Fixing Specific Traits into your Line

Following on from Making your Own Line of birds, Laurence Beeken looks at how to fix specific traits into your line, and how to introduce fresh blood when necessary.

So you’ve selected your birds and your first season has gone well, and now you’re ready to look to the future and create the line that, hopefully, will be associated with you and become sought after by those who show and by those who wish to start off.

You are now ready to start fixing the good and eliminating the bad. Remember that the sole point of all of this breeding is to improve the quality of your birds year on year without losing the vigour of the line – both in terms of how robust the birds are and how well they reproduce – a poor doer is unlikely to produce good offspring as weak birds invariably produce weak chicks which are then prone to disease.

Sultan ChickenChoose the best specimens.

Culling is necessary therefore to achieve this end and it is a simple case of taking out all of the weaklings and those with major deformities and then look at the rest to establish if a major fault exists. If all of these sub standard birds can be removed and still leave you with a good amount to start your pen matching as described in my last article then you will have made a substantial improvement to the line, and while these faults may reappear next season, a repetition of the process will eliminate the problem eventually.
It is worth mentioning at this point that while not to be undertaken lightly, culling is necessary to continuously improve your line; a poor doer or bird with a major deformity should definitely be culled as it would be irresponsible to pass it to someone else. That said however, and although I am not in favour of passing substandard birds onto other breeders (as you can ruin their own work and bring despondency to aspiring exhibitors), if you can find a home where an otherwise good bird can be loved as a pet then so much the better. Never take excess males to market where they can end up as bait for fighting birds; better to cull them yourself without the stress of travel etc, and I must reiterate that if you are not prepared to cull then breeding is not for you.

Right, lecture over, we can get back to the more interesting points!
Breeding Pen of Poland Chickens

A Breeding Pen of Related Birds.

By knowing your standards you will know which points should be carried forward to the next generation, while at the same time you will be breeding out the faults of the line. Each year when you set your own standard of perfection based on the British Poultry Standards, and select your birds accordingly, you should be seeking to raise your minimum level from the previous year, and it is in this way that your birds will improve. At the same time, ensure that you breed, where available, from the oldest birds to improve longevity, and from the largest birds (or smallest if bantam/miniature) to improve size. Also breed from birds with the best temperament, those which lay a large amount of good quality eggs and from those which are disease resistant (try not to breed from birds which have been unwell). The old adage size from the female, type from the male is often a good rule of thumb (although not always true for all breeds)

These then are the things that you will fix first (in order of importance):

  • Size.
  • Vigour.
  • Resilience.
  • Egg Production & hatchability.
  • Temperament.
  • Type (show qualities/points).

It is often thought that the novice breeder will need an in depth knowledge of genetics in order to breed good birds. While this is true in that you will need to know, for your individual breed, how those features that are desirable are inherited, you will be far more successful if you have in addition enthusiasm, creative flair and an appreciation of art. In order to get the most from your breeding pens you will need to remember the following:

Best in Show Silkie
The best show bird is not necessarily the best breeder.
  • Mate the best with the best.
  • The best breeder is not necessarily the best exhibition bird.
  • You will not get best results from the first generation.
  • Use extremes to fix faults (for example mate a long back with a short back).
  • Do not mate birds with deformities.
  • Avoid mating birds with common faults.
  • Continue to breed from a pen which produces good offspring, this is the ‘progeny test’.
  • Use an excellent bird in all matings for the full duration of its reproductive life.

Why breed from older birds?

Well, in the first couple of years this will not always be possible as you seek to maximise the amount of chicks produced, although remember that you should still incorporate your original (purchased) stock into the following year’s pens. In the years that follow however, older (at least 12 months old) birds will have successfully gone through the first annual moult, a major stress point where often hidden illnesses appear, as with hens coming into lay, and thereby you will know that you are consequently fixing disease resistance and longevity. Similarly, some faults such as paling eyes, feather banding, pencilling defects and twisted feathers often show up after the first moult and if you had used these birds in your pens you may unwittingly fix in these defects.

Why breed for vigour?

Most poultry writings attribute disease to poor management and local infection hotspots, and very little is mentioned of breeding. This may well be because hybrids are bred for commercial profitability and are discarded after the first 1-2 years, so vigour is not really an issue, and also because many exhibitors today breed for quick profit and external features, with little consequence attributed to long term success of the line.Dutch Bantam

Docile birds are easily handled.

By breeding only from those birds which do not become ill can you breed hereditary vigour, and this will include:

  • Adaptation to environment.
  • Disease resistance.
  • Resistance to lethal genes.
  • Fertility.
  • Hatchability.

Remember that in breeding from birds which have survived disease may mean that you introduce weakness into the immunity of the line, try to keep to breeding only those birds which have never become ill!

Why breed for type?

The British Poultry Standards [or the American Standard of Perfection] give you all the features specific to your breed. These are the features that you will fix once all other factors have been set in your line.

Why breed for temperament?

This is essential for both breeding and showing. Some breeds are docile, others flighty or aggressive and these are necessary characteristics of the breed type as well as characteristic of sex. More assertive birds are more likely to mate, and will breed robust chicks, while tame birds will pass on a calm nature essential for showing. What you need to aim for is a bird which keeps to the nature of the breed while at the same time is manageable and exhibits a natural ability to show off.

When should I bring in new blood?

Genetics often throws the odd curved ball at us and an otherwise perfect line starts to show faults or you may find that a desirable trait is missing and no amount of breeding will bring it about. It is at this point that you will more likely consider bringing in new blood.
Poland Chickens

Colour is one of the last things to fix.

If it is a case where illness has decimated your line, resist the temptation to bring in more birds. You simply need to cull those made weak and breed, breed, breed. In a couple of seasons you will have got your numbers back up and hopefully fixed in immunity. If you must replace birds, then try to bring in stock from the original breeder or if this is not possible (perhaps because even the original line is lacking) related stock from another breeder would be an acceptable alternative, although you may have to resort to totally unrelated birds.

As with setting up your original pens, hatch as many birds as possible from this new group (do not mix them yet with your line), then, selecting the best, mate brother to sister in an attempt to concentrate all the desired genes to as few birds as possible.

Next, select from this second generation, birds possessing not only desirable traits, but also the characteristics lacking from your line, and mate them to the best birds from your line.

From this third generation, select the best birds and mate them brother to sister to produce the fourth generation. While you are doing this, keep on with your original line breeding pens to continue to improve them. When you are ready, you can then introduce the new blood; it is advisable to keep the original line going separately to the new line to ensure that things are progressing as you would like.

These then are your basics which should get you on the road to a successful line, breeding poultry for exhibition which will be a credit to you way into the future.

My next article lets you into a few ‘show secrets’ that should give you that little ‘extra’.

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Laurence Beeken

Author at poultrykeeper.com
Laurence has previously judged at National level and has sat on several international breed club committees. He is the author of the Haynes Chicken Manual as well as contributing to several poultry magazines.

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