Most of us who keep a flock of chickens, for eggs, meat, or both, only keep a single rooster, if any. Rarely do we keep any of his off-spring. If we need to replace old hens or start our meat-production cycle again we order pullets, or eggs, from a supplier.
While convenient, this reliance on breeders is hardly self-sufficient. If a medium or long-term SHTF scenario were to happen, you may not be able to re-supply your flock and keep this important food source coming.
This is why you should have on the back-burner a basic breeding plan that will select for health and positive traits of your choice. You also need to know how you can keep track of it. You may choose to pull out your breeding plan when SHTF, or, like so many prepping skills, it may be better to start now. There are mistakes to be made, and likely, some major adjustments to make in your flock before you begin.
Breeding for your goals
In order to breed your chickens you need to have your goals sorted out. First, it is essential to decide whether you are breeding for meat or eggs, or both. Breeding for both eggs and meat is more challenging, at least if you are expecting modern production standards, and you may find it easier to keep one flock for eggs and another for meat.
From there, your goals can be as specific or general as you like. You’ll find each breeding decision comes with its own pros and cons. Perhaps one hen lays more eggs than her fellows, but is continually broody.
So long as you’re not breeding show chickens, look only to your own preferences in making the decision whether or not to breed her. While some may prefer broody birds because they would rather the hen do the rearing, others find struggling with the broody hen to get her eggs is a hassle they’d rather avoid.
There are a few characteristics that may appeal to preppers more than others. If you want a bird that will do well in a cold climate, particularly when your electricity goes out, you can breed for that. It may be helpful to select for birds which forage well, so they do not put much stress on your food supply when SHTF.
You may consider breeding for chickens which produce less meat or eggs, but require less food to survive than their high-production counter-parts. This would make your flock more stable if you struggled to provide for them.
Stock to start with
After breeding for some time, you may end up with better chickens than your average hatchery produces. But, why not start out with better chickens than your average hatchery produces?
You’ll find well-managed small scale farms in your area can afford careful attention to their stock, and, as long as your goals are fairly aligned with the breeder’s, starting from their stock can give you a real boost. The birds will already be suited to your climate, and the nearby breeder can act as a resource for you even when the internet is down.
You also must pay attention to the breeds of your bird. Generally, it is a poor idea to attempt to cross different breeds, especially when you’re starting out. Instead of combining the best features of the breeds, its more likely that you’ll lose what is special about each variety. Crossing meat and egg producers is even more challenging, as they need different feeds and often have very contrary genetics. Gaye has talked about chicken feed considerations here.
Preferred Chicken Breeds
Here are some chicken breeds which might be preferred by preppers:
- White Leghorn (usually produces the eggs found in grocery stores)
- Rhode Island Red
- Black Australorp
- Red Ranger (aka Freedom Ranger)
- White Jersey Giant
- Cornish Cross (produces the meat found in grocery stores)
- New Hampshire
- Buff Orpington
- Icelandic Chickens
- Black Minorca (excellent forager)
- -ncona (best where there are many predators)
Should I Breed this Hen or Rooster?
There are a number of defects that should disqualify a bird from being bred, regardless of your end goal. Any physical deformities (unless caused by injury) like deformed bills, extra or missing toes, or a slipped wing are serious faults.
While these problems may hardly bother the first bird who presents them, you can be sure the issue will only be more dramatic in the bird’s offspring, eventually resulting in crippled and unproductive birds. The same goes for heritable illnesses. You may even find a bird seems unusually susceptible to an infectious illness, in this case it would be much better to breed it’s sisters or brothers which remain healthy.
Once you’ve determined which birds absolutely cannot be bred you have to move on to find the best birds of your flock, to focus on breeding those. Judging your birds requires not just keeping track of their production, whether eggs or meat, but also noting their character and measuring their proportions.
Egg hens also have different considerations than roosters. I’ve listed out the main concerns for each type of bird below. Be sure you are always comparing birds of the same gender at the same age. And, always consider health first.
Egg Laying Hens
- Consider the shape, size, thickness of shell, and number of eggs the hen produces.
- How early did the hen begin to produce? Does she produce later in the winter than her sisters, or start earlier in the spring? Is her second or third year more productive than her sisters’? Does she molt quickly (that’s better)?
- Consider the hen’s proportions. Though she is not producing meat, being too thin or too fat is still a detriment. Being too large overall will drop her egg production. She must have adequate distance between her pelvic bones, to allow for eggs to pass, but more is always better.
- Lastly, consider her disposition. Does she go broody regularly? Is she a good mother? Can she be easily handled? Is she wary of predators? Does she forage well?
Egg Laying Roosters
- A rooster should be examined for weight and proportions as a hen is.
- How large is his comb? Larger means more eggs.
- How fertile is he? As in, what percentage of his hen’s eggs are fertilized?
- Consider the laying ability of his mother, this will effect his daughters.
