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Chicken Breed Selection

Chicken breed selection can be a confusing prospect for the modern small farm laying flock. Sex-link birds will give you a great many light brown-shelled eggs of fair size right now, but they won’t build a sustainable and enduring flock.

Locate the purest possible sources of a breed’s genetics. The longer a particular flock’s history is, the better.

Small producers often need to do a better job of presenting their eggs for sale. Even if a flock is made up of all heirloom breeds, a badly mixed-up flock will not produce uniform eggs for sale, produce predictable replacements or foster a positive image. A friend says such flocks look like “grandma’s chicken yard.”

An egg is an egg once the shell is removed and no one will prosper by fostering and spreading old wives’ tales and misinformation. The white-shelled egg deserves the small-scale producer’s consideration every bit as much as the brown-shelled variety.

A good laying flock with a purebred basis is a long-term pursuit. Don’t take up heirloom birds on a whim and then neglect or let them go after a season or two. Such birds seldom make it to another set of caring hands with any sort  of commitment to their preservation as  a breed.

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Heirloom breed producers can and should function in a number of different roles. Yet, even with a single focus, be it meat, eggs or seedstock, each flock and producer will have its own unique nature. A part of the task is to know your breed or breeds fully and even more so the birds that make up the actual flocks. A White Wyandotte and Rosecomb White Leghorn have a great many similarities, but all must admit that they were bred and refined for two rather different tasks in life. If you have a good market for light brown eggs in fair numbers and some demand for broilers or roasters, then the White Wyandotte should be your choice of the two breeds. While Leghorn cockerels were my grandmother’s favorite choice of young birds to fry in her day, the Leghorn must be your breed of choice for eggs in greater numbers.

There is a term some hatcheries use when attempting to market birds to small holders. They have chosen to promote certain breeds a “dual-purpose” fowl. It is a term most heirloom breeders have chosen not to use.

No breed can lay like a Leghorn and yield poultry meat like a large Rock or Wyandotte. The four breeds most touted now as “dual-purpose” are the Barred and White Rocks, Single Comb Rhode Island Reds and the New Hampshire Red. They are all good breeds and  each was developed for a rather specific farm environment and performance role. Possibly the White and Barred Rocks hew as closely as any to a general-purpose role, although one does dress cleaner than the other. The Barred Rocks of my youth were splendid birds with sparkling barred patterning and clear and vivid yellow feet and  legs. I  haven’t seen their like in a great many years, and I know many who are searching widely for them.

With some breeds such as the Barred Rock you will find producers maintaining separate flocks to produce male and female offspring. While these are now primarily exhibition breeders this is a practice with some long roots.

This is not the way to build and sustain a working fowl breed. The exhibition hall always has and always will have an important role to play with purebred poultry, but the farm flock must hew to certain constraints to assure its survival in simple facilities and under manage- ment for optimal returns. Genotype and phenotype should always be reflective of each other and pursuing too exacting a goal for a single trait like color or pattern can adversely impact other, economically important traits.

On the subject of seedstock production the difference between “breeders,” “propagators/multipliers” and “commercial” producers should be noted here.

At one time the livestock community was well and fairly illustrated with a pyramid-shaped structure. At the very top, representing no more than three to five percent of the total number of producers were  the “breeder/definers.” They  were an elite of sorts that placed their emphasis on shaping and defining breeds and type trends. Below them in the structure was a bit larger group, the “propagators/multipliers” that took what those above had produced, propagated it in goodly numbers, and then offered it to the large base group of commercial producers.

These groups often blurred together a bit, and over time the concept of such structuring has faded a bit. I believe it still has great validity in that it should give us all pause as to what role we actually wish to undertake.

Due to the presence of hatcheries and show breeders, the structure within poultry production is a bit more complex, and roles now conceded to hatcheries were once held by some quite large purebred operations. Also present in the poultry community are a group of people termed “string men.” These folks may be breeders of some varieties, keepers of others, and dealers in some birds. In an earlier day some string men would hit the show circuit with “strings” of several hundred birds, some homebred and some bought, and they would fill many classes at state fairs and other poultry shows.

They would buy and sell as they went. A most important role that they continue to play is as a source of seedstock and the ability to advise where certain birds might be found. They aren’t exactly “chicken  traders,” but even those souls have a role to play. String men often remove surplus and older birds from the scene, may be a channel to the ethnic trade, and I have bought a fair number  of really good birds from these people over the years.

Step one in making your start with rare and heritage breeds is to clearly define to yourself and to others (primarily your potential customers) just what you are intent upon doing with their help.

