So, You Want to Be a Breeder?
I get asked this question quite often. What does it take to be a breeder? People get enthusiastic about chickens, but once they describe their setup it is apparent that they are more of a backyard enthusiast. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an enthusiastic supporter of a breed. Being a breeder is a significantly different thing however, a big step up, both in terms of commitment and knowledge.
Education: First off, a breeder needs to be willing to breed to a written standard. In most cases it is the Standard of Perfection (SOP) published by the American Poultry Association. The SOP is a detailed description of every breed of poultry, entailing body shape, comb type, color and more. It captures virtually every descriptive detail about the breeds of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. In order to be a breeder, you will need to understand the SOP on the breed you’re choosing to breed. Experienced breeders can visualize the written standard in a live bird.
Incubation: You also need to be able to successfully incubate eggs. The core of your program will be to continually produce the next generation of your birds, hopefully getting closer to the standard each time. Incubation is not necessarily difficult, but it does require the proper equipment and know how. The equipment basics are a functional incubator and a climate controlled, clean area to house the incubator. The “know how” includes: Properly selecting and storing your eggs prior to incubation; during incubation you will need to maintain the correct temperature, humidity and turning frequency. Candling eggs mid –cycle to check for fertility and cull infertile eggs is important; and lastly, understanding and timing the transition from incubating to hatching.
Brooding: Once your hatchlings emerge, the brooding stage begins. You will need a place to brood your chicks. A good brooder is a warm safe place that gives your young birds access to food and water while maintaining a safe temperature until they have feathered out enough to survive cooler temperatures out on pasture.
Note: Incubating, hatching and brooding can all be accomplished naturally, allowing broody mothers to perform these functions, but hatching a large enough quantity to allow for selection of the best, can be difficult unless you are breeding some of the notoriously broody breeds.
Grow-Out: Once your young birds have finished brooding and are old enough to survive without supplemental heat, birds should be moved to their grow-out area. This is an area that gives the young birds space to move around, sufficient to the needs of the particular breed. It should include sources of water and food appropriate for their breed and age. Ideally, heritage birds should have access to grass or pasture in order to forage for a portion of their nutritional needs, exercise and express their chicken-ness as Joel Salatin might say.
Observation: As young birds are growing, breeders are constantly observing their birds, looking to see what traits are developing. Birds that are shown to be developing traits not consistent with their breed or type should be eliminated or culled from the population of potential breeders. Also, in any population of birds, certain disqualifying traits exist, birds exhibiting these traits should also be culled. Breeders are also looking for more than physical characteristics, some birds may exhibit behaviors the breeder may choose to eliminate from their flocks. Some common examples of that are extreme aggression, egg eating, failure to forage, inability to react properly to predation, and for some breeds even broodiness.
Selection: The breeder’s goal is to select the best representatives of the SOP for breeding. This is where knowing the Standard is critical. The breeder needs that picture of the ideal bird in their mind when selecting. In the early stages of a breeding project, you can only breed what you have. Therefore, it’s very important to select the birds that most closely resemble the SOP. If you know the faults and disqualifications relevant to your breed, and understand where your birds are lacking, you can work to breed through those issues. Selecting substandard or incorrect birds will slow down or potentially derail your program.
Numbers: As a breeder, we are constantly seeking to improve our birds, moving them closer to the SOP. In order to make progress along these lines, only the best birds from a given population are deemed suitable for breeding. The greater the number of birds hatched and raised each year, the greater the opportunity for improvement. I always strive to hatch and raise a minimum of 100 birds a year. Frank Reese once said “The best bird of 50 is an okay bird. The best bird of 500 is a good bird. The best bird of 5,000 is an outstanding bird.” You don’t necessarily have to raise 5,000 birds to create an outstanding bird, but you do need to meet some minimum threshold to make any meaningful improvements.
Nutrition: Heritage breeds can have different nutritional needs than the production birds. These needs may not be met by standard retail rations. It will benefit you and your birds to understand their particular nutritional needs and provide them with feed that matches those needs. Given the opportunity, Heritage birds are willing and able to forage for some of their nutritional needs in their environment. Ideally, providing access to grass or pasture allows them to access both the greens and insect life they can utilize. Other options include supplementing their rations with sprouted grain, garden waste, fly larvae, etc. There is probably no perfect ration but getting as close as possible will benefit your birds and show in their performance.
Recordkeeping: The key to any successful breeding program is keeping good records. Records are your measuring stick. They are your means of seeing and demonstrating progress year over year. At the minimum a record keeping system should include the following:
- Eggs laid by bird or pen.
- Fertility % by male breeder or breeding pen.
- Hatch % by breeding pen.
- Number of young birds culled, by grow-out pen.
- Grow-out weights at 8 and 16 weeks.
- Overall selection score by individual birds chosen for breeding.
A good record keeping system really allows for easy viewing of progress made from year to year. As your program matures, your records may also serve as a part of your marketing program.
Adherence to the principles outlined above, are what separates breeders from back yard enthusiasts. The better job you are able to do in following these principles, the faster your program will advance.
Matt Hemmer Smoky Buttes Ranch