Saturday, January 19, 2013

Setting Up Breeding Pens

by Heather Nicholson of Scratch Cradle

Late January to mid-February is the ideal time to set-up breeding pens for spring hatching.  Hens sometimes require a few weeks to warm up to a new rooster, and they can store rooster’s genetic material for up to a month.  To be sure that you are setting eggs from your most recent pairing, wait until the breeding group has been together for at least two weeks and a full month if you want to be certain of parentage.

Select healthy chickensfor your breeding groups.  Healthy individuals will be more fertile and pass along genetics for good health to their offspring.  Try to choose chickens that have never been sick because these have demonstrated the best constitution for your climate and husbandry style.  Some diseases can also be passed from hen to chick through the egg.  Some recommend waiting until chickens are at least two years old before breeding because this ensures that breeders are hardy and healthy.

Make sure that the sire and dams you have selected are not too closely related.  Inbreeding can be used to fix traits in a flock, but it can also lead to inbreeding depression.  Even small increases in inbreeding lead to decreases in fertility, egg hatchability, and egg production.  To reduce inbreeding, try not to mate chickens to their immediate relatives.  If nothing else, avoid brother-sister matings which have a high chance of resulting in inbred offspring.

It is best not to breed any bird that has had curled toes, crossed beak, or any other physical defect.  While it is true that these things can be due to incubator conditions or nutrition, every part of that chicken’s body has been affected by those same negative conditions.   Malnutrition and environment can affect cell development and even DNA replication which can in turn affect the quality of genetic material handed down to offspring.  (To learn more, take a look at epigenetics.)
Provide breeders with extra nutrition.

Providing optimal nutrition to breeders will result in a healthier flock from generation to generation.  Breeders need more protein, fatty acids, and greens than a chicken that only needs to produce an edible egg.  They need minerals such as calcium and zinc; fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K; and water-soluble vitamins like B and C.    Meats, including fish and insects, make good supplements during breeding season as well as greens like alfalfa and extra protein in hard boiled eggs or black oil sunflower seeds.  You can also mix a small amount of molasses (too much may cause diarrhea) or poultry vitamins into their water and a small amount of cod liver oil into food or treats.  Apple cider vinegar (ACV) with a live culture is also a good addition for breeders’ water.  (Some people even think giving ACV to breeders increases the percentage of female offspring.  Seems unlikely, but who knows?)
Label individual eggs and keep records of parentage by individual or breeding pen.
Separate your breeding group from the rest of your flock to be sure of parentage.  After two weeks, begin collecting the eggs several times a day to prevent them from becoming dirtied or too hot or cold.  Store your hatching eggs with the wide end up in a cool room with plenty of humidity, about 55 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit with 75% humidity.  Turn the eggs once a day, best accomplished by putting a small board or book under one end of the carton and moving it to the other end the next day.  Keep the carton closed and set batches in the incubator once a week for the best hatch rate.

You can read more about traits to select for and against in "Setting Up Breeding Pens Part 2" on Scratch Cradle.

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