Storey's Guide to Raising Poultry is the only book you need to naturally and humanely raise a wide range of poultry, from chickens and turkeys to waterfowl and game birds -- even uncommon species, such as pigeons, emus, doves, ostriches, peafowl, and swans. Whether you’re running a farm or raising a few birds in the backyard, Glenn Drowns tells you everything you need to know about breed selection, housing, space requirements, behavior, breeding, hatching, feeding, health care, and the business of processing meat and eggs. This revised edition includes new and updated information on health and disease, raising birds on pasture, growing your own feed, housing, breeding, slaughtering, and marketing.
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Storey’s Guide to
Chickens • Turkeys • Ducks • Geese Guineas • Game Birds
Air sacs Parts of the respiratory system in fowl, which contains hollow bones and the avian lung. The air sacs function something like bellows.
Albumen The protein component of an egg white.
Amylase The enzyme secreted with saliva from the glands of the mouth to help lubricate the food and aid in its passage down the esophagus.
Ascites A condition in which the bird grows so fast its immune system can’t keep up; it became a serious issue for a few years in the broiler chicken industry. Because the rate of bodily development is so rapid with the immunity rate lagging behind, the birds are susceptible to many ailments, the most obvious being sores on the legs and feet and breast blisters that are slow to heal.
Blackhead Primarily a protozoan disease of turkeys, although it occasionally occurs in chickens.
Blood feather An actively growing feather that has a soft bloody tip attached to the body.
Blood spot A red spot of blood found in eggs, created when laying hens are spooked or traumatized in some way. These are not evidence of developing embryos from partial incubation, but rather a condition indicating the ovaries are not working ideally.
Bloom The protective coating on the outer surface of the eggshell.
Breed true To produce a hatch in which the birds resemble the parents physically and genetically.
Brooder A structure used to start and rear young fowl; it can be anything from a cardboard box or plastic tub to an elaborate multi-tiered metal frame structure complete with attached waterers, feeders, and manure pans.
Broody Describes the behavior and attitude of a hen obeying the biological instinct to reproduce.
Bumblefoot A bacterial infection that results from bruising to the foot of the bird.
Candle To determine the interior quality of an egg through the use of a special light in a dark room.
Clean up When one lets hens clean up, it means not saving any eggs for hatching for a full two weeks to be certain of their parentage.
Caging In this system, birds living in conventional cages are usually debeaked, and troughs of feed and water are placed in front of them so they have access without the need to move. In most commercial caging situations, great numbers of birds are kept in a small space. No nest boxes are needed; the eggs roll out from under the cage. These hens never have access to the world outside of their cages and roosters are never involved because natural mating is never allowed to occur.
Cannibalism Birds eating other birds.
Ceca Two dead-end pouches in which some additional bacterial digestion takes place. Little is known of their function.
Cervical Relating or belonging to the neck.
Chalaza The spiral cord between egg yolk and lining membrane.
Chick pad The pad that comes in the shipping box when chicks are shipped.
Chicken tractor A lightweight poultry home on wheels that can be dragged around by a tractor, by a small truck, or by hand, depending on the size of the unit.
Chondrocytes Cartilage cells.
Class A division of chickens of similar types due to a common ancestry or point of origin. An example of a class is the Americans, which includes all breeds developed in America, typified by yellow skin and legs.
Cloaca The area at the end of the large intestine that the digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems all empty into.
Cloacal kiss Act in which semen is transferred from the cloacal area near the phallus on the male bird to the cloaca on the female.
Coccidiosis A condition in which the cecal pouches become infected with protozoa that destroy the lining, causing a very bloody stool.
Coccidiostat Medication, sometimes included in feeds, designed to curb coccidiosis in young fowl.
Cockerels Young males.
Coryza A bacterial disease of chickens and turkeys; also called roup.
Crest Feathers coming from a large, bony knob on the head.
Crop A storage place for food at the base of the esophagus.
Crossbreed A bird that will not breed true because it is the offspring of a cross between two genetically different breeds; a hybrid.
Crumbles Poultry feed that resembles a crumbled cereal; pellets crushed to a smaller size more suitable for young birds.
Culling Killing flock members to improve the flock, or removing specimens from the breeding flock that don’t meet the established criteria for the breed and using them of another purpose.
Cuticle layer The thin, protective layer on the outside of the egg.
Debeak The act of removing a section of the beak to prevent feather picking.
Diatomaceous earth The remains of tiny protozoans that contain silica in their cell walls, which cuts the bodies of soft-bodied creatures such as worms and insects when used by raisers for worm control.
Dominant trait A trait or characteristic of the bird that expresses itself if present in the genetic makeup of a bird.
