed chickens we sat down and made a list of what traits we wanted the chickens to have, in order of importance to us. It is important to not completely ignore other traits that are not on the list while selecting breeding birds because that is exactly how dancing males were bred out and aggressive males were bred in – because other things were being selected for and no attention was being paid to the behavior, only the looks of the birds. But we knew we needed to have a list of traits that we were aiming for, so we made the list. I did a post on what we are selecting for awhile back, it is not completely accurate to what we do now, but it will give you a basic idea of what we select for. You can view it by clicking here.
The short version of what we decided to select for is this:
Our goal is to have dual-purpose birds that are good layers as well as adequate meat birds. We want them to survive, lay, and grow well in our climate and cold conditions with long, dark winters. We want them to be hearty birds that live to old age and lay well into their old age. We don’t want to have to replace our layers every few years. And we don’t want to have to use supplemental heat and light except in extreme weather conditions.
Once we had our list of what we were breeding for we came up with a way to score each bird for each of the items. If possible, it is best that the scoring be objective. And example of objective scoring is weighing the bird. The scale doesn’t have an opinion, it is unbiased, it gives a measurement. Another objective score is how many eggs the hen lays in one week. But it is nearly impossible for all the ratings when selecting birds to be completely objective. Some have to be subjective (somewhat based on a person’s opinion, which can be biased and change over time). An example of subjective scoring is giving a score for how the bird’s tail looks. It isn’t an exact measurement.
To keep the scoring as consistent as possible, we feel it is important that the person scoring is always the same person. So my husband always gives the scores, while I do the record keeping and write down what he is telling me. That way we have as small amount of subjectivity as possible since our opinions could differ. However, when he is having trouble deciding between giving a hen a 2.5 or a 3 for her tail, for example, he will ask me and I will help him decide the final number.
The scores are weighted by making things that are more important to us have a higher perfect score than things that are less important to us.
We rate a bird several times over its life. We have several things that will disqualify a bird from the breeding program right away, no matter how well they score on other things. These are genetic defects such as crooked keel, split wings, any beak deformities, etc.
Because of our location and climate we aim for our breeding season to run from about February through June. We don’t want chicks hatching after July 1st because that lands us butchering in the coldest part of winter and it can be hard to get the males up to weight because of the cold.
When we are ready to start breeding season we separate out the pre-selected females with the male we planned to breed them with. We usually go for a ratio of one male per 6 females for breeding, although sometimes it is higher or lower than that. The more females per male (especially above 6) the lower the fertility is usually. We have found it to be very important to separate out the groups at least 2-3 weeks prior to when we want to collect the hatching eggs. This gives the group time to settle and get their pecking order figured out. It also gives the rooster time to take control of the flock and have all the females willingly submit to his breeding.
We use a rolling breeding system. We chose this system because it seemed the best fit for a backyard farm of our size. It only requires separating the birds into two different groups during breeding season, which is ideal for our small space. It also can be done for several generations without bringing in new stock. When it is time for new genetics to be brought in it can be accomplished by adding just one new male. Since it can be hard to find new breeding stock that fits what you are selecting for without setting you back, this aspect was appealing to us.
In a rolling breeding system first year males are bred to second year (or older) females, and second year (or older) males are being bred to first year females. So we breed cockerels to hens, and roosters to pullets. By doing this system we never have to worry about full brother and sister breeding – which is not good breeding practice with any animal. With rolling breeding there will some be father/daughter and mother/son breeding taking place, which is called line-breeding and can help us reach our selection goals faster. This type of breeding is ok with chickens to a point. As I said earlier we will have to eventually add in some new genetics because when line-breeding goes on for too many generations the quality of birds begins to decline. Also, because we are line-breeding, we are trying to be very careful with our selection because while line-breeding strengthens the good traits we are selecting for, it also strengthens any bad traits. We keep a close eye on our stock because of this.
So…We have carefully selected our breeding stock based on the traits we want. Our birds have been living in their selected breeding groups for 2-3 weeks or more. They have figured out their pecking order and the males have taken charge of the flock. The females are submitting to breeding and everything looks to be in line for good fertility. We are making sure to feed these flocks a nice balance of ration, scraps, and oyster shell or crushed egg shells to be sure they are in optimum condition for reproduction. Now it is time to collect the eggs. We will cover how we do that, as well as incubation, and chick care in future posts in our managing chickens series.
There are so many different ways to handle a chicken breeding program. Each program needs to be set up in a way that works for what the final goals are, as well as what works for the size and set-up of the farm. We have shared what is working for us here at Willow Creek Farm for our chicken breeding program and how we handle the different aspects of it. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section.