America's Oldest Breed of Livestock

Inbreed or Crossbreed?

In the June 2004 issue of Feather Fancier a couple of comments made in articles caught my attention. What intrigued me, was the diametrically opposed philosophy that were presented .

The first was the concept of taking a line and breeding with a limited number of high quality individuals. The second was the requirement to add new blood to save a line. After 20 years of work with poultry I may not be an authority, but I have some opinions.

My good friend John Norris – may he rest in peace – was known for his Modern Games. We became friends over a shared intellectual interest in rare genetics, affects of inbreeding and the results of passing through an inbreeding bottleneck. His Moderns were obtained from a friend who had them for almost 40 years as a small closed flock. John then raised them for about the same number of years and in many of those years he would hatch less than a dozen chicks. That is 80 years of severe inbreeding.

Myself, I have now raised Dominique bantams for 20 years, this September 1st. I remember that day well; I worked all night the evening before, and then drove 4 hours to pick up the last of Elva Hemphill’s birds. I visited about an hour then turned around and drove home. It has been a wonderful 20 years.

Mrs. Hemphill had obtained the birds from Ralph Brazelton in the early 1970’s. In that time she never added “new blood”. In the 20 years I’ve had them, I’ve maintained a pure flock as well. That would be around 30 years.

Some time ago, I found faults in the flock that seemed insurmountable and obtained outside birds for use in the breeding pen. Now after all these years I can report that each cross was a failure as some fault would be fixed but another more serious would crop up. I wasted a lot of time, space and money on raising junk. The only cross that was successful was using a male from Christina Kiser’s flock which has the same lineage, though separated for 25 years (I still haven’t merged them into the Unbeatable Beauty Line.)

Another good friend, Lloyd Alexander is well known for his purebred livestock. First swine, sheep, then poultry. He contends that a closed line is the only hope of maintaining a quality flock. During his years of raising various breeds of poultry is best born out by his Light Brahmas. Over a dozen years after their first big win with the “Miller line”, the birds continued to increase in size and improve in type and color, yet an outside bird was never added to the flock.

A few years back at the Missouri State Fair, Bob Briggs brought some young Anconas to show. Lloyd and I, looking them over were taken by two young birds in the group. Bob agreed to sell a trio, which included the two mentioned. Lloyd raised and put them in his show circuit. At the end of that time I took them as breeders. In case you haven’t noticed, I picked up my Master Exhibitor points on that family of Anconas – based on three birds. Again no outside blood and they are only getting better and better.

Some of you know of my work on the Golden Spangled Hamburgs. Again a few years back I decided they needed outside blood for improvement. I wasn’t as smart back then and picked up a bird here and there. The effect was the complete overwhelming of an otherwise good line. During my leg problems I sent the birds to Bob Briggs and he culled them down to a trio and two generations down to a pair. By such an intense focus on quality he has returned the birds to their former state.

In the American Livestock Breeder’s Handbook the authors Hawes and Christman make an interesting observation that most inbreeding or line breeding problems are the result of bad management decisions. I concur. In this lengthy rambling, I’ve given examples of how careful selection of breeders have maintained and improved flocks as well as an example of how cross-breeding can undo years of work. Short of a lethal gene or some serious genetic fault, I’m convinced a flock can be maintained indefinitely without adding “new blood”.

But you argue that I started with “good stock” so I didn’t have “inbreeding problems” to work with. Let me give one last example. The Hyman flock of Dominiques is the oldest continuous documented poultry flock in North America, with it’s origins in the early 1820s and quite possibly earlier than that. I obtained the last two birds from Colonial Williamsburg in hopes of rebuilding them. Shortly after obtaining them the old male died and only a handful of chicks were hatched. There were crooked toes, Mareck’s, high mortality, etc. It took almost 10 years to breed out the faults. This was accomplished by raising as many young Dominiques as possible, keeping only the best and tolerating fewer faults each year. I’m happy to say that now there are “no signs of inbreeding” though no new blood was added and many years the flock was reduced to two breeding pairs (with a few extra birds held in reserve in case something went awry.)

As a younger man I turned a deaf ear to advice the veterans gave me, but you know – they were right. Obtain the very best birds you can afford and breed from a closed family. Resolve breed faults by careful selection from with-in the family and never, ever add a young bird to the breeding flock that is lesser in quality than the existing birds.