Decades ago the worth of a well-bred adult chicken or clutch of hatching eggs was believed to hold the same value as a working man’s wages for a day, highlighting the importance of proper flock management. The literature well into the 20th century carries accounts of breeding males regularly selling for three figures, a good many for low four figures, and top producing females were valued more highly than gold. And why not, for in a single year she could produce scores of her own kind.
What do the names B. Ketcham of Illinois, T. Perrine of Ohio, S. Conger of Indiana, F. McElheney of New York, T. Ludlow of Yonkers in New York, and W. Dakin of Ohio have in common?
A bit of an unfair question, but one I raise to make a point. All of the above were independent poultry breeders advertising in the November 1885 issue of a magazine called The Poultry Keeper. They raised, respectively, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Dark Brahmas, Wyandottes (the first was the Silver Laced variety), Brown Leghorns, Houdans and Black Langshans.
This was less than a decade after the near-fabled Boston poultry show that launched the modern-era tradition of livestock shows and exhibitions. This was before breeds like the Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, and Black Australorp were recognized and at a time when only a handful of beef cattle and swine breeds were being kept in the United States.
Most proudly proclaimed the “thoroughbred” nature of their modest farm flocks — many had developed select breeding strains such as ‘Black Diamond Strain’ Black Langshans and Hawkins Strain Barred Rocks, a few were experimenting with that new gadget the “incubator,” and some were offering birds for sale from chick crops of as large as 150 to 500 birds. And in the pages of this and other early poultry publications the roles of the farmer/breeder and the exhibition breeder were already being debated.
With the bugs worked out of mechanical incubation and brooding, the development of better baby chick feeds and extensive development of the White Leghorn as a laying breed the modern era of poultry production — of all livestock production to come, really — was launched shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
Sixty years later, shortly after World War II, broilers and white egg layers became the first livestock varieties to be factory farmed. The poultry industry abandoned breeds and lines and settled upon a handful of hybrids of a certain type to produce eggs and broiler meat like they were ball bearings and sheets of particle board.
The breeds listed above and many more became living antiques and rarities and a few slipped to the very edge of extinction. Seen any performance-bred Langshans, Houdans or White-faced Black Spanish lately? Then, the Houdans in White and Mottled pattern, the La Flèche and the Crèvecoeur were being imported from their home country of France to be bred up as farmyard hardy layers of large white eggs.
Flock Management on the Family Farm
Prior to World War II this country was liberally dotted with family farm-based breeder flocks of 100 to 500 birds supplying hatcheries; producing chicks, hatching eggs, and breeding birds for direct sale to other farmers; and to market table eggs in the off-season. In that 1885 magazine a setting of Light Brahma eggs (13-15) cost $2, and a breeding trio of birds of the year was priced at $4 to $8. And those were gold backed, pre-inflated dollars.
A large breeding flock established under the classic model will have 50 females and five to 10 breeding males. From such numbers separate breeding lines can be maintained, multiple small matings can be tried (termed side matings), and overall flock vigor is more easily maintained.
Even at a most modest level of productivity and fertility this number of breeding birds could easily produce 225 or more baby chicks week-in and week-out for many months each year.
The traditional hatching season for producing baby chicks for sale and for flock replacements is mid-February through mid-June. Exhibition breeders with large sized or more elaborately feathered breeds might start hatching as early as December of the year before. Most begin the task of putting together breeding pens in the weeks between the two major holidays at the end of the year.
Chicks of the early hatches have greatest value as pullets to be well grown and in place for fall and winter laying. The later-hatched chicks are more targeted for those with simpler brooding and rearing facilities or are producing meat birds for the barbecue and fried chicken seasons of the year. We once had a neighbor that bought 50 to 100 heavy breed cockerels, generally Buff Orpingtons, each mid to late July.
These he grew out to sell as heavy roasters to market to those who wanted an alternative to turkey at one of the holiday season meals. This would still be a neat side market to be explored by producers with a brown egg laying flock based on one of the larger breeds; one that answers, in part, the question of what to do with surplus cockerel chicks.
There are far fewer hatcheries and farmer/breeders now, but with the growing interest in poultry keeping even reaching into the backyards of suburbia and urban terraces there is a very real need for those again doing serious work in the poultry yard for the “good” of their chosen breed. It is, after all, the logical next step in the preservation of rare and heirloom poultry breeds.
