Production breeding and why you should know more about it

Entry by Emily Robertson

This morning someone posted pictures of her Marans cockerels on Facebook and asked for help choosing the one she should keep as a breeder for next year.

This kind of thing drives me crazy. If a dairy farmer told you that he had picked his new herd sire based on the bull’s colour and the length of his legs – without any knowledge of the dairy strength of his line or the milk production of his daughters – you would think he was pretty foolish. But that’s what most chicken breeders do, every year.

Picking breeders by their looks is the essence of Show Breeding. If your main goal is to show your birds, then Show Breeding is for you. But the great majority of people who keep heritage chickens never show them – it’s less than 1%. What most people want is pretty chickens that can lay eggs as well and maybe produce meat as well as their breed has been described on the internet. Unfortunately there is a common belief that if the birds look like their robust ancestors, they will perform like them. It’s not true.

How did this happen? Chickens are livestock, and like all other livestock they were bred for their usefulness… until 140 years ago when the British parliament banned cock fighting. A group of gentlemen who wanted to continue competing with each other via poultry decided to invent a new ‘game’ based on exhibition. [That’s the game of ‘Old English Game’] There were no recognized breeds of chickens at this time – landraces and regional types, but no breeds. The newly created Poultry Club of Britain defined some breeds as the categories for competition. And then they wrote the first Standard Of Perfection (SOP) to set the rules and standards for judging. Game on!

By this quirk of fate, breeding chickens became a ‘sport’ for the elite, but one that common folk could afford to participate in as well! It was a huge fad that rapidly spread across western Europe and North America. Highly literate gentlemen kindly wrote about how to breed winners. People took the utility of chickens for granted while focusing on ‘perfection’ and ‘purity’. Since then, Show Breeding is so commonly presented as the only legitimate breeding method for chickens, it’s no wonder that many people who have kept chickens for decades don’t know that there is any other.

For the chickens, this is NOT a good thing. Show breeding’s focus on appearances inadvertently sucks the healthy variation out of the gene pool. Virtually all of the heritage breeds as we know them now are endangered, not only because they are less productive than modern commercial breeds, but also because they have become a lot less productive than they once were.

Long before 1876, when chickens were farm animals and not ‘living works of art’, people had learned how to improve egg laying traits &/or carcass quality, while also improving vitality, fertility, disease resistance and temperament. This was not Genetics, it was farmers’ good practice… over a lot of time and with some good luck. No one had seen a chromosome yet, and no one knew why some animals were more robust than others, but they had seen that when roosters and hens were selected for productivity traits, and when the occasional unrelated animal was crossed into the flock, the offspring improved with each generation.

The core techniques of Production Breeding are now well understood, so it doesn’t take a village to do it over hundreds of years. It can be done within one breed or within a landrace, or within any group that you can define (e.g. the common chickens of Kenya). It requires that you start with a group that still has a fairly full gene pool, i.e. most of the genetic variation that existed before ‘pure’ breeding closed the gene pool is still there. [If not, you may have to do some Restoration Breeding first.]

There are two central methods which I will call Amplification and Deepening. Amplification involves producing a large enough number of chicks from chosen parents so that you have a good chance of seeing all the best genetic combinations possible from within that limited source. Deepening involves adding some new parents, which is adding additional genes. Either way, your progress depends on producing enough chicks to get those winning combinations. It is a numbers game – go big!

What’s actually happening? Production breeding does its work with the chicken traits that you cannot ‘see’ directly. About 70% of the chicken genome is devoted to embryonic development, and almost all of the rest is involved with metabolism, body maintenance, immunity, digestion, etc. (Only a very tiny number of genes determine feather colour and pattern, comb shape, etc.) It takes large combinations of these ‘invisible genes’ to grow, nurture and protect all the body parts that are needed for egg production, body building and good health.

Production breeders seek to maintain the healthy variation in their flock by producing large numbers of offspring every year. This reduces the loss rate of the less common gene forms (alleles). They maintain many more roosters than are needed for simple fertility – roosters are half the genetic population! They also like to increase the number of different alleles (genetic variants) available in their flock, which can only be done by adding new birds that carry some of the alleles that didn’t get included in the original flock’s endowment.

In other words, they breed like the farmers of 100+ years ago, only with better data collection skills and knowledge of the genetic principles in play.

How are parent birds selected? Not by putting photos up on Facebook, that’s for sure! Production breeders select roosters and hens by performance, not by looks. When you think about it, all other livestock are selected by performance – hogs have to grow a body that would dress out best, race horses have to win races, sheep have to produce good quality wool – why should chickens be bred just to look like a picture?

The breeder should have a short list of utility traits that they wish to maximize, such as growth rate and egg size. For the most rapid improvement it usually is necessary to tag the chicks individually so that performance can be tracked as they mature and go through their first year of lay. But remember, farmers did this long before tags were invented – they had a good eye and knew their birds very well.

It is important to keep records. People fool themselves very easily, and this year’s crop always looks better than last year’s crop, but you should keep records to know how much improved they are. You should also track offspring from different line crosses – which ones worked best?

The Next Level – Two Parent Lines. When people learned to produce sexable chicks with the feather sexing trait, which requires separate mother and father lines, they discovered that maintaining two lines that carry different genetic variants you can get an even more improved ‘product’ generation. Sort of like a hybrid, but completely within the breed. You can do the same with or without the feather sexing trait.

Make your own breed. Production Breeding techniques can be used to advance beyond the original utility capacity of a single breed and produce something even more productive. There is no inherent reason to be constrained by the breed definitions that were chosen for showing. In fact, all new breeds of chickens have been produced by combining several different breeds – often from different continents – which creates a tremendous increase in genetic variation. When you read the histories of all of the American breeds, you will see that this is what was done. If you know what traits you want, Production Breeding is the way to get them ‘consolidated’ in your flock.

But for most of us who aren’t driven to create a new breed, Production Breeding still makes more sense for small breeders than show breeding.

Production Breeding is simple:

Choose breeders by performance

Produce enough chicks to find outstanding individuals

Bring in a fresh line every few years to deepen the flock

If you do this consistently you will develop a nice line that performs just the way that suits you best. And you can feel good about being part of the solution for heritage chicken survival.