black australorp males

My family and I began breeding Black Australorps in 2015.

We started with a flock of about 100 Black Australorp chicks.

I chose Black Australorps for several reasons:

  1. They are good layers (they’re known for being the most prolific heritage breed layer).
  2. They are large birds that are good for meat production
  3. I knew of a source for Black Australorps with good genetics.

Selectively Breeding Australorps

With some help and research, I began learning how to selectively breed these chickens. Selective breeding is breeding with a goal or purpose in mind. If you don’t have clear goals in mind in your breeding program, you end up generating an increase in numbers. But you’re not improving them in any noticeable way. In a “breeding program” with no clear goals or plan, your chickens will tend toward mediocrity.

Initial Breeding Goals

At first, I had some general goals in mind. These were a little vague, but they were a starting point.

Selling fertile hatching eggs could help pay for feed and housing. Second, this would be a good way to learn more about animal breeding, in general. I’ve always wanted to learn more about how to improve both plants and animals by breeding and selection. This seemed to be a good way to gain some practical experience with that. Third, I saw it as a way for our family to take another step toward more sustainability. It was a way we could grow more of our own food ourselves. By maintaining our stock, we wouldn’t have to buy chicks every few years from off-farm sources.

Recognizing Variation

black australorp chicks

When I first began raising Australorps, they all looked pretty similar, especially when they were young. Once they reached about 12-16 weeks of age, I could tell most of the males from the females. Eventually, we found that some hens would lay better. Some were quieter. Others were noisy. Some birds were tamer than others. Some roosters grew quite large. Others were much smaller (though still good-sized compared to stock from mail-order hatcheries.) Some hens went broody. Others didn’t.
 
Again, that was a few years ago, in 2015.

Excellent Quality Meat

We selected several of the best males (based on our breeding goals) to keep and we processed and ate the rest in small batches.
The cockerels grew large enough to process by about 20-22 weeks of age. And when we cooked them up and ate them, the flavor was excellent. So much so that we no longer buy chickens from the store except when we need to provide food for large gatherings. It was the quality and flavor of the meat that “hooked me” on this.
 
I found that breeding and raising these heritage chickens fit well with the goal of putting excellent quality meat and eggs on our table. At the same time, we improved our pasture and garden by slowly moving the chickens across those areas in portable shelters. So the chicken feed I bought performed double-duty. Not only did it produce meat and eggs, but it also fertilized and improved our land.

Lessons Learned

black australorp eggsAs we’ve continued to raise the Australorps and work with them, I’ve noticed several things:

  1. My goals have become clearer.
  2. Increasingly it’s become easier to notice differences in different chickens and to distinguish males from females at a much earlier age.
  3. Breeding chickens works very well with raising chickens for both meat and eggs. It works at an appropriate scale that puts food on our table.
  4. It doesn’t take an enormous amount of extra time and work beyond “just raising chickens,” but it does require some additional work, particularly during parts of the year. And it requires some changes in mindset compared to how I’ve raised chickens in the past.

Let’s look at points 2 and 4 in more detail.

Clearer Breeding Goals

My main goal now is focused on developing my current line of Australorps into one that will work well for putting meat and eggs on the table in the region that I live in and, again, on producing all of my own replacement birds regularly, so that I don’t ever need to buy baby chicks from other sources again.

Australorps start laying around 6 months of age.

I’ve found that they excel at laying, particularly during the cooler winter months. With the size of our flock, which I’ll discuss shortly, we get a large excess of eggs, particularly during the cooler months. These Black Australorps are excellent winter layers. With that in mind, I’ve become less focused on egg laying. Instead, I’m aiming to keep the size of the birds fairly large (not difficult, since they seem to tend that direction) but not overly large. I’m also breeding for longevity, both of health and of egg laying. And since hatching out chicks is part of keeping a sustainable flock, I’m breeding for a moderate level of broodiness — that is, the ability and tendency to set on eggs, hatch them and rear them. At the same time, I’m seeking to breed out various problems or flaws that I notice.

A Good Fit for the Small Farm or Family Homestead

I’ll talk more about the size and scale in other articles, but for here, I’ve found that raising and breeding these birds on the small scale that we currently are works just about perfectly in regard to flock sizes for producing almost all of the chicken meat and eggs that our family uses.

Currently, I aim to keep my total laying flock size at around 25-30 birds. This includes a few roosters and the rest laying hens. A few of the hens comprise my main breeding flocks, and the rest are either spares or younger birds that I’m growing out and testing to see how suitable they are to use as breeders in the future.

In the spring, I hatch 60 to 80 chicks to replenish my flock and to keep it going. Of these, I’ll only keep the best — that is, the ones that best match the goals of my breeding program. With the males — the cockerels — I’ll only need a few of the very best for breeding. By the time they’re about 20-22 weeks old, I can’t necessarily tell which ones are best, but I can tell which ones are worst. At that point, I start culling those to use for food. I’ll continue to raise the rest, and over time it will become clearer and clearer which ones to keep, so I’ll cull again periodically.

With the females, generally, I’ll keep them longer. Once they start to reach laying age at about 26 weeks (6 months) I’ll cull any that have obvious problems or defects. Most of the rest, I’ll continue to raise so I can evaluate them as they get older. Eventually, as the weather warms in the spring and on into summer, some of the pullets (young hens) will slow or stop laying earlier than others. These tend to be the poorer layers. I’ll cull these also.

