Traditional Breeding Programs
for the Home Flock
By Craig Russell
Thanks to Dick for sharing his experience with clan systems and to Christine for helping translate our thoughts for those without a lot of poultry experience.
In the modern era, an age of large commercial hatcheries and mass production of poultry, traditional poultry breeding has become somewhat of a lost art. Yet for preservationists or anyone serious about maintaining a quality self-perpetuating flock, the traditional methods of breeding are still the best.
By establishing a small flock of a rare and historic breed, small flock owners can help restore rare breeds. Many find it rewarding to rescue these valuable breeds, with their individual contributions in egg and meat production and unique appearance. Increasing the number of small flocks of each rare breed also protects the breed from being devastated by a single disaster.
"Success" may mean different things to different operations. Success can include excellence in utilitarian qualities such as meat and egg production as well as the aesthetics of the fancy and preservation of rare breeds. Poultry is often divided along a line that separates utility from fancy. Ideally, these qualities should be combined. By referring to the Standard of Perfection and selecting for production qualities, both goals can bless your barnyard.
Beginners may want to concentrate on utilitarian qualities. They are a good base on which to build. Quality can be measured by the dozen and the pound, but is subject to the same genetic laws as style and type.
Traditional breeding methods are generally the most effective for long-term small flock keeping. These include rolling matings, grading, clan matings, and breeding out-and-out.
Rolling matings are a good general-purpose system. With this system, the breeder can maintain a viable population while honing breeding skills and refining artistic judgments.
Don’t be afraid of starting with imperfect stock. Get the best you can, but selective breeding is what any type of livestock preservation is about.
Small flock owners will be most successful with breeds they enjoy. The pleasure of surveying a handsome, uniform flock that has grown from a successful breeding program is hard to beat.
Rolling matings require at least two pens for each breed or variety but a minimum of record keeping.
Rolling matings select the best cockerels and pullets from each season and breed them back to the best breeders of the previous season. Cockerels are bred to hens, cocks are bred to pullets.
Rolling matings can improve the stock and maintain genetic diversity with a small flock, but larger flocks provide more opportunities to select the desired characteristics.
Long-time breeding expert Bruce Lentz, a well-known stringman and breeder from the 1930s through the 1970s, felt that a breeding program should be founded on at least two trios, preferably two cocks and eight to 10 hens. This gives you a deeper genetic base. With that caution in mind, a single trio can be the foundation of a small flock.
After each season, the old birds are combined and culled to the best cocks and hens. The best cockerels and best pullets are selected from the young birds. Putting the cocks with the pullets and the cockerels with the hens keeps the system rolling.
Manage the ratio of the sexes in the pens. For best levels of fertility, one male to 10 females is about right. For light breeds, 12 females may not be too many, while very heavy and feather footed breeds often do better with only eight females per male. Vigorous males may be hard on their mates if too few females are kept. This usually isn’t a problem on free range and can be controlled in confinement by moving males from pen to pen or by only allowing them with the females every other day.
Bruce often maintained side matings with the intention of establishing highly desirable characteristics. Such birds or unrelated stock can be worked into the breedings on either the pullet or cockerel side. The operational word is best. That may mean the utility characteristics of egg and/or meat production, type, color, feather quality or comb, or some combination.
Rolling matings, like all breeding systems, depend on the ability to select breeders. This is a traditional small farm method that has also been employed by fanciers and show folks.
Grading is the process by which a population can be modified by breeding repeatedly to another strain, variety or breed. With patience, an existing flock may be improved or changed completely. This is an old system long used by professionals in cattle, horses, swine, sheep, goats, dogs and other farm stock.
This table shows the progression to breed purity in fractions, decimals and percentages over breeding cycles.
For all practical purposes, eight cycles yield pure stock. Most large stock breeders with open registries grant Pure status after six generations. In cases where one variety is being graded to another or one strain of a variety or breed is being upgraded by addition of another strain, far fewer cycles are usually required before all of the offspring can be returned to the regular mating system.
Grading is sometimes criticized as changing the character of a breed. If done properly and carried to at least the sixth generation, the breed’s purity is preserved.
A combination of rolling matings and grading can also be used to develop new breeds or varieties by mating half- or three-quarter-blood brother to sister and selecting once birds start to show the desired traits. A combination of these techniques can fix the desirable traits and build up the population.
Clan matings are another traditional breeding method for small flocks. Dick Demansky, a prominent SPPA breeder of Old English Games since 1966, has maintained a vigorous flock with virtually no unrelated stock.
The clan system separates a flock into distinct families. The clans are then maintained as separate stock and bred along either the hens’ or the cocks’ lines.
Mr. Demansky clan mates using a matriarchal system. When they hatch, all birds are toe-marked and wing-banded with their mother’s clan mark. He records their numbers when they are cooped.
Matriarchal clans are traced through their mothers, the hens. Patriarchal clans are identified by their lineage through the cock. Cocks and hens of the same clan are never bred to each other. Matriarchal systems are usually pair-mated. Patriarchal systems may breed a male to large groups of, usually, related hens.
Birds should always be matched to others that can compensate for their weaknesses. "They are all weak somewhere," Mr. Demansky writes. "In all the shows that I have judged through the years, I never scored any bird perfect."
With the matriarchal system, eggs must be marked to identify each individual hen. Incubating them together, by hen, is most convenient.
If a pair produces good results, they can be kept together indefinitely. Or pairs can be changed to check different combinations. "This keeps any one bird from exerting too much influence on the complete flock," said Mr. Demansky.
A rooster with outstanding characteristics can be bred to all hens not in his clan. Clans are defined by relationships, not by characteristics. If a bird develops plumage or other characteristics that resemble another clan, he or she still belongs to the clan identified by lineage.
