America's Oldest Breed of Livestock

Establishing a Strain

This article originally started as correspondence between a club member and myself. Shortly thereafter another individual requested information on how to breed up their flock. In both cases the fanciers were happy with the production and size of eggs produced but not the conformation or breed characteristics.

The males in the flocks were typical hatchery birds [e.g. large, coarse bodies and beefy combs]. These males should be culled, however we can use the hens to bring up the size and instill vigor.

Way back in the beginning I merged the Hemphill birds with Cackle birds to begin my show string. One of the challenges is to reduce the comb and get the spike up. Additionally we need to neaten up those wattles, they are wrinkled and way too pendulous. The best way to accomplish this is to take a show male and use on the Hatchery females. The purpose is to develop your own strain.

A few pictures of the hens would be helpful though I’m especially interested in the slope of their back.

In a nutshell – you can’t do everything at once. An old hog breeder used to tell me: First you work with the snout, once you get the head and shoulders right, work on the back. When the back is just right, go on to the hocks. When the hocks are good, then you have to go back to the snout and start all over.

This is so true, there is always something to be worked on and if you try it all at once you’ll get frustrated. Below is an outline for the preferable progression, though we might have to do things in a different order as birds are available.

1. Find a very upright male with a steeply sloping back
2. Find a male with a widely fanned tail, no lower than 40 degrees
3. Find a male with a sharply upturned spike (preferably round)
4. Finally use an appropriately colored male to improve the color and pattern.

As you can imagine this is a gross over-simplification of the whole process and it will be difficult to find exactly the right male at the right time.

So, here is how we start. Find a male with no horizontal space to his back. We want his chest up high and very upright appearance, like the Hamburgs. Don’t be tricked by how long his legs are, it is the chest and back that we are interested in at this point. Obviously any other good points in his favor are helpful, but don’t settle for less just because it is a better bird on average. We are working on the back and chest!

Use this male for 1 year with the hatchery hens and after the breeding season is over turn him into soup. If you don’t have the discipline to cull when needed, you’ll not be able to improve the stock or develop a new strain.

That fall pick the very best 3 or 4 pullets for next year’s breeding. Don’t keep more for breeding, as it will hinder progress.

Now we’re in search of a better tail. Most hatchery males are weak in the posterior. We want a full flowing tail. You’ll notice I indicated a male with a tail around 40 degrees even though the Standard calls for 45. It would be best to find one with a 45-degree angle but I gave you the lowest allowable range. When you are picking this male make sure he has full long sickles and many secondary sickles to fill in the tail. Additionally we want the saddle feathers to sheet off the sides.

Before you use this bird, look at him from above when he is standing. You can’t do this very well when holding him. Is his tail pinched together or in-line with his body? Or maybe it fans out away from his sides? Do not use the pinched tail bird – you’ll lose body type faster than you can imagine. I prefer the male whose tail fans to the same width as his body. When you look at these birds in the usual profile, the difference is amazing.

Now, make the bird walk away from you. We are now going to assess the main tail feathers not the sickles. This can be tough since the sickles are obscuring the main tail. Can you see a nice inverted “V” in his tail? Again, if it is pinched together you’ve got problems. How about the position of the tail feathers? Are they nicely layered together, semi-vertical OR are they semi-horizontal forming a “ladder” across the open space made by the inverted “V”? Ladders are bad – really bad – you’ll end up with gaps in the tail when viewed from the side.

As in the prior year, raise as many offspring as is possible. The more you have to choose from the quicker you’ll make progress.

Wow – Another whole year is past and it’s time for another round of chicken soup. Move the hens out of their pen and replace them with the overall best 3 or 4 pullets. We should have nicer backs and better tails than what we started with, though the backs may have suffered a little when we added the tail.

Now it’s time to find that ideal head.  There are not a lot of options here. To accomplish this, find a male with the most upturned spike possible. Even if the point is going almost straight up. When the combs are drooping you have to go to an extreme to correct it.         Also make sure the spike is as round as possible.   Be sure to select a male without those long wrinkled wattles, they aren’t very attractive.  As stated this will be a difficult mating.

From this mating you will select your 3 or 4 best females.  At this stage most people select the “best average” females.  I’m going to tell you what I do.  Select for the very best heads.  Only use those females with the nicest shaped combs, round spikes and a slight texture to the surface of the comb.  Other points on the Dominique may suffer but this is a trait that is very difficult to fix.

With these latest females we want to use a male to improve the color and pattern. Select a male that is the lightest possible color EXCEPT he must have barring in his tail. For some reason these males usually have petite combs and nice trim wattles. Using this type of male will dilute the harsh color of the commercial birds. I want the birds to be blue/gray barred with silvery/blue light spaces.

Color improvements will also bring other good traits with it. The beak, leg and skin color will be a clearer, cleaner yellow. Another purely visual effect is the red on the face and wattles will appear richer, as will the bay eye.

From this color mating select the best 3 or 4 females, based on color AND comb type. If you have to choose between comb and color, let the color go. When you look at these pullets ask yourself if any progress has been made. The answer should be yes. They aren’t ideal but they are much better than where you started.

Now, from the young cockerels select the one very best bird. Be sure to let these growing boys develop fully before making any decisions. This step is going to either leap the breeding program forward or send you spiraling down one of the many abysses. For this male, type is everything. I want a downward sloping back, no flat spot on the back and with a tail at about 45 degrees. I also want a respectable comb and if possible good color.

So, you’ve selected the cockerel. Guess what? I don’t want you to use him – yet. Instead set him aside and treat him really well.

Use the “color” male for 1/2 the season on his daughters. This will give you some light colored chicks. The second half of the year you can use the young male.

Now, it’s late fall and let’s carefully evaluate the chicks from the two matings. They should look very similar, though there will be subtle differences. If the chicks from one mating are far and away better than the others, then discard all of the one mating. I suspect however, that the color mating will produce the best looking females and the cockerel mated to his sisters will produce the best males. Retain your “good” cockerel that hereafter will be the “cock”.

From one mating select two or three of the best cockerels and from the other the 3 or 4 best pullets. Allow all of them to develop as far as possible before making the final selection.

Now mate the cock bird to the pullets for the first 1/2 of the year and the best cockerel the rest of the year. Select the best 2 pullets and retain the best 2 hens. Also select the best cockerel. Mate the cock bird to the pullets and the cockerel to the hens.

From here on out you will be mating 2-year-old cocks to young pullets and yearling cockerels to the old hens, selecting to improve the traits with each generation. This is a tried and true method of the old-time breeders. Because of the wide genetic base getting to this point it will take you many years to “run them out”.

Guess what, when you’ve gotten to this point, they are truly “Your Own Strain”. You have mixed in birds from many families and emphasized the Standard points you find most attractive.

So, if you are still reading, you know why most people let someone else do the breeding, it’s a lot of work!