Selecting and Breeding Chickens for Colonists
This is a guest post from Kathleen Sanderson, who just happens to be my mother. Since she taught me to read, I’m pretty sure she’s responsible for a lot of my contributions here! But last week in comments, chickens came up. Mom’s been raising chickens, goats, and various other livestock for longer than I can remember, and has become an acknowledged expert in some areas. You can find articles by her at Backwoods Home Magazine, and I’ll remind her to check in here and answer any questions.
So, you are heading out for Planet Four of Alpha Centauri. It’s going to take a long time to get there, maybe more than one human generation (depending on your mode of transportation) but certainly several generations of any livestock you want to take with you. You’ll need these animals for a decent protein source on the trip, as well as in your new home. (In my opinion, colonists should be responsible for feeding themselves en route, else they, and possibly their descendants on a multi-generational ship, could lose not only the skills but the work ethic which will be necessary when they arrive. And, I don’t think it’s wise for a few people to grow all the food for the rest of the group – specialization is for ants, as someone said. Probably Heinlein, LOL! But just consider what would happen to the colony if something happened to the specialists, and there was no corner grocery store. Maybe each family or group would tithe a portion of their crop for the crew?)
I’m not going to get into what the colony ship needs in order for you to raise all your food and feed and livestock. Let’s just think about the animals themselves. And we’ll start with chickens, since they are small, portable, useful, and even the poorest colonists should be able to manage to have some. The same considerations will apply to the larger stock that they could take, anyway.
You would probably know quite a bit about your destination before you even applied to go – I know if it was me, I’d research it to death! So you should have some idea of what conditions you, and your animals, will be facing. But there will always be things come up that are unexpected. So take as wide a range of genetics as you can manage. It’s unlikely that one family could keep and care for more than a few lines of chickens, so this responsibility should be spread out over the entire community of colonists. But even so, I would make sure that my family had as much genetic variation in their own stock as possible.
Here on Earth, it’s okay to breed ‘purebred’ livestock, because if you get into trouble, you can bring some animals in from another line, or even from another breed. That has had to be done several times recently to save rare breeds. But our colonists had better stick with ‘landrace’ breeds or mixed flocks, which have much more genetic variation. Might even throw in a few birds from wild stock, just to have that genetic material available.
Many breeds commonly available here in North America have been interbred in the past, or have common ancestors. So it would be wise to choose from less-related foundation breeds. Leghorns, Dorkings, Cornish, Silkies, Brahmas, Dominiques, Games, Fayoumis, Polish, Sumatras, Orloffs, Easter Eggers (not really a breed, but a landrace in their own right), would all be on my list. I would also take some of the common dual-purpose breeds – Rocks, Wyandottes, Buckeyes, Orpingtons, Sussex, Faverolles, Rhode Island Reds. I would probably add a few more bantams, too, such as the Nankin and Pyncheon, D’Uccles, and so on. They are small, don’t eat a lot, can be fairly good layers, and many of them are excellent broody hens. (This is important if you want to reproduce your flock, and can’t count on having incubators and brooders.)
While in transit, your object is going to be to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible in your flock. You don’t want to get rid of anything, even if it doesn’t seem terribly desirable or important at the moment (unless it’s an actual genetic defect, such as low fertility or low hatch rates). One way to do this is to have several pens of hens – at least four, but more would be better. Keep a good rooster in each pen. When you need new blood in a pen, take a rooster from each pen and put it in the next pen to the right.
Conditions on the colony ship are unlikely to duplicate the conditions on the planet (although that would be a good idea, to prepare the colonists as well as their crops and animals), so you don’t want to throw anything away right now. Just keep that diversity, so whatever you need on the planet will be there!
Once on the planet, keep as much diversity as you can, but start culling the animals that aren’t thrifty, that don’t produce well, that don’t survive well, that have fertility issues. If your large-combed chickens freeze their combs in the harsh winters, cull them (or send them to more southerly colonists) and concentrate on chickens with pea and rose combs. If your big, heavy birds start keeling over with heatstroke, select for bloodlines from the Mediterranean breeds such as the Leghorns. If you have serious predator problems, you can go two ways – breed for very docile chickens and keep them tightly confined, or breed for very wild chickens and plan on having an egg hunt every time you need eggs. And the kids better get good with a sling-shot if you expect to have chicken soup for dinner!
Breed only the chickens that do the best. That means you’ll need to have some way to tell them apart – breeders usually use numbered or colored leg bands, and sometimes also put tags in the web of the wing. Even if your flock has a wild variety of colors and body types, you will still need a means of identifying birds – they move so much that it’s hard to track one. And you need to know how to tell which birds are laying, and keep track of meat production from the birds that are butchered. Keep track of breedings, fertility and hatch rates, and so on. If you always breed from the birds that do the best, you will be selecting for adaptation to local conditions, and in a few generations, you should have a flock that is thriving in their new environment.
There’s a website I enjoy reading – if you are breeding for specific conditions, I think you may also find it interesting. He breeds vegetables and fruits, but the principles apply across the board. http://garden.lofthouse.com/