Down A fluffy, first plumage.
Draft shield Anything used to protect young poultry from drafts.
Drop ship A practice whereby one hatchery ships its chicks on behalf of any number of other hatcheries. When this happens, the babies of one breed are all a single strain of chicks from the same place and the same breeding pens.
Dual-purpose bird A bird used for more than one purpose, typically for producing both eggs and meat.
Embryo The developing bird inside the egg.
Endocrine glands Glands that produce hormones.
Esophagus The gullet, where the food goes down.
Eukaryotic cells Complex cells that have a nucleus (a central body where genetic information is stored) and organelles.
Feathering The development of feathers other than down.
Feather picking The habit of picking at the feathers of other birds.
Feed conversion The amount of feed it takes to produce a product such as meat or eggs.
Fines The fine, flour-like material created in the feed-grinding process.
Flighty Used to describe breeds with a nervous nature that do not like a lot of close human connections.
Fledge Leave the nest.
Follicle The yolk part of the ova, covered by a membrane that is highly vascularized.
Forage Search for food naturally; feed supplements gathered fresh from nature.
Fount The dishlike part of a no-drown waterer from which birds drink.
Free range A system in which a domesticated bird has a life of limited confinement, with as few restrictions as possible. A flock kept free range is not penned, roams the owner’s pasture or yard freely during the day, and is locked up in a barn or building at night to prevent nighttime predation.
Gangrene A condition that occurs when frozen or otherwise damaged tissues die and begin to rot; caused by a bacteria.
Gastrocnemius muscle The “drumstick” muscle on the back of the leg, attached to the toes by the gastrocnemius tendon, which, when relaxed, causes the toes to grasp, thus enabling the bird to sleep on a roost.
Gizzard A muscular organ of poultry, used to grind food.
GMOs Genetically modified organisms such as altered seeds; an example would be corn that has gens forma bacteria moved into its DNA to kill corn borers that bite the stalk.
Gonads The sex organs of fowl, consisting of the testes in the male, and ovary and oviduct in the female.
Grit Tiny pieces of rock given to poultry to aid in the food-grinding digestive process.
Hard palate The roof of the mouth.
Hatcher The warm place wherein the egg-hatching process takes place; an incubator used specifically for that purpose.
Heritage fowl A fowl that has been a recognized or historic breed, will mate naturally, and can reproduce on its own.
Homeotherms Animals able to regulate and maintain a fairly constant body temperature.
Hybrid A cross that will not produce offspring genetically similar to the parents.
Hyperplasia An increase in the number of cells in the body.
Hypertrophy An increase in the size of the existing cells in the body.
Imprinting The process in which a young animal will form an attachment to another animal and treat it as if it were its mother.
Inbreeding When mating occurs between closely related individuals — such as brothers and sisters — and then continues with mating among the offspring.
Incubate To warm, nurture, and hatch eggs that contain the growing embryo.
Infundibulum The first part of a hen’s oviduct, where sperm storage and fertilization occur.
Isthmus The part of the reproductive system of the hen where the inner and outer shell membranes are formed.
Keets Young guinea fowl.
Kidneys Organs that function to filter water and excrete waste.
Laryngotracheitis Sometimes called show-man’s disease, “laryngo” is a common viral ailment that affects the trachea.
Lethal gene A gene with an expression that results in the death of the organism, usually in the embryo stage.
Leydig cells Cells that produce the male steroid hormone testosterone.
Loose-feathered A physical trait of poultry that makes them look massive from a distance and appear to be heavier than they really are — until you pick them up.
Magnum The largest part of the oviduct, where most of the albumen is formed and deposited around the yolk.
Mandibles The jaws; referred to as “the beak” in poultry.
Marek’s An extremely contagious viral disease of poultry that presents with paralysis.
Meat spot A hard lump found in the egg in the white near the yolk that resembles a dark, reddish brown piece of meat. This is not evidence of developing embryos from partial incubation, but rather a condition indicating the ovaries are not working ideally.
Medullary bone Parts of bones found in many areas of female fowl and a storage area for calcium for egg formation.
Metal tier brooders Brooding systems that usually include four or five separate tiers, each capable of handling 25 to 50 chicks.
Molting A seasonal time of feather loss when fowl decline in reproductive ability; sperm count goes down in males, and females stop producing eggs.
Mycoplasmas Microorganisms that cause respiratory disease in all species of poultry; the most common is CRD (Chronic Respiratory Disease).
Myoglobin The oxygen-holding molecule in the muscle. Muscles that are used more tend to accumulate more myoglobin and thus are darker in color, and called “dark meat.”
Naturalized Describes domestic birds that go wild, live in the edges of fields and gardens, and raise their own young.