What has to happen now for these rare and heritage birds to survive in a meaningful way is to have a group of real, visionary poultry producers gather around them. Not merely handfuls of chickenkeepers but serious producers who will care about genetic purity and type. But they must not produce solely for the dictates of the showroom. These producers  must  respect  the  birds’  history, but be committed to building upon rather than trying to seek control over it. They must recognize that it is not rarity, novelty or even a purple-ribboned grandpa that gives a bird real, long-term value.

Chicken Breed Preservation & Flock Building

While certainly neither commandments nor dictates, the following are some thoughts to help frame a mindset that should be helpful in your efforts at breed preservation and flock building:

  • At this point in time many of these rare and heritage breeds and varieties exist in quite small numbers and often, in quite an imperfect Thus, the first birds acquired may come with a fair set of flaws to be overcome.
  • Some populations are in various states of restoration and may not be exactly 100 percent pure in their breeding. This is not a sin but something that needs to be known and fully disclosed. A full outcross to a completely different breed followed by eight matings back to a pure one will result in pure status again in the offspring.
  • Note that some populations today may not be where they were left 50 to 70 years ago, but may have even regressed further back from there.
  • Some of the very closely bred groups will need special care to overcome a lack of vigor, low libido, low egg output and other reduced performance factors.
  • Try to pick breeds and varieties with your own skill level in mind. Even some fairly common varieties can be a breeding challenge. For example, the Rhode Island Red is readily conceded to be one of the most difficult  breeds  to  breed  true to type and with the correct depth of color. More breeders are needed for Black Wyandottes and White Dorkings, too. As your skills develop then go looking for challenges.

Having lots of birds and lots of breeds won’t make for a better breeder. Some of the very best work takes a lifetime with just one breed or a variety within a breed.

There are hundreds of chicken breeds and varieties that can be termed heirloom or heritage. There is no one “best” among them.

Faverolles or Orloffs can be that choice if you accept their complexities of type and color and potential performance limits. Few, if any, will look like the pictures in the catalogs, but remember — they are just the beginning point. In the mid-60s I saw boxes of 25 baby chicks sent off at consignment auc- tions to sell for whatever they brought, sometimes for as little as 25 cents a box. In the mid-70s that same quarter would buy an adult bird at our local sale barn. By the mid-80s many felt that the chicken had gone away forever, walled away inside high-volume confinement units.

About that time though, chickens were again taken up anew by the back-to-the-land movement of the moment. There were but a handful of breeds to be easily had from a small number of hatcheries and a great many of them didn’t look at all like the catalog pictures when you got them home.

Two-dollar-a-pound range  broilers and $3 a dozen brown eggs got a whole lot of people thinking about chickens again. Those prices were to be had largely near major cities and such demand has probably reached a plateau somewhat of late. At the peak of such demand I had an Old Order Amish friend growing out and selling as many as 10,000 broiler chicks each year. His sales grew through naught but word-of-mouth. He ultimately changed course because the business actually grew to challenge his Amish way of life.

Will we be selling $1, $2 or even $5 a dozen eggs 10 years from now? I cannot say, but it would be wrong to get involved with these birds solely because of reports of relatively high-dollar selling prices.

I am sure that if growth continues at any level near current trends we will see as many or more $50 breeding birds sold as we see right now. It will not be because of their scarcity, however, but because of their quality breeding and the improved performance that they can bring to other flocks.

Tips to Secure Quality Heritage Birds

The following are some tips to help with the search for a quality supplier of rare heritage breeds:

  • Locate the purest possible sources of a breed’s genetics. The longer a particular flock’s history is, the better. A few may even have vestiges of a performance background to share with buyers.
  • Become a student of the breed, its history, and the practical uses for which it was initially developed.
  • Acquire the best possible genetic pieces with an eye for their vigor, growth in keeping with breed standards and fertility.
  • Begin breeding toward their traditional type and role. Cull ruthlessly while doing so.

I have recently seen Exchequer Leghorns, exotic-colored Wyandottes, Delawares, and Javas offered by even some of the smallest commercial hatcheries. Some of these might be doing a quite serviceable job with one or another of these breeds, but I have heard some horror stories about what was supposed to be in a chick box in no way matching what actually arrived. And some of those boxes come from individuals, not just hatcheries. My take on things right now is buyer be careful; be very, very careful.

Breed selection must be a very careful, well thought out and executed action. I know the temptation is always present when opening a catalog or brochure to say “I want three of these, two of those, and a couple of the black ones on the next page,” but that works only if you’re stocking a chicken zoo and not building poultry flocks.

Which choice of breed is certainly the question most asked at farm shows, bird meets and markets, and wherever those interested in poultrykeeping are apt to meet. Breed choice could lead to the work of a lifetime — so it remains a very personal, very important long-range commitment.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors . . . Naturally and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A.

By Kelly Klober. This article was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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