Production Breeding

I have been too busy to blog in this first year of running the hatchery, but I always have time to talk to people who phone us with chicken questions. One of the most common is, “What is production breeding?” Very simply put, production breeding consists of increasing the genepool every year while selecting for performance (in growth rate, in egg laying, or both, depending on the breed). Every year we add some new birds, from a relatively unrelated line, to top up heterosis in our flocks. And we produce large numbers of offspring to select future breeders from. Our future roosters are in the top 2% and our future hens are in the top 25%, based on performance.

For example, for my Light Sussex (a dual purpose breed) to select a breeding flock of 80 hens and 12 roosters, I will hatch and grow ~700 chicks in two or three batches. The chicks are put out on pasture as early as possible, and reared very much the way I expect our customers to rear their chickens. They are challenged by wet and cold weather, they learn to recognize danger (hawks, eagles, dogs), and they have wide open spaces to forage and roam.

At 16 weeks of age the boys are weighed individually, and the heaviest ~40 cockerels (the ‘short list’) are tagged (colored ring on leg) and left out with their sisters while the rest are brought into the barn for sale as fryers. The cut-off weight at this age is ~3 kg, so the ‘losers’ dress out at 3.5 to 4 lbs. I usually process ~50 for our family, and flatten them or cut them into parts to save freezer space. I sell the rest as fryers.

At 19 weeks I assess the hens for laying potential. There are several things I’m looking for, so it is harder to describe the selection process, but it includes all of the following:
• Large frame but light bone
• Good abdominal capacity
• Minimum 2 finger space between vent bones (given that they aren’t laying yet)
• Correct posture, carriage and proportions for the breed; firm feathering
• A bright eye and calm temperament

The top half of the pullet flock is tagged and left out on pasture while the bottom half is brought into the barn for sale as Ready To Lays. Fortunately they sell fast, because the other half need to come in and become acquainted with nest boxes and a different perching system.

The final selection is arrived at gradually, as opportunities arise to place short listed birds with other breeders – we sell breeding stock all across Canada. I spend extra time with the birds during these weeks, watching them for behavior and body language as well as early maturation. I will remove hens that have not started to lay by 25 weeks old or go broody early, and roosters that are aggressive or timid. Hens that lay early, or lay large sized eggs early get ‘points’.

Production breeding is simpler for single purpose breeds. For laying breeds the hens are selected much as above while the roosters are selected for early maturity, abdominal capacity, and good behavior with the hens. For meat breeds hens are culled first for growth rate but secondly for laying capacity because really heavy hens are often very poor layers.

This is the way that farmers used to breed their own birds, back before white feathered commercial breeds and mail order chicks. The key to success is in the numbers – the more, the better! Any breed will thrive on this program, because it counteracts the damage done by inbreeding in very small flocks.