We’ve seen an explosion of interest in keeping chickens since the early 2000s. Many people begin by starting with hatchery birds, which offer a great way to dive into the hobby and see if it’s right for them. Once hooked, some owners fall in love with a particular breed and decide to make the next move to becoming a breeder of those birds and opening up a whole new world of possibilities.
Starting Your Flock
Finding good-quality purebred breeding stock is going to be crucial in order to get started down the right path as a breeder, but how do you know you are buying the real deal? There are loads of folks out there breeding chickens these days. Your best bet will be to source chickens from an established breeder that knows the birds well and can potentially offer you advice as you get started.
I’m often asked “How do you know what you are buying is of quality and the breed they say they are?” Here are some tools that can help:
The good news is that for the vast majority of breeds, there is an easy guide to understanding what the birds should look like: the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. It’s the go-to guide on poultry that outlines in amazing detail what a breed should look like. It describes the target weights of the males versus females, as well as the shape of the bird including the comb, beak, face, legs and the rest of the body. It also features descriptions of the color of every part of the animal, including eyes, skin, beak, feathers and even the undercolor at the base of the feathers. Similarly, the American Bantam Association publishes the Bantam Standard, which details the standards of all the recognized bantam breeds.
The important thing to remember about the Standard of Perfection and the Bantam Standard is that each description was developed by a group of producers working with a particular breed and variety for a long time. They collectively make the decisions to create a standard that is the ideal for the breed they know best. It is literally the gold standard by which all of your chickens should be compared to. Know your breed’s standard and develop a good understanding of what they should really look like before you start buying!
A challenge arises for the beginner who chooses to work with non-standard varieties of birds not included in the APA book. This may be because it’s a new color variety or a recent import. If the breed is recognized by a similar poultry association in another country, you might be able to find a standard to work from there. There may also be “landrace” breeds, such as the Icelandic chicken, which have never had any standard at all for many centuries. In their case selecting breeding birds is based solely on the productivity and hardiness of the birds, not on the looks of the birds.
Finding Chicken Breeders
There are several resources that you can use to find breeders. You can visit the sites of the American Poultry Association and American Bantam Association to find breed clubs. You can also find some of the leading breeders who are recognized in the show ring for their breed. For endangered breeds you can visit The Livestock Conservancy’s website and take advantage of their online breeders directory.
When you’ve found a breeder and are ready to buy birds, find out first if they are selected for breed standard. For rare and heritage breeds, this can be a challenge that I can attest to after driving more 600 miles myself (with my poor husband in tow) to get good Crèvecœur chickens to work with at home!
Quality At A Price
Don’t expect purebred birds of good quality to be cheap. On average, hatching eggs can run from $20-plus per dozen, chicks around $5-plus, and older pullets and cockerels can start at around $25 to much more depending on the breed and the quality. Keep in mind, the extra money you are dishing out should be in compensation for the years of work already put into perfecting a flock by the original breeder. Those are years of work you don’t have to put into your project yourself.
Are You Up For The Challenge?
Breeding chickens can be an exciting project but it does not come without challenges. Beyond selecting for standard, you need to ensure your birds are productive, as well. An excellent resource for beginners is The Livestock Conservancy’s Heritage Chicken Manual, which is free for download on their website. It contains simple methods to improve growth rate, egg laying capacity and meat qualities.
There’s a great responsibility in breeding purebred stock, and it’s only through a commitment to excellence in your birds that you can attain the flock of your dreams and do right by your breed in the end.