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. 


One of Kathleen’s chickens.

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.






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54 responses to “Selecting and Breeding Chickens for Colonists

  1. Draven

    Thanks Miz Sanderson!

    After chickens, you should consider goats, especially if you want milk. No, seriously.

    • LOL! Draven, I’ve been keeping goats for almost 32 years! If I could have only one kind of livestock, goats would be my first choice!

      • Draven

        well some people are like “nooo COWWWSSS” and then i go into weight versus feed versus milk and meat production (of course,i don’t remember the precise numbers, its been 25 years since we had em)

        • “Every redneck with a spare acre of overgrazed farmland will put a cow on it. If you automatically buy a cow, you may be a redneck. If you ponder the best use of your pasture you may be on the path to homesteading. If you buy a llama you’re doomed.”

          • I’ve got a quarter acre of fenced & UTTERLY overgrown back yard that cries out for a pair of pygmy goats to deliver it. A cow? Never be able to live on the kudzu, but it’s my understanding that akiddleeativytoo. AND I am an authentic redneck, born on a dirt road in Macon, Georgia in 1953, have motorcycle, pick up truck, and guns. I just want a couple of pygmy goats.

        • I like cows, and grew up around them. I hadn’t ever even met a goat until after I was married. But at the time I got my first goats (when Cedar was about seven years old), goats just seemed more practical for the two acres we were living on, and I’ve never had reason to change my mind on that even when we had more land. Now I’m getting older and thankful that I have goats to handle instead of cows!

  2. Laura M

    Awesome post! Thank you, Kathleen.

    A couple of questions (of course): A quick search on-line showed that hens who are “broody” want to hatch their eggs. Does that mean she gets mean if you try to take the eggs? (Card’s Seventh Son comes to mind). If so, what do mean hens do? (Looking for drama here).

    On the pens for diversity, was that four pens or four hens per pen?

    Thank you so much for putting this together!

    • Hens who are broody can get aggressive when you try to take their eggs (not all do — I have a sweet little black Silkie hen who is broody right now, but since I want the eggs to eat, I’m taking them from her, and she doesn’t peck or anything, though she’s really not happy with me!). They can peck hard enough to draw blood. Wearing gloves is adequate protection, though I don’t wear gloves unless the weather is cold; I just reach out and grab the hen — gently but firmly — by the neck, preventing her from doing anything. Broody hens don’t generally try to flog you with their wings, as they are trying to cover and protect the eggs. Be careful picking a broody hen up, though, as they often have an egg clutched under one wing and may drop it if you pick them up.

      For diversity, at least four pens. You can put one or several hens in each pen, just make sure to have some of everything in there (and more pens, and more hens — up to eight or so per rooster — will be better).

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I really think you have the elements of a good story here. I hope you’ll write it!

  4. Reblogged this on Cedar Writes and commented:

    I asked my mother for her thoughts and ideas on keeping chickens and small livestock in space for a science fiction story. It’s very interesting that no-one seems to have addressed quite this topic in a tale.

  5. sanfordbegley

    Excellent article Kathleen

  6. A lot will depend on the length of voyage. How good is frozen embryo/semen tech at the time? That could allow a huge variety of all sorts of critters. You just have to have enough live animals/tech advances to gestate them.

    • You also need some critters for the raising, not just the gestation. I was surprised at how many critters require parents to tech ’em language, who to mate with and how, migration routes… Even reintroducing whooping cranes here on earth has huge logistical challenges, and they can imprint on humans-in-crane-costumes and transfer it easily to their own kind. (semi-easily. Even after teaching them migration, the rates of reproduction and chick-raising are still pretty disastrous, because humans can’t really teach that. When they tried imprinting ’em on sandhill cranes, it worked to teach them to communicate and migrate, but they all tried to mate with sandhills instead of their own kind, and so there was no next generation on that experiment.)

      Whales, now there’s a challenge. How do you teach a whale to communicate in their long songs, how to migrate, how to raise calves?

      • Yes, chickens are pretty easy, other animals might not be so easy. Chickens pretty much come out of the shell knowing everything they need to know to be a chicken!

