Raising your own chickens means you need to pay careful attention to certain things, like which hens you raise replacement chickens from, fostering broodiness in at least some of your hens, record keeping and other little details like that. If you’re new to chicken breeding, it’s apt to generate some questions. Here are some of the questions I had when I was first starting out, or that others have asked me.
1. How do you know which eggs come from which hens? You can use trap boxes, in which the hen goes in to lay an egg and is trapped inside the box until you let her out. Or you can operate on the assumption that all of your hens are laying (and you can determine that by looking at their vents – where the egg comes out) and simply ensure you have a good selection of eggs. Eggs are different – larger, smaller, lighter, darker, with speckles, without speckles. Just make sure you have lots of different-looking eggs, and the odds are high you’ll have some from all of your hens. If you’re incubating, collect eggs for about a week and put them all in the incubator; you’re sure to have at least one egg from every hen in the flock, and in most cases, you’ll have at least two. If you’re using a broody hen, give her an assorted lot of eggs unless you specifically want only her eggs.
2. What if I want to make sure I get eggs from a particular hen? Lock her into a broody box or a separate pen (a large dog crate makes a good temporary pen – just make sure it’s in a predator-proof spot) and collect the eggs she lays. Then incubate them or put them under a broody hen if she’s not broody herself.
3. How can I encourage broodiness? Broody hens are a pearl beyond price when you’re trying to raise your own chickens. When it comes to broodiness, hens vary from couldn’t-care-less to going broody several times in one season. Some breeds are very strong in the broody department – Dorkings, silkies and most banties, for example. Others, like Leghorns, go broody only when there’s a blue moon in the middle of a howling snowstorm in Florida. Unless you’re trying to raise one of those breeds, you’re probably going to have to work at encouraging broodiness in your flock. The first thing you need to do is pay attention to who’s trying to set; that’s why I recommend you ring those hens with an “S.” If a hen is inclined to go broody, you can sometimes encourage her by putting false eggs, egg-shaped rocks or even golf balls in a nest. The broody hen will tend to lay there, as she thinks she’s building a clutch. Some people say that if you always collect the eggs, the hens won’t go broody. I don’t recommend you stop collecting eggs, however. In my experience, a broody hen will go broody even in an empty nest. Leaving the eggs sitting around means they’re likely to get broken, which sometimes encourages egg-eating. Some hens don’t go broody until they get older, say three or four years old. That is actually a good thing, as you want chicks from older hens, anyway. Although their egg production will diminish, broody hens will also continue to set as they get older. My last batch of chicks were raised by a hen that’s at least five years old – I don’t know if she even lays any more. It may be well worth your while to keep a few broody hens in each clan even if they are five or six years old. Their eggs will help keep the broody trait going in the clan, but it’s also no great loss if they go broody and stop laying eggs, since they aren’t high producers anyway.
4. None of my hens will go broody; what should I do? You have two choices: incubate the eggs with an incubator or bring in some hens that are known for broodiness. Some people keep a separate flock of a different breed just so they have hens that will set. Silkies, cochins and banties of any kind are generally known to be good setters. Keep them in a separate pen, collect all their eggs to eat, and when a hen gets broody, give her eggs from taken from ONE CLAN ONLY in your primary flock. Give another broody hen eggs from a second clan (and keep her and her chicks in a separate pen). You can also wait until your hen has finished raising the first clan’s babies and goes broody again to give her eggs from a second clan. In my experience, Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Cornish, Speckled Sussex and Delawares will all set with fair reliability, but it really depends on the bird. I’ve had flocks in which half or more set and others in which only one in 12 will set.
5. I want to breed the broodiness trait into my hens, but none of them will set. How can I do that? If you’re raising a breed that has a banty version, you could get a few banties and mate them to your standard-sized rooster. Save some pullets from the banty/standard cross and make sure you follow the usual principles of clan management with these hens. It might take a few generations to get the broody trait back, but it’s quite doable. For the first few generations, you’ll want to select more for the broody trait than any other genetic characteristic. The advantage of that method is that you will still have chickens of all one breed instead of crossbreds. Another option is to get some hens of any kind that are known for broodiness. Allow them to produce crossbred chicks sired by your primary clan roosters. Then select a few of the crossbred hens in each clan that have good general qualities as well as broodiness. Keep crossing them on your purebred roosters and eventually, you will have chicks that are essentially purebred but also have the broody trait. By the time you get to the fifth generation, your “crossbreds” will be 31/32 pure and indistinguishable from the “purebreds.” It’s probably better not to choose hens that have unusual traits such as frizzled feathers or crests if you go this route, as it may be hard to breed those out. Ideally, pick a bird that is very similar to your primary flock of chickens. For example, my primary flock is Delawares. If I were trying to inject some broodiness into the line, I would probably go with White Dorkings – they’re very strongly broody and have a similar color pattern. However, Dorkings tend to grow slowly compared to Delawares, so I might lose some growth in my main flock. Again, you’ll want to make sure you select for broodiness even if the hen has other less desirable characteristics. If you want eggs year round, be careful that you don’t select for such strong broodiness that your hens only lay in the spring, and quit laying for the year once they hatch a clutch. By the way, if your hens won’t set, I recommend you add a few broodies of whatever birds you choose to each clan rather than keeping a separate broody flock; less risk of mixing up the chicks.
