Chickens · Homestead

How To Breed Your Heritage Chickens

I wanted to write about the basics of starting a breeding program for your own flock of chicken. I know there are many homesteaders and rural folk out there who are wondering how to go about developing a sustainable flock breeding system. I will discuss some basics and talk about my own efforts some.

The First Question is Why? Why do you want to do this?

This is an important question to ask yourself, because the answer to it will determine what sort of breeding program you want to undertake. Are you breeding for show? Then you will be most interested in breed standards and selecting visual characteristics. Or are you, like myself, breeding your flock for sustainability and to have a strong, healthy flock that will provide you with good meat and/or eggs in perpetuity? If so, then you will want to focus on traits like egg laying, broodiness, winter/summer hardiness, disease resistance, and personality. Something like color may not matter as much to you.

What I Look For

In my own personal flock, I’m watching for birds that show the following characteristics:

  • Broodiness: I have Orpingtons (specifically blue/black/lavender). The breed is known for making good broody hens and mothers, but honestly, I haven’t seen that yet in my birds. Out of my original two hens from 3 years ago, only one of them went broody, and even she only went broody once. The other one has never gone broody for me, not once. I will not hatch any eggs from the latter – she is actually going to be culled. If I had a hen that was broody often, she would be a prize hen for me.
  • Disease/pest resistance: Like human diseases, chicken pathogens are around all the time, but not everyone gets sick. Those with weaker immunity will get sick, and may be chronic carriers in your flock. I don’t want those birds around, and I most certainly don’t want them breeding. That unlucky hen I mentioned above? She’s also been carrying some chronic respiratory thing around – nothing I do for her has she responded to. So I don’t want that weakness in my flock. Sounds harsh – but for the rest of the flock’s sake, she needs to go.
  • Winter hardiness: One of the reasons I’ve got Orpingtons now is because I wanted a hardy bird that could withstand our Northern Alberta winters. I also don’t want to heat my coop unless I absolutely am forced to, so my birds need to be big, robust, have thick lofty feathers, and not be wimps. My Orps are these birds. I had also considered Chanteclers, but am not a big fan of white, so Orps it is.
  • Egg Laying: Orpingtons as a breed are dual purpose birds, so you can use them for meat or eggs. Eggs are important to me – a bird has to earn its keep around here, so I want good egg production. Anyone who isn’t laying better have a darn good reason why they aren’t.
  • Non-Aggressiveness: Orpingtons are supposed to be a gentle breed, but we’ve had some awful roosters. I had 8 in a row that were vicious… attacked my kids, husband, and me. I was beginning to think I had made a terrible mistake with the breed. But finally, last year I had one cockerel mature to be an AMAZINGLY gentle rooster. He is so good with his ladies, and he treats us with respect, has never ever attacked us. And he happens to be gorgeous to boot. Guess who’s genes I will be using for my new line?

So What Now?

Well now you know what you want to look for, how do you go about it? Here’s a few good resources to help you.

Let’s start with  How to Breed Chickens Using the Clan-Mating System – Homesteading and Livestock – from Mother Earth News. I’m a sucker for good graphics, and this page has it in spades. Harvey Ussery’s Clan-Mating system is easy to follow, and well laid out. It just makes sense. I like how easy it would be to implement…just mate one color leg band to the next color leg band, ALWAYS. No worrying about how each bird is related, or trying to figure out who is siblings with who.

Starting Your Own Heritage Flock by Yellow House Farm  describes a “Rolling System” for selecting and perpetuating your flock. Easy to follow, and one that could be started with a single cock. It’s a line breeding system, where the same family line is bred, but avoiding brother/sister pairings. So, father/daughter and mother/son are fine and granddaughter/grandpa, stuff like that.

Inbreeding/Outcrossing

The word inbreeding has so often come to be used in a derogatory sense, that we often forget that we do precisely that when breeders selectively breed for good traits. In essence, we encourage inbreeding for desirable traits, and discourage inbreeding for undesirable traits. But it’s all inbreeding. I used to be concerned about inbreeding issues, and some advise to bring in a new rooster every few years to ‘freshen’ up that gene pool. This can be referred to as ‘outcrossing’.

With that said, however, Breeding Pure Breeds of Chickens from Poultrykeeper.com states “outcrossing should only be done as a last resort. Whilst bringing in fresh blood can bring in the qualities you want, it will also bring in a great deal that you don’t want.” And some breeders don’t EVER outcross because after years spent breeding out certain undesirable traits, the introduction of one new animal can screw your whole system up.

Selecting Color

Some breeds don’t breed true colorwise – that means that the color of the chicks may not be the same as the parent. My flock of Black and Blue Orpingtons don’t breed true. A black and black can result in blue, black, splash, or lavender chicks. How can I know what I will get? I can do it two ways: 1) just let them breed and find out in the end, or 2) I can be more intentional and keep good records of my birds and/or use a Chicken breeding chart such as over at Sweet Southern Blue.

Selecting Eggs

Choose perfect eggs for incubating/setting. It doesn’t make sense to hatch eggs that are misshapen, thin, or abnormal in any way. You will be perpetuating problems, and raising hatching chicks who will grow up to lay lousy eggs, too. Choose the most perfect eggs you have. And some good guidance for selecting hens for good laying selection can be found here, on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Chicken Assessment pdf.

Black Orpington rooster and 2 black Orpington hens in chicken pen
Photo by Wikipedia, CCO

You will have your own reasons for developing your own flock – no matter what, it’s a good idea to figure out what it is that you want… what sort of flock are you aiming for? Or as Stephen Covey put it, “Begin with the end in mind”. Then you can set out a plan for how to get there.

As for me, last year was my year to accumulate new birds, and weed out the aggressive roosters. This year is more intentional… I will be looking to start the Clan Mating System, so I will be dividing my flock up by colors and putting leg bands on them. And of course, I’m always keeping an eye on who I DON’T want to be breeding any longer.

What about you? Do you raise your own flock? What methods have you used?

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8 thoughts on “How To Breed Your Heritage Chickens

  1. Love this post! Heritage breeds are what we are focusing on since last year. I wish more people would do the research you obviously have and practice more responsible poultry breeding. Some of those beautiful heritage breeds could disappear forever if we’re not careful 🙂

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      1. We’ve had Wyandottes (SL, GL, and Columbians), Orpingtons, Delawares, Aracaunas and Heritage Reds over the past few years. We sold off nearly all the poultry last year to do a major overhaul of the coops and runs. This year we are starting flocks of Polish and adding Black Copper Marans. The Delawares and Orpingtons will be back, some out of the parent birds we sold off.

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      2. I see. I’ve had RIRs, and Barred Rocks before getting into heritage birds. I was interested in Wyandottes but couldn’t find anywhere local to get them from, so I went with bk/bl/lav Orps. Now I’ll be getting Buffs as well. I love the eggs of the Black Copper Marans but the birds don’t do anything for me. You had quite a selection.

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  2. What great information about breeding chickens! I have buff orpingtons as well as other breeds, but they are my favorite. I’ve never had a mean rooster, they’ve all been sweet and gentle. The hens do a decent job of laying through our hot Oklahoma summers. I had a few go broody, but not very many; the ones that hatched chicks were very good mothers. I’d definitely be breeding for broodiness.

    I’d like to invite you to share this post at Our Simple Homestead blog hop on Thursday at Oak Hill Homestead.

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