        There’s so much to know just about domestic livestock that I haven’t spent much time on wild animals — they are all so complicated, much more so that people used to realize!

      • Dang, now you have me wondering about virtual reality for the animals? I mean, strap a VR headset on them, and POOF! They can experience life with a herd, just like nature made it, even if they are actually floating in their cubic of the ship. Admittedly, getting the original data might be a bit complicated, but once you have some good recordings of “growing up with the flock” using that to train another generation should be possible. Might leave them a bit confused and passive, but… better than no training at all, right? Hum…

  7. Pat Patterson

    And this is a good time to talk about chickens coming home to roost.
    Dorothy Grant pointed out I could provide my reviewed authors more exposure by cross-posting my Amazon reviews on my pitiful-but-surely-soon-to-become-above-average blog, and that if I signed up for the Amazon Associates program I could perhaps even generate an income stream which could then purchase non-KU books.
    So I did.
    And, since Cedar’s “Plant Life” is my first Amazon review and therefore my first MGC review, I reblogged it, and it can be found here:
    I also today posted my review of Peter’s “Stand Against the Storm”, and added the Amazon links to Laura Montgomery’s marvelous “Manx Prize” (the one with the FANTASTIC cover art) and the link to two of Henry Vogel’s books.
    Caution: the content of the blog prior to the re-boot last November is really something I was writing without any anticipation of it seeing the light of day. It’s personal, and often painful, and sometimes is a straight meditation on a verse of the Bible or a spiritual life lesson. No chickens, or even goats, pigs, or guinea pigs.

  8. Hmmm… Chickens in space. Would this be an example of dynamic hension?


  9. Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
    Focused on space, but also useful if you’re a town person trying to write fantasy.

  10. So far, nobody has addressed the issue, so I want to bring it up: reduced weight implications for the chickens.
    It seems to be pretty well established that we have to have some analogue to gravity for our health. And, we probably aren’t going to plate the decks with neutronium to give artificial gravity. We also aren’t going to have any colony ships do the torch-ship thing, accelerating for half the voyage, flip over then decelerate for the other half. That costs too much fuel, right?
    So, that leaves us with the Rotating Habitat. The wheel-within-the ship concept, as shown in the movie 2001, won’t work with livestock, because you can’t convince chickens to jog every day to maintain bone density.
    How much ‘weight’ do we need to stay healthy? Half a g? Quarter of a g? And at what point do the chickens become efficient flyers?

    • This is one reason why I insist (not that anyone cares what I insist) that chickens for certain, and probably quail, pigeons or ducks, make the journey to Mars. What better way to study the affects of lower gravity on embryos than to raise something that lays eggs? Super easy to examine development as it happens with eggs over many many iterations. And goats… for much the same reason. Maybe rabbits would do it, but goats would probably be better for studying the development of a fetus and for studying how growth proceeds in kids at lower gravity. I can easily imagine that incubators would require a centrifuge since chicks get so messed up if the eggs aren’t turned over regularly the way it is. Generations of goats can help us understand if there is a problem with lower (but not zero) gravity, how much of a problem it is, what methods work to counteract it, and how much time gestating mothers and infants and small children would need to do… whatever they need to do.

      Also, of course, livestock is necessary for adequate protein for bone, muscle, and brain growth.

      (I now have, in my head, the mental picture of a tilt-a-whirl day care… all the little cribs full of babies and toddlers spinning around a big circle…)

    • I can’t answer the gravity question, but some breeds of chickens are already fairly good flyers! The games and some of the bantams can fly pretty well, and a lot of other breeds can get up into a tree or barn rafters without any problem. Generally the larger the breed, the less well they fly. And, of course, Silkies can’t fly at all because of the way their feathers are made (ditto for Frizzles, poor things!).

    • katabatic

      They’ll run if you chase them! :p

      • katabatic

        Oh on a serious note why not use one of those handy hollow asteroid ships? If you put the core of the ship through the middle of it and allow for some mechanism to spin the shell you’d get some low level gravity on the inner surface wouldn’t you?

