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:
- They are good layers (they’re known for being the most prolific heritage breed layer).
- They are large birds that are good for meat production
- 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.
Excellent Quality Meat
As we’ve continued to raise the Australorps and work with them, I’ve noticed several things:
- My goals have become clearer.
- Increasingly it’s become easier to notice differences in different chickens and to distinguish males from females at a much earlier age.
- 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.
- 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.
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.