To keep my flock sizes fairly constant, I’ll end up culling or selling about as many birds as I hatch each year: 60-80. It turns out that this is just about the right number of chickens to feed my family. And the number of eggs that we get from them during the year is more than enough to feed us except during late fall, when most of the hens are still in a molt and taking a break from laying. But at that time, we’re ready for a break from eggs, too, so that also works out well.

Breeding Flock Size

The model for breeding chickens has a few requirements, but it’s also very flexible. Breeders can and should be concerned about inbreeding depression, but probably in a different way than it’s commonly thought of.

Linebreeding, a controlled and limited form of inbreeding, from what I understand, is used in all effective selective breeding programs, whether that’s with chickens, horses, cattle or other fowl or livestock. However, it’s also essential to maintain an adequate level of diversity.

The way to approach this, so that you both “tighten” the genetics to reach your breeding goals through line breeding and maintain sufficient diversity is to use separate families or clans. The families can be as small as 1 rooster and 1 hen, though I prefer a minimum of 2 hens per family for various reasons. Within the families, you can practice line-breeding for 4-6 years, but eventually, you need to cross with a different family to avoid inbreeding depression.

If you keep at least 3 families, then you can cross by rotating a rooster from one family to the next every 4-6 years or as soon as you notice any signs of inbreeding depression. This reintroduces vigor and maintains diversity. With three families, you can maintain your flocks without needing to bring in any outside bloodlines for probably 30-40 years, maybe longer. With 5 family lines or more, you can extend that much longer.

3-5 clans can become challenging for a single family to keep because of the amount of housing involved, but if, say two to four of your friends are keeping flocks, then you only need to keep one or two family lines.

In any case, if you were to keep, say, 3 family lines yourself, then you’d start out with 6 to 9 chickens, depending on whether you kept 1 or 2 hens per family. For the next few years, you’d grow that by adding a few of your best hens, but there’s no need to keep more than about 6 proven hens per family. Gradually, you would retire the older hens as they became less productive, and you’d always be able to keep about 2/3 of your flock in their first or second laying year to keep them productive.

So, in terms of the number of birds needed to keep the flock sustainable, it really has more to do with the flock structure than overall numbers.

Conclusion

In short, breeding and raising chickens for the family homestead is very doable. And it fits together well with raising both meat and eggs for your own consumption. The model for doing this is very flexible. You can tailor the size and scale to fit your exact needs, within this model.

I’ll explore a number of the things that I’ve touched on here in other articles.

3 Comments

  1. Jed on February 13, 2020 at 2:26 am

    Hi. Just a question. I’ve got 4 pure australorps 3 are 12 weeks one is a blue cockeral and another is black cockeral and then a pullet. Then the 4th is an 9 week old pullet from another different litter I bought 2 lots of a dozen eggs originally. The three older ones were from a breeder down in Western Australia and the other dozen of eggs were from Queensland. I got 3 from one lot and 1 from another lot. Oh and I also have an older adult pure blue hen as well. They are all unrelated. So I want to breed them. So I’m just wanting to know where do I start when I want to breed them. I’ll put my blue rooster in a pen with my adult blue hen.and then keep my other 3 black australorps the rooster and 2 pullets in another pen together. But once they have babies. What do I do with the babies once they grow up.What do I breed them with once they have grown up.that’s my main question. I don’t want to inbreed.

    • Matthew Pressly on February 13, 2020 at 1:31 pm

      Jed, you may want to look into spiral breeding / clan mating. You can find more information on the internet about that, but I’ll describe it briefly here:

      Basically, you would set up separate families. A family can be a small as a rooster and one hen or a rooster and two hens. Once you set up these families, you keep those same chickens together, at least during and for about a month before breeding season.

      When you hatch offspring, you would raise them to maturity. When the pullets reach maturity, you would select the best from these and place them into same family from which they were descended. Generally, you would aim to select maybe the top 20% of the females. You would keep the original rooster in the same family until you hatch and raise a rooster that is better than him, at which point, you would replace the older rooster with the younger one.

      The other aspect of a spiral breeding program is that periodically you move roosters to a different family, in a circular pattern. Rooster A goes to family B. Rooster B goes to family C. Rooster C goes to family A. (There can be more than 3 families, but 3 is a good place to start). This is how you maintain diversity.

      The question then becomes when to do that rotation. If you have very good, well-established starter stock, then you could potentially go several years, essentially linebreeding within the family, before you make a rotation. On the other hand, if you are just starting out and trying to build up the number of chickens you have and aren’t sure of the results that you’ll get, then you may want to rotate each year at the start in order to maintain more diversity. I’m no expert on this, but those are my thoughts on it. Linebreeding is one of the key things that are done to improve the flock, but linebreeding intensifies both good and negative traits, so there is a balance to maintain with it. Also, it takes time to gain experience with a particular breed and even a particular line or strain. Maintaining more diversity by rotating roosters yearly at the start may help while you’re in the early stages.

      One very good source of information on all of this is Kenny Troiano’s Breeder’s Academy (See: https://www.breedersacademy.com/). I had a subscription to it a few years back. Kenny has enormous amounts of information on line breeding, selecting foundation stock, inbreeding, and many other things. Plus he and others are available to answer questions on the forums. There’s a lot to learn about breeding, and the approach that you’ll need to take will depend on your breeding goals and your stock.

  2. Jed on February 13, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    No worries thanks for all that info. I’ll give it a go. Thanks.

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