How do you breed chickens? Chickens will do that all on their own, but for those of us who want a little creative control over the process, there are more technicalities to consider. My intention for this article is to give you a strong overview of how to get started in the world of fancy show chickens. We’re assuming you’ve found the breed you want to work with, but if you don’t know yet, read my primer on show chicken breeds first.
You can’t breed chickens without first acquiring chickens to breed. This means you need to buy some birds to start off with from another breeder or breeders. These initial birds are sometimes referred to as foundation, seed, or grandparent stock.
Where Not to Buy
Commercial hatcheries, albeit convenient, are not good sources of high-quality breed stock. These hatcheries are focused on providing reasonable representations of a breed while preserving their ability to mass produce and deliver them. With few exceptions, this usually equates to pretty birds that look nice, but are not competition grade.
The world of poultry fanciers, much like most of our society, has evolved with the advent of the internet. Many quality breeders are out there on stock trading websites, auctions, their own websites and Facebook. Unfortunately, so are the not-so-good breeders. I like buying things online, but chickens are individuals and the discerning breeder should visually inspect a bird before buying, so avoid buying online for your first breed stock.
Where to Buy
It’s challenging enough to perfect a fine example of a breed, so you should look for the best examples of your chosen breed from the start. The best place to find these is at a poultry show. Don’t confuse a poultry show with a local or state fair; look for a dedicated poultry-only show.
Many first timers really don’t understand how buying birds works at shows and tend to miss out the first time they go. The key to picking up great birds is to get there early, like at coop in time for competitors or shortly thereafter. There is usually a “for sale” section of show cages, find them and start window shopping.
Look at the offerings, meet some competitors and ask for opinions on birds for sale. It’s not uncommon for a competitor to say “Oh, you should check out what’s-his-name’s birds, he’s got some real top notch stuff” or “Those birds are real close to type, I’d look into those.” This inside information is priceless and typically reliable. People may be there to compete at a show, but they really love sharing their passion and bringing new people into the fancy.
Don’t expect sellers to be standing there waiting for you. There hopefully is a name or exhibitor number on the cage. You’ll have to ask competitors or officials who that individual is and where to find them. Do not bother a judge! Unless they are clearly loitering, socializing or waiting in line at the food booth, never bother a judge at a poultry show (it’s the quickest way to become unwelcome).
If you’ve fallen in love with a bird in the sale cages, don’t dilly dally. Find that exhibitor and seal the deal, especially if they’re offering them at a reasonable rate. Also, don’t be shy about buying birds from multiple people, because breeding between blood lines keeps the genetic pool fresh.
A long-standing rule of thumb has been a minimum of $5 a rooster and $10 a hen for show appropriate birds. When you’re looking at top-notch birds, up to $50 a pair or $75 a trio is fair. Anything richer than that, however, is out of a beginner’s league.
Remember that sellers don’t want to take these birds home, so there’s room to bargain. Keep in mind that they will likely be willing to bargain harder if you volunteer to buy more birds, especially roosters. Many times I’d buy two or three pairs just to get the hens I wanted, even though I only liked one of the three roosters. The other two usually became gifts to 4-H kids for showmanship birds.
Understanding how do chickens mate will assist in your choice of housing. I suggest using a litter floor since wire mesh floors can cause foot problems. Use a pen large enough to for your birds to court and mate unobstructed by tight confines. For bantam breeding pairs, a three-foot-square area or larger should be sufficient, but if you chose to breed chickens of a standard size, you will need more room than that per pair.
Now that you’ve bought birds worthy of your efforts, it’s time to start producing fertilized eggs for hatching. There are two schools of thought here, either you can start with a commingled flock or you can selectively breed birds pair by pair for finite control.
In the flock method, simply supply the group as a whole with an open floor and keep them together. This works as long as your density is around 10 hens to every rooster, otherwise, you will experience problems with rooster behavior such as fighting and domination of other males. This is the easiest way to keep a group of birds, making chores a simple affair. The downside is that you can’t control the pairings very well, and if you have more than 10 hens per rooster, fertility will suffer.
If you decide to breed chickens using the pairing method, you’ve made more work for yourself. Instead of checking one feeder and water dispenser for the group, you need to check each individual pen. The upside to this is that you have finite control over pairings and you can identify the exact parents of the resulting offspring. If you find that a particular pairing results in desirable offspring, you can repeat it at will, but in a group of birds, you’re just guessing.
More Ways Than One
Did you buy birds through a livestock website or an impromptu Facebook auction through a breeder’s group? Have you found a better way to buy quality show stock? Let us know in the comments!