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Breeding Chickens - Selection - Variation - it's A Journey to Perfection

  1. fowlsessed
    This is something that’s not a very popular topic, for some odd reason. But I believe it’s a very important one, nonetheless. Especially because of the increasing occurrence of irresponsible breeding which is degrading the species. Chickens, as insignificant as they may seem to some, should be preserved and improved by their propagators. Selection is indispensable when aiming at improvement and preservation, while improvement and preservation are indispensable for the species and the people raising them. And as said, sadly, it’s not something you hear much about, so I’m here to help change that!

    After cranking out as many birds as possible from their best and proven stock, and trying out some new-blood experiments, through the warm months, many breeders are now commencing the weight of their culling and selection. Removing all inferior birds and singling out the best prospects to keep through the winter months for further scrutiny, breeding, or other use. Space is always at a premium, and it takes just as much time and money to raise the best fowl possible as it does for the poorer ones. Plus, of course, all good breeders are out to improve upon what they currently have. So I’ll be covering some basics on variation, selection, and making progress, during this critical time.

    One of my favorite topics is indeed that of noting the variations seen in our fowl, and singling out the desirable/undesirable ones, and breeding towards perfection. So firstly, let’s assume you’ve done your job correctly with putting together the breeding pens, and now have a bunch of youngsters waiting to be sorted. Hopefully you’ve already been systematically identifying and removing deformed and/or sickly birds that just don’t do as well as the rest, cost you more time, money, and trouble to raise and thereby hold you and your operation back. So we are assuming you have a bunch of healthy, vigorous, and structurally sound youngsters. The next critical step is you noticing variations within them. Different breeds, and differently bred families, will show different degrees of variation, but there will probably always be some, even among 100% fully related, pure-blooded, and even line-bred, nest mates, although over time with strict selection toward certain criteria it may become minimal.
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    Variation: Variation is the principle key to success for any and all breeders, but it is the same key that opens the door to failure, or degradation. It must be used intelligently and systematically. Without it, we would be stuck with using unnatural, harmful means, and not yet available to back-yard breeders, for the improvement of our fowl. So as frustrating as this essential element may at times prove to be, thankfully, we have variation to work with!

    The first step is identifying those traits you have in your fowl, those you want that you lack, and what you want to get rid of, basically, prioritizing. Don’t try to select for everything desirable and dilute everything undesirable all in one generation with just a single bird or pair. That is very important not to do. Weigh the more important factors against less important ones, always favoring what’s most important to you and “blinking” at the less important factors when they are in the presence of a more important trait. Remember that general conformance with the breed’s standard, health, vigor, general soundness and vitality are all here a given fact. Additionally, however, you may put particular attention on growth rate, size, and carcass, or early maturity, production and laying efficiency, and egg size, or perhaps simply conformance to a show standard – whatever it is, the process remains fairly unchanged, although some traits are a little harder to take cognizance of than are others.

    Now that you know your bird’s weaknesses and strong points, and what you additionally would like to add or remove, it’s time to compare the individuals, and choose those that fit the best, again, keeping your priorities in mind.

    I would like to mention a few other ways, other than just breeding and selecting, with which you can introduce certain traits into your birds.
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    Cross breeding: Often your birds really lack in an area and you will need to decide whether or not you want to bring in outside blood to infuse. This is often an effective means of correction, however, take care, and be aware that you can also bring in many undesirable traits this way. In fact, it’s most likely that you will set yourself back in some ways, even while attaining what the new-infusion is meant to help with. Weigh the losses and gains in the balance you have created.

    Mutations: The definition is: “A sudden departure from the parent type in one or more heritable characteristics, caused by a change in a gene or a chromosome.” This is something most of us back-yard breeders have little or no control over. It still should be noted, however, that it is a viable option for a desirable or undesirable trait to show up; which you can then favor and breed for, or cull away from.

    Epigenetics: The definition is: “The study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits are modified by environmental influences, or other mechanisms.” This is very important to keep in mind, and something you can have plenty of control over, so as to put your birds in as many desirable circumstances, and as few undesirable ones, as possible. Tame birds, that show well and like to put on a show in the cage, aggressive birds, passive individuals, healthy birds, sickly birds, all this may get passed on as such to the progeny, often in greater or lesser degrees because of countering or amending attributes passed on from the other bird. Also affected will be the more pheno-typical traits, for example, birds that will have fuller plumage when they are raised in cooler climates then, perhaps, whence they came. Also be sure to remember that hens are usually the ones that pass on the most dominant traits to the young. This does not mean, however, that you should cheat on the rooster side. They are very important as well, simply no the most important.

    The talk on epigenetics brings me right back into “selective breeding.” In certain ways, that’s what nature does, and that’s what we, as breeders, are going to do. Our birds respond to external stimuli and pressures, and we will use that to our advantage. In the wild, things such as “survival of the fittest,” birds that stay healthy, readily attract mates, and birds that are best at raising young or avoiding predation, are all forms that nature is using in “creating” the ideal bird. I suggest incorporating “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection,” as you might call it, into your selection criteria, however, we breeders are now setting up other parameters that our fowl must fall into a favorable position with before continuing to be bred by us. We, the breeder, are now taking the place of natural selection (or better yet, adding to it and working with it) by a sorts of artificial selection. Never underestimate the power that this gives you, it is due to this very same principle that we now have commercial broilers that grow at unimaginable rates and cannot even support themselves after only a short period of time, or essentially, the tons of breeds fulfilling our wants/needs from a species that didn’t properly meet any, but had the hidden potential. Similarly, are horses and dogs (and many, many other organisms) that perform completely bizarre and unnatural tasks which their predecessors would be wholly unable to accomplish.

    These are some simple, yet powerful, tools and principals that I hope you will be able to use effectively in your own yard, and make some significant improvement with. Happy journey-to-perfection, to all my fellow breeders!

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  1. theawesomechick
    I could never be a breeder. I would just be, "Oh, she's gone broody again, and I know her comb is the most deformed thing I've ever seen, but she wants to be a mother so badly.... I'll just let her hatch some chicks."
  2. fowlsessed
    Thank you two for the kind words.
    @ Primo, I think I can see what you mean. But just to clarify my thoughts a little, certain breeders with certain management practices can indeed allow Natural Selection to take place and work in their fowl. What I was trying to get to in the above piece, was that the same traits that nature selects for, I usually want to too. Thanks for bringing up that point.
  3. Primo
    Very good article. Nice and clear and basic. My only constructive criticism (really just my opinion) the next to last paragraph is a little muddied with the talk of natural selection and incorporating. Once man's mind is involved with the selection process in any way, it is no longer natural or survival of the fittest. Many breeders of domestic animals often select for certain traits even though they have no idea they are doing so (just like how it acted, looked, or had a gut feeling about which animal to chose) This goes to emphasize the point you made about the power of selection. Just food for thought, and written better than I could do. Nice job
  4. Cemani Farm
    Nice Article,.....

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