Granted, it is a legitimate question as to how many breeder flocks of White Faverolles or Blue Hamburgs are really needed. Some “rare” breeds have always been rare. Most are going to need substantial breeding up to restore them to former levels of productivity and thus increase their demand.
The more widespread and popular breeds would benefit from friendly competition between breeders working steadily to make them evermore utile and productive. Some hatchery catalogs may speak of Rocks or Reds laying in excess of 240 eggs per hen per year, but not only is that data decades-old but was compiled from only the more elite flocks of that era.
The concept of a “thoroughbred” chicken may be 125 years old, but it is where all independent producers with poultry now must be aiming. To preserve the breeds was the first step.
Best of the Best
To advance them is the next step and the really big one. To that end a farmer/breeder must:
- At the onset the producer must assure the genetic purity of the birds with which he or she is working. Begin with the best stock you can afford from established breeders, cull ruthlessly for good type and performance while building numbers, and breed to the type standards set down for the breed in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. The type and weight trait standards set for the breeds in those pages are there to guide selection for performance type of the role for which the breed was developed.
- Select for vigor and growth. Select keeper pullets from the fastest growing and most well formed one-third of the chick crop and breeding males from the elite, top 10 percent of the crop. This is also natural selection for general good health, breeding vigor and that all-important and hard to define will to live and thrive.
- Evaluate the birds often as they develop, possibly as often as every two weeks from hatching to entering the breeding or laying flock at 22 to 24 weeks of age. Take each in hand, examining for the most basic flaws such as crooked keels and foot ills to the frame and body dimension that lies beneath the feathers.
- Invest in a good set of scales and weigh the birds often as they grow. You can’t just eyeball the liveweights of developing meat birds or laying birds. When developing a purebred broiler line it is crucial that growth rates and feed efficiencies be closely monitored. Such data will both protect your bottom line as a producer of meat birds and increase sales to others wanting to establish meat bird flocks of their own.
- Selective breeding will require being able to identify and quickly access each individual bird in the breeding program. This is perhaps best done with a system of colored and numbered leg bands. Breeding pen assignment, ancestry, hatching year, and the like can all be denoted with a banding system and good flock records. It can begin with simple toe punches or even regularly touched up paint or ink marks atop the heads of different hatchlings. At that state of life they are not easily banded.
- Achieving exacting performance data on egg production once involved the trap nesting of all hens in a breeding flock and recording pedigree mating data on each egg layed with light pencil strokes. This was time-consuming and challenging to do even when flock care was the near full-time job for at least one family member. In trap nesting the hen enters a nest with an auto-closing door released by some sort of trip mechanism. She is then held there until her egg is gathered, her leg band number can be transferred to the eggshell if being kept for hatching, and the production of the egg logged into her performance record. It is time-consuming work, but does yield exact performance data on every female in the breeding flock, allowing the producer to create pedigreed matings and quickly pinpoint the most productive birds.
- With many farmers working away from home for at least some hours each week there are some ways to simplify this procedure and still gather much meaningful data including:
- Trap nest only for about 30 days or so at about 90 days into the flocks’ laying cycle. It won’t give a complete picture, but can help to pinpoint many of the better-performing birds.
- Trap nest for just the second or third week of each month for several months during the laying cycle. Again, don’t start until about 90 days into the flocks’ laying cycle. Even with trap nesting, the birds should be taken in hand at different
- times to evaluate individual bird condition and to weed out poor-laying or poorly developing individuals.
- Break the flock or at least select elements of it into small breeding pens of three to five females each and one male. Couple the egg production rate with rigid culling for birds not demonstrating desired vent condition, abdomen feel, width between the pubic bones, and head and leg color intensity in keeping with the bird’s point in the laying cycle.
- Breed only from the best performers, cull the rest, and steadily build up a breeding line based on your best-performing birds. It will take time, and you may have to sacrifice much in the way of numbers in the early stages of the flock-building process.
- Testing measures and individual bird evaluations should be ongoing, and it will take years to restore some breeds to their former levels of production. Actually, it never ends as your goal as a breeder should be to produce a new generation better than the one before it. There is that for-the-good-of-the-breed thing again.
By Kelly Klober. This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.
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. For more information call 800-355-5313.