Are you a breeder?

Entry by Emily Robertson

Anyone with chickens can wake up one fine morning and discover that the missing hen has returned with 10 tiny chicks in tow. But does that make them a breeder?

Apparently a lot of people think so, because they call themselves breeders even though they have no breeding goal (beyond selling chicks) and wouldn’t know how to breed for the goal if they had one. But most inexperienced buyers are impressed if they call themselves breeders.

The label ‘Breeder’ has an aura of wisdom and high craft. But how can you know whether the ‘breeder’ you are talking to has earned that status?

The definition of ‘breeder’ in most dictionaries is a person who keeps animals for breeding… so that would include the owner of the wayward hen as well as people running puppy mills, and everyone who is trying to sell chicks.

The definition of ‘breeding’ is more useful: the activity of keeping and caring for animals or plants in order to produce more animals or plants of a particular kind (– emphasis mine). So let me suggest that the skill of breeding is the ability to produce offspring that most closely meet a specific goal.

When you are looking for someone to buy chickens from, you want to steer away from the people who just keep chickens (even pure bred chickens) that reproduce themselves, and seek the people who specifically arrange matings, evaluate offspring, and whose breeding goal is similar to the type of chickens you want.

Yes, there are different types, within each breed. In fact, it is easy for the differences between two lines in a breed to be greater than the differences between two breed averages. Whatever traits are important to you, don’t assume that Breeder A’s flock has the traits you have read on an internet breed description — ask the breeder about the traits in his flock.

Whether you are shopping for chickens or becoming a breeder, you should know how your ideal chicken performs with regard to the traits that matter to you. Are you planning to show? hold animal therapy sessions? eat lots of chicken? pack summer eggs in your CSA boxes? There’s a breed and a breeding method that is right for you!

Unfortunately in the chicken realm the only type of breeding that has been widely taught is show breeding. Show breeders will proudly tell you that they breed “to the Standard Of Perfection”, the SOP. In this type of breeding the definition of what is important (superficial physical traits), the genetic methods used (mostly inbreeding), and the measure of success (poultry show ribbons) are all determined by the ‘sport’ of exhibiting chickens.

Are show chickens what you want?

Did you get into chickens for the joy of learning how to bathe and primp a chicken? Do you dream of producing the perfect double laced feather? ..the perfectly angled 5th toe? If that is you, then you have found your niche with the people who breed to the SOP.

But if you got into chickens because you wanted to have a nice supply of fresh eggs, or fill your freezer with healthy, pasture reared chicken, let me tell you, show birds are not what you want. And a show breeder is not the person you want to buy your chickens from.

There are other types of breeding! Really!

Long before there were poultry shows, there were breeders who used all their skill to improve the ability of their chickens to meet their family’s needs for eggs and meat. This is referred to as ‘utility’, and utility is something that the North American show crowd looks down its nose at. But in England, Europe and most other places where people keep the non-commercial breeds, utility is still valued highly.

In fact, most of the land races of chickens (i.e. the types that evolved along with local populations of people) and all of the modern breeds were honed to a standard of production by people who wanted the best producers of eggs &/or meat… (or the best fighting cocks).

People who breed chickens to restore a breed to its original production traits, or who use genetic methods to produce a line that is even more productive than the originals – these people are breeders just as much as the people who breed to the SOP.

Beyond the SOP there are three other types of breeding:

Restoration Breeding is primarily a matter of reversing the damaging effects of inbreeding depression that virtually all heritage breeds are afflicted with now. Breeders seek to restore the genetic depth that was present in the breed’s original gene pool, by gathering together isolated lines and by culling offspring with substandard production.

Production Breeding is an attempt to make a heritage breed even more productive than it was originally. Advances in genetics in the last 50 years have made it possible to do this faster and more certainly than simple selective pressure. [And I don’t mean genetic modification.] Production Breeding also includes the development of completely new breeds that are better at something than any of the existing breeds.

Commercial Breeding consists of several new techniques that can rapidly create new breeds that are productive beyond the wildest imaginings of our grandparents. But you are not likely to encounter a commercial breeder in non-commercial poultry circles.

When you are shopping for poultry, it’s a good idea to ask the seller what kind of breeding she does. Seek breeders who are producing the kind of chickens you want. For show birds, go to someone who breeds to the SOP and who shows successfully. For layers, meat birds or dual purpose, find a breeder who is consciously breeding for those qualities, and can tell you how his birds produce.

If you are hatching chicks, even just for your own use, and you don’t know what kind of breeder you are, or don’t know if you are a breeder at all (by my definition) I do hope that you will spend some time this winter thinking about it. On this crowded planet it makes sense to only produce animals that are going to fill your needs efficiently and stay healthy.

If you would like to learn more about restoration or production breeding, stay tuned! My next two blogs will cover each of those techniques.