Clan matings work best with a minimum of three clans. Typically, breeders keep an odd number of clans, although any number above two will work.
Clan systems have traditionally been used by cockers and show folks.
In its most extreme form, new males are bought into the flock each year.
Even when new males are brought in only every second or third year, this method maintains a high degree of genetic diversity in the flock. Although uniformity may suffer, this method tends to produce vigorous population, and was primarily used in utilitarian operations. As with any system, starting with quality stock yields the best results.
Different breeding methods require varying amounts of record keeping. Clan matings keep track of every chick. Rolling matings and out-and-out matings require little or no record keeping. Although for best results at least the year an individual was hatched should be recorded. Matriarchal clan systems require extensive record keeping but document the exact ancestry of every individual.
Each Flock Unique
Choose the method that suits your needs best. "There is a time to inbreed, a time to line breed and a time to out-cross," Mr. Demansky writes. "Knowledgeable breeders do it all, when the need arises."
Small flock poultry keepers can find methods that will suit them and their goals for their flocks. The ambitious or eager can arrange two breeding cycles a year. Others may find one adequate.
Selection of fowl with long, productive lives will develop strains with low mortality and vigorous constitutions, always the goals of old-time breeders.
Modern methods of intensive production with extremely high rates of feed conversion, rapid weight gain, early maturity and high egg production have not favored longevity. Inherent health problems are often associated with today’s high production strains. In most cases, modern methods have actually shortened the profitable life as well as the actual life of domestic fowl.
For non-factory production and for establishing a flock near the breed ideal, a long-lived population with prolonged utility is desirable. The goal of the poultry conservationist and the serious backyard farmer should be to breed a strain that lays plenty of eggs without loss of vigor and retains fertility year after year.
Older birds should be subjected to normal culling and selecting. Thus a tried and true breeder might be replaced by a younger bird with far superior type.
Some feather patterns tend to deteriorate with age. A bird with proper color during the first year of life is not a cull due to later color deterioration, but would not be selected over birds of equal age, type and vitality that still retained superior color. Actually this is pretty good advice for use with any backyard breed, but certainly should be followed by anyone working with historic types, Demansky concludes.
Selection of non-broody strains and trap nesting are the tools modern breeds have used to increase egg production in modern production fowl. The selection against natural broodiness has been going on for thousands of years in areas like China, Egypt, and the Middle East where artificial incubation was available. Even in other areas where natural incubation prevailed until fairly recently, certain breeds were selected for high egg production and simply hatched by fowl that had been selected for enhanced broodiness or at least retained natural levels of the trait.
High production egg breeds and strains have existed for a long time. But it was trap nesting along with day length manipulation and better feed formulation that took egg production to the highest levels.
Small flock owners can, and have, used such technology. For those with the time and money trap nests are still available commercially and plans for home construction are also available.
In the 1960s I was aware of a number of small breeders including some that were working with broody breeds and trying to enhance or maintain the characteristic that used trap nest results as part of their selection criteria. In some cases the pullet year was spent in trap nested laying and only the best producers moved on to the breeding program in later years. For other breeders trap nesting and egg production were just one of many factors in evaluating which hens would continue with the program.
For those unable to accommodate the time and record keeping a trap nesting program requires, there are other proven, if often slower, methods that will allow the development of strains with good egg production. Start hatching early in the season. The best producers usually go into production first. Select breeders that lay well in short-day, natural-light situations. If you know your hens and their eggs well enough to know who is laying when, select hens with long periods of uninterrupted lay over hens with frequent pauses. Hens producing eggs have large, soft vents. Non-laying hens have small, often puckered, vents. Just as good producers will lay during short days and cold weather, they will also lay during hot weather. Good producers tend to molt late and rapidly. Hens that lay while molting also are usually good producers.
Whether we are talking about laying or any other trait, pick your breeders by hand, as well as eye and historical data. A breeder should be firm and well muscled without being fat. Legs should be properly placed. All breeders should be a good representation of their breed’s type. Eyes should be bright, clear and properly placed. Wings should be carried properly. Use your breed standard.
Most of all, follow your breeding program. I sometimes hear from breeders who think they are using rolling matings when they breed cocks to pullets and cockerels to hens but simply drop the oldest generation each year. This reduces the system’s long-term selection for longevity and deprives them of the long-term use of truly superior individuals.
A breeding program should stress the preservation of breed characteristics such as meat quality and good mothering skills in Dorkings and Games, or high egg production in Minorcas and Leghorns. In the first group a pullet that did not go broody would not be a breeder a second year. One with three cycles would be preferred to the one with only one or two. In the second group, consider egg shape and size as well as overall production.
If at all possible, do not use birds that have ever shown any signs of illness as breeders. Selection for nothing but productivity tends to reduce quality of type. Selection based solely on fancy points often reduces productivity. Combining such strains allows a good breeder to quickly produce a productive, near perfect flock.
Small closed flocks have levels of bio-security that crowded commercial operations can only dream about so once your flock is established, be very careful about adding outside birds.
In a future article I will cover breeding and crossing compatible varieties. In the meantime, get that program going!
SPPA members have many years of experience with these and other breeding systems to maintain and invigorate common, rare and historic breeds. The quarterly Bulletin often includes articles from members about their experiences with systems that worked, or didn’t work, toward accomplishing their goal.
A year’s membership is $12.50 and includes the Breeders Directory, a listing of all SPPA members, what they raise and how to contact them. To join, send payment to Dr. Charles Everett, 122 Magnolia Lane, Lugoff, SC 29078.