6. If my second-best A rooster is better than my best B rooster, why can’t I move him to the other clan instead of keeping the inferior rooster? One word – inbreeding. The only way you might (heavy on the might here) get away with that is if it’s very early in the clan system, you know exactly which rooster and which hen produced your perfect rooster, and you cull not only the parents but any of his related sisters and brothers. Unless you are really experienced, I would not recommend it. Heck, I’m really experienced, and I wouldn’t do it.
7. Why can’t I just have two clans, or one clan of hens with three rotating roosters? Again, inbreeding. You could get away with this for a while; maybe four or five years. The problem is that you will very quickly have closely related chickens, which increases the risk of genetic defects. You could also get away with it if you have another source of roosters that aren’t related to your hens. Every four or five years, you butcher your roosters and get new ones. This won’t work if you want a closed flock, and by bringing in outside roosters, you are constantly diluting the genes in each clan instead of breeding for uniform birds. But if you aren’t striving to breed a specific “type,” bringing in outside birds isn’t a problem.
8. Won’t the roosters fight if I put them all in one pen? Roosters in a group tend to fight for one or more of several reasons. First, there’s a natural pecking order in any group of living creatures (yes, people too). The birds will fight to establish dominance. As long as they have plenty of room, this kind of squabbling isn’t usually a problem. By plenty of room, I mean at least 10 square feet for each bird. So if you have three primary roosters and three backup roosters, you should have at least 60 square feet, not including the nighttime coop. Second, roosters will fight over females – if the females are out of sight, scent and sound, this kind of fighting doesn’t occur. The most problematic kind of fighting occurs when one or more roosters are overly aggressive – they’ll beat the others up just for the fun of it, like a playground bully. As far as I’m concerned, these roosters should go in the stewpot; I don’t care how perfect they are in terms of build, color or other qualities. Sooner or later, naturally aggressive roosters start attacking humans. That can be a major problem if you have small children around. The other time you’ll see fighting is when you introduce new adult or younger roosters into the pen. The birds are establishing a new pecking order. Again, if you have plenty of room and if you introduce the birds in a group rather than putting a single young rooster in with an older group, it should be OK. “Young” in this case means at least four or five months old. Keep a close eye on them, however. Alternatively (and probably ideally), you can have three rooster-only pens and put each age group in its own pen. A three-rooster pen should be 30 feet square excluding the coop.
9. So I think I need to do some outcrossing. How do I go about that? You can bring in roosters, hens or both. If you don’t have a lot of extra cash, I recommend bringing in the best outside roosters you can lay your hands on, as they will have the most immediate effect on your flocks. You should also (if possible) try to select roosters that have the same characteristics as the ones you’re trying to breed into your flocks. The rooster has the biggest impact on each generation because he fathers all the chicks in one batch. Breeding chickens – or any animal – is always a gamble, though. The downside is that you may bring in an outwardly excellent bird that has an invisible genetic flaw. A word of warning: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Keep a few of your best home-bred roosters for a couple of years and see what the new chicks look like and how they perform. If your new roosters turn out to be complete duds, you still have some good stock to use. If money is no object (although in my experience, money is always an object!) it’s safer to bring in a new group of hens because you’re hedging your genetic bet with multiple genetic sources instead of letting it all ride on one rooster. The least expensive way to do this is to buy the standard 25-chick order from a commercial hatchery. If you use the new hens to create an additional clan (in which case, get a new rooster as well), you can keep the rest of the clans fairly uniform. Or you could sprinkle a few new hens into each clan. Personally, I think the sprinkling method is the least risky, gives you the most benefit for your money and will do the most to improve overall genetic diversity.