        Umm assuming this was a generation ship how many people would you need to keep the farm going and the ship in good order while the rest were in the deep freeze? No reason, just asking ;p

      • katabatic

        And how big a population of any given animal do you need to maintain health genetic diversity over the long trip?

  11. katabatic

    What about pigeons? They do well in close quarters, require less feed and breed faster than rats. There is a breed called the king pigeon that is bigger than most and bred for squab. King pigeons require housing like chickens cause they’re too fat to fly but there are other varieties that can forage a bit for themselves.

    If you need to keep some livestock alive on the ship for colonists to learn from and so that the first planet side cows can have a mama there are miniature cows. Might not be big enough to give birth to the big kind but they would be easier to handle aboard a ship. 🙂

    Miniature horses or ponies might serve the same purpose for the big kind as well. Though I imagine there would be transportation and farm equipment aboard a colony ship, fuel conservation might become an issue once they landed. Horses would be very useful for every day things until they got a reliable source of whatever fuel they are using at that point.

    Other animals that we consider as pets now would be needed as well. My Grandad still talks up the best cow dog he ever had because having that dog meant he didn’t need to do anything but open the gate. 🙂

    • Start with a Shetland and work your way up to bigger breeds with artificial insemination when you get there.

      • Yes — this will work with horses, because the mare determines the size of the foal. One pony we had (when Cedar was about twelve or thirteen) was out of a little bitty Shetland mare, sired by a Quarterhorse/Arab stallion. Garnet was probably a full hand or so taller than her mother, and built more like a horse than a pony.

        But it would be harder to do that with cows, because the bull determines the size of the calf. Small cows carrying calves sired by big bulls often need C-sections — not an impossible obstacle, but you would be risking some of your stock doing it that way.

        Pigeons would certainly be another option, though I don’t know much about them. I’ve looked into having them, but for our situation chickens always seemed more practical (you get a lot more eggs per year from a hen than from a pair of pigeons, for one thing). I’ve also looked into quail, and might try them someday just to see how they work out. I’ve also been looking into guinea pigs for meat — that’s what they were originally bred for, after all. I don’t think I’m going to try guinea pigs, at least not right now, as rabbits are probably more practical for us.

        There are actually quite a few other animals that could be raised for meat. A few that can be used for milk but aren’t commonly used that way. A few besides chickens that can be useful sources of eggs. And of course wool/hides/draft power/pack animals, and so on. Honestly, I think any colonists that didn’t include many different kinds of animals in their plans would be shooting themselves in the foot!

        • Pat Patterson

          On a long space voyage, miniaturization is important. So, let’s go with hummingbirds. My mom has a recipe for cake. It starts “Crack 6000 hummingbird eggs in a bowl….”

  12. Mary

    Of course, what will probably happen is that the generation that arrives at the star system will regard it as a wonderful source of energy, metals, and volatiles — to build more space habitats. So you should breed your chickens for that.

    • That’s sort of my view of it. What use an “Earth-like Planet?” The star system has a sun for energy, planetary materials for… materials, and some planet sized bodies for gravitational anchors.

  13. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    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.

    Great article, but I’ll call horse manure on the concept that humans will loose work ethic if they aren’t kept busy. Time and time again, we see humans doing all sorts of totally unnecessary things just to keep busy, and even inventing things to do.

    That’s just the way people are. Look at the variety of hobbies that people have, most of which are useless from a monetary point of view. But the hobbyist is willing to work insane hours on their hobby…

    Writers are a good example of that 🙂 Definitely insane. Willing to work all week, and spend chunks of their non-work time writing, researching, etc. instead of going to the pub, bowling, or looking for a mate.

  14. Mom asked me to put up a list of links for all you research fiends! You can find them on my blog today.

  15. celebran

    Mrs. Sanderson, thank you for the great article. The wife and I have talked about chicken for a while and I lurk at quite a bit. Someday we’ll take the plunge.

    I personally would love to see a good book, or story, about the trials and tribulations of a colony ship farm. There are a lot of potential issues when your ecosystem has to be self-sustaining.

    The first image that comes to mind when I think of farms in space is the image from the cover of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. It isn’t the most feasible image I know but that’s what comes to mind.