- Lastly, consider his behavior. Is he too aggressive with humans, or with his hens? Is he not aggressive enough?
Meat Producing Hens and Roosters
- How quickly did the bird reach harvesting size? How big is its appetite (bigger being better)?
- How much food did it take for the bird to reach harvesting size (percentage of protein in food will effect this)?
- What was the end harvested weight of the bird (or the size when fully mature)? Was the meat too fatty, or not fatty enough?
- How wide are the bird’s feathers (wider is better)? How wide is the bird’s skull (wider is also better)?Was the overall shape of the carcass deep, straight, and full?
- Do not neglect to allow for good fertility and egg-laying ability of meat birds as well, because they need these characteristics to reproduce.
How do you keep track of all of these traits? There is poultry managing software online, like ZooEasy. But, seeing as we are preppers, you should either frequently print out these family trees, or you should simply keep all of your information on paper.
It’s best to produce many birds each year so you have a lot of choice, generally you should keep ten percent, or less, of the birds you hatch for breeding. It is also better to be harsh in your judgment than to allow a bird with less than ideal characteristics to mate.
As soon as a serious defect is found– even in a chick– you should either kill the bird or mark it not to be bred. Just because you can’t let a bird breed doesn’t mean you have to kill it, but when SHTF you may end up killing it anyway to conserve resources.
You can find some great advice on assessing birds online. Here are good starter guides for meat birds and for egg birds. More advanced breeding tips can be found in this publication from the livestock conservancy. It may also be of interest to you that there are other forms of selection, like family, progeny, and sibling, as explained by the Poultry Guide.
A Basic Breeding Program
The simplest breeding program for a prepper to achieve is rolling mating between two groups of birds. You divide your flock into two groups, each with a rooster. Let’s call these group A and B. At first, the roosters should not be closely related to the hens of either group. Your first year, you mate rooster A to the A hens, and rooster B to the B hens.
You keep the best offspring and add them to their mother’s group. Then, you switch roosters, so that in year two rooster A is mating with the hens of group B. Rooster B will mate with mate with the hens of group A. You do not need to keep the two groups separate all the time, just for a few weeks before you collect the eggs you/your hens will hatch.
In the third year you switch roosters again, so that rooster A is mating with the A hens again. This also means he is mating with his daughters from the first year. This level of inbreeding is fine, especially in chickens, and especially if your flock is generally healthy.
But, this also means that you have to be extra selective with your roosters, as they will have a larger impact on your line than any single hen. Any negative characteristic in your rooster will likely show up strongly when you cross him this third year with his daughters.
With this system you should replace roosters only when you produce a better rooster than what you’re working with now. You should also try to choose daughters that don’t seem to have his faults, when possible.
To reduce the effect of a single rooster, or to minimize inbreeding, or to avoid adding new blood for as long as possible, you can try a slightly more complex breeding program, a spiral program. This is where you divide your flock into three clans.
Then, you guessed it, you rotate the roosters each year. With this program your A rooster isn’t paired with his direct daughters until year four (because in year three he mates with hens of flock C), and you have more genetic diversity on the male side.
On a purely cosmetic note, if you like to breed with some degree of color variation in mind, it is advantageous to keep multiple roosters, as they contribute more to the color of their offspring than hens do, genetically speaking.
Adding New Blood
At some point, you will need to incorporate new blood into your breeding program. If you’re doing so when SHTF, my suggestion is to become familiar with any of your neighbors who happen to also raise chickens and swap one or two newly mature birds with them.
I suggest that you swap so that you and your neighbor can both increase the genetic diversity of your respective flocks, and so neither is tempted to give the other a sub-par bird. You will likely need to rely on each other in the future, so try to help them as much as they help you. Also: it would be in your best interests to obtain a bird of the same breed, or at least production type, that you’re already working with.
Bringing new birds into your program can actually be a very frustrating process if not done carefully, assuming you are liking the result your program is already producing. When you have the choice, you should prefer bringing in the best bird possible, and especially one who is strong in areas your existing flock is weak.
If you bring in a rooster, you’ll see big change, assuming you’re using one of the two breeding programs I’ve outlined above. This can be good, but it can also be bad, as every bird will have negative traits and you may find they have a larger effect on your flock than anticipated.
Bringing in a new hen will have more moderate effects, assuming you have more than three hens in your overall flock. This is ideal for the beginner especially, as a single hen produces less children than a single rooster, so it’s not as large of a loss to cull all of the new additions.
When you introduce a new hen, mark her offspring carefully and observe them with a very critical eye. If the offspring are not on par with what you are already producing, she may not be the right bird to introduce.
Breeding your chickens is a rewarding experience. You can end up with a flock of birds that is perfectly suited to your own needs and preferences, and one that will stay healthy and faithfully provide you with eggs and/or meat throughout a SHTF situation.
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