Do you want to start breeding healthy chickens as a productive part of your backyard farm or homestead? Well, you are in luck! This series of articles will help you breed your chickens for improved health and vigor, egg production, and meat production using the tools of selection and culling.
Breeding Healthy Chickens
What Is Culling?
A lot of people here cull and think “kill”. While that is one way to cull, it’s not what culling actually is.
Culling is removing an animal or plant’s genetics from the gene pool. You can cull chickens by butchering or simply by removing the bird from the breeding flock or by selling it to someone as a layer (if it’s a pullet/hen). Of course, you can put the cull into your own non-breeding laying flock as well.
What about cockerels, you say? A layer flock doesn’t really need a male around and the hens certainly wouldn’t be happy with dozens of hormonal cockerels harassing them. I recommend butchering out any males that you cull. You can either do this yourself or give him to someone else who will do it. You might be wondering if you can give or sell the extra cockerels to a pet home. While you can probably do that with a few, if you’re breeding chickens you’ll be producing a lot of extra males and you’ll quickly fill up any pet homes that might be interested in taking them. Keep in mind too, that if the chicken is not good enough for you to breed then it’s unlikely to be worth someone else breeding it.
Selection Points for Breeding Healthy Chickens
One of the key factors to improving your chicken flock is to decide on what traits you want to improve as you breed each generation. These traits are known as selection points. In this post, we’ll be going over the general selection points that should be taken into consideration for all breeding flocks if you’re interested in breeding healthy chickens.
Egg Size + Quality
The first selection points to focus on are the size and quality of the eggs that you are setting for hatching.
- Only set eggs that are at or above the weight you have chosen. Setting the largest eggs will slowly but surely increase the overall egg size of your flock. Larger egg sizes are considered more valuable to consumers and they also correlate to a more productive flock. This selection point improves egg size by culling some of the genetics for too-small eggs.
- Only set normal eggs. If you set eggs that are abnormally shaped, double-yolked, or porous you will find yourself having poor hatching rates. Eggs that are shaped oddly make it difficult for chicks to turn to the proper position for hatching out. Double-yolked eggs are almost impossible to hatch for many reasons, including the fact there isn’t room for 2 chicks to position themselves. Porous eggs are more likely to grow bacteria that can infect and kill the developing chick. This selection point improves egg quality and promotes natural reproduction by culling some of the genetics for poor egg qualities.
Next, the second set of selection points for breeding healthy chickens involves the ability of the chicks to hatch properly.
- Never EVER assist with hatching. If you keep chickens that needed help to hatch for breeding then you will increase the likelihood that their chicks will need help hatching and so on down the line until your chickens can no longer hatch on their own. This selection point improves natural reproductive abilities by culling chicks that are not vigorous enough to hatch.
- Keep only the chicks that hatch before or during the “popcorn” phase. What does that mean? If you’ve ever made popcorn in the microwave then you know that there are a few initial kernels popping, then a ton of them one right after the other, and then just a random kernel popping here and there at the end. You can cull the less vigorous chicks who straggle along on hatching (the random kernels at the end). This selection point improves vigor by culling chicks that are slow to hatch.
The third set of selection points for breeding healthy chickens focuses on removing deformities from the flock.
- Only keep chicks to raise that are normal and correct. Chicks with crossbeak, crooked toes, missing nails or eyes, or any other gross (meaning obvious, not eww yuck!) deformity should be culled out as soon as possible. While some of these issues can be caused by incubator problems, it’s also just as likely to be something genetic. Do not keep chickens for breeding that have any deformities. This selection point improves the natural health of your flock by culling chicks that would not be able to care for themselves as well as they should, or at all.
- Keep only breeding birds that are free of serious conformational faults. These faults include but are not limited to, wry tails (the physical sign of a twisted spine and pelvis) and missing tails (unless they’re one of the few rumpless breeds). Both wry and missing tails can affect the ability of a hen to easily lay eggs and/or increase the likelihood of vent prolapse. This selection point improves the natural health and reproductive ability of the flock by culling breeders will undesirable or harmful genetics.
The fourth set of selection points for breeding healthy chickens focuses on improving the natural health of the flock. Chickens, at least until very recently, are a type of livestock. The thing that separates livestock and pets is that livestock are managed and bred in such a way that health and birth (or hatching) should involve as little human assistance as possible. Whereas with pets it’s entirely the opposite. Ask me about the lady with the broody hen and an almost $400 vet bill… Or the lady wanting to know the best treatment for her “roo” with a dangling, bone-sticking-out leg while she waits a week for her next paycheck so she can get the chicken into a vet to have the limb amputated…
A few notes:
Practice good management.
Again, chickens should be treated basically like livestock. This means:
- clean, fresh water.
- simple, nutritious feeds.
- lots of fresh air and sunshine.
- a draft-free, uncrowded area to get out of inclement weather.
- clean living areas.
Choose a breed suited to your climate.
Do you want to be running fans in the chicken coop? Or rubbing Vaseline on combs in the deepest part of winter? Don’t even mess around with birds that need special care to survive your weather. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Now, onto those selection points:
- First, keep the chickens that thrive under your management. Most chickens should be incredibly healthy and happy with the basic management laid out above. Any chickens that don’t thrive under that management really have no business staying in your flock. This selection point improves the natural health of your flock by culling chickens that can’t thrive under normal conditions.
- Don’t keep chickens that get sick. Assuming that you keep a closed flock, practice good management, and do everything you can to prevent illness, it’s a wise idea to cull chickens that get sick. Yes, you can certainly get them healthy again and then send them to the layer flock if you like, but don’t breed from them. This selection point improves natural health by culling chickens that have poor immunity.
The fifth selection point is one that is optional, for the most part, but it’s something that is important to me and others may find it of interest.
This a very simple one: The cockerels should be obvious by a certain age. I cull cockerels that aren’t obvious by 8 weeks of age. Many breeders like to move cockerels into separate housing from the pullets so they can put more of their energy into growing meaty instead of chasing the girls all day.
The sixth selection point focuses on when the chickens reach sexual maturity. For all breeds of chickens, cockerels will mature first and pullets will follow in a month or two.
Different breeds will have different ages where they reach maturity. You want to select chickens who reach maturity in a reasonable time frame based on their breed. Generally, the larger the breed the longer it takes to reach maturity. I expect cockerels to be fertilizing eggs by 16-24 weeks, depending on breed. I like pullets to reach point of lay between 20-28 weeks, again depending on breed.
A culling schedule, as I call it, is essentially a plan specifying what your selection points are and when you will make culling decisions.
Here is an example of one of my culling schedules:
- First, cull for egg size and shape before setting eggs.
- Cull for hatching ability.
- Cull hatchlings for visible defects as they get put into the brooder.
- Weeks 6, 7, and 8 – Move obvious cockerels to bachelor quarters.
- Week 9 and on – Cull all late-blooming cockerels (males that were not sorted out in previous weeks).
- Week 12 – Cull bottom 50% based on weight.
- Raise out remaining birds to sexual maturity. Cull pullets that are not laying by 24 weeks.
- Cull for type and finer points in the Fall. Keep only birds that are good enough to breed.
- Spring – Final cull for chickens before the start of the breeding season.