Naturally mating turkeys Turkeys that are able to breed naturally and without artificial insemination; many of the modern white turkeys are not capable of natural reproduction because of the weight and size of their breasts, grown for meat.
Necropsy Postmortem dissection of an animal for diagnostic purposes
Off types Choosing breeding partners from two separate gene pools to renew a breed’s vigor and to create a hatch of diverse birds with color variations, comb differences, build differences, and so on. By crossing these diverse and separate lines, breeders are flushing out some of the genes that aren’t always visible within a particular line.
Organelles Miniature organs with specific functions within each cell, not unlike those in human body systems.
Organic feed Feed grown on certified organic ground and using no artificial chemicals, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds (GMOs).
Osteocytes Bone cells.
Outcrossing Mating of birds with a different but similar breed.
Ova Female reproductive cells.
Ovary Female fowl reproductive organ.
Oviduct The tube that transports eggs from the ovary.
Oviduct prolapse A lethal condition occurring in all species of poultry, but typically in high-producing hens. Prolapse happens when a hen in high production lays a particularly large egg that forces the oviduct out along with it.
Parabronchi Tiny, honeycombed passageways used in avian respiration.
Partial confinement Keeping a confined bird with no access to an outside source of exercise or green grass, but allowing it room to move around within its building.
Pectoral muscle The breast muscle; the largest muscle in any species of fowl and therefore given the greatest attention as a food source, particularly among large-scale raisers.
Pedigree Documentation of the parentage of the offspring.
Pigeon milk The food regurgitated from a parent pigeon’s crop and fed to its offspring.
Pinioning Cutting off the tip of a bird’s wing to prevent the development of flight feathers and ground the bird for life. This must be done on very young birds, usually less than a few days old.
Pipping Pecking through the shell.
Pituitary gland The master gland of the body that works in conjunction with the hypothalamus to control secretion of hormones.
Pneumatic bones Specialized hollow bones connected to the respiratory system through the air sacs; they include the skull, humerus, clavicle, keel, lumbar, and sacral vertebrae.
Poults Young turkeys.
Premise number The government number used to regulate and track every animal and animal product produced on a producer’s property.
Prokaryotic cells Simple cells such as bacteria.
Protozoa Single-celled creatures that live in or near water.
Proventriculus The true stomach of fowl, where hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes are added to swallowed food to aid in the digestive process.
Pullet eggs The first and smallest eggs from a newly established flock.
Pullorum Bacillary white diarrhea, a disease easily spread by breeders from contaminated incubated eggs, and resulting in massive flock loss. Testing for this disease is highly regulated and has resulted in near eradication.
Purebred A bird that when bred with others of the same type will produce offspring that resembles and is genetically similar to the parents.
Ratites Emus, rheas, ostriches, and other flightless birds.
Rumpless fowl Poultry that lack a tailbone.
Scales The crunchy-looking outgrowths that are a waste product of the mites chewing up the poultry’s leg.
Scaly leg mites Insects that burrow into the leg flesh of poultry.
Screenings A mixture of the material left from cleaning local farmers’ dried peas, lentils, wheat, and barley; lightly ground, lesser-quality seeds given to poultry as feed.
Select back Seek out through several generations of offspring the birds that have the proper, desired traits of the breed.
Selection A process all breeders must undergo that involves choosing the specimens for breeding that conform to and match the desired traits outlined in the APA or ABA standard.
Setter The incubator wherein the eggs are warmed and properly turned.
Setting up your breeding pens Placing the chosen male with the chosen hen or hens for breeding.
Sex-link A hatchling created when crossing two breeds; if male, it will hatch out one color, if female it will be another color. Chicks can be sexed at hatching by the color.
Shell gland A hen’s uterus, where the egg takes up salts and water, and the final part, the hard shell, is added to the egg.
Sour crop A condition in which a bird develops a swollen crop filled with a foul-smelling liquid and spoiled food mixture.
Spicules Needle-like bones.
Squab Meat from pigeons and doves.
Testes Male reproductive organs of poultry.
Testosterone Male steroid hormone that causes sperm cells to mature and enables the development of secondary sex characteristics, including feather patterns and colors, crowing, and sexual behavior.
Three-way heterozygous cross Mating birds that do not breed true; a result of a mating in which not all the offspring resemble the parents.
Tibial dyschondroplasia Leg weakness, a periodic problem with rapidly growing strains of broiler chickens and ducks, and large broad-breasted turkeys; its occurrence is due to a forced surge in growth hormone.
Tight-feathered Birds with feathers that do not fluff out.
Tinted eggs Off-white eggs.
Total confinement Constant cage dwelling.
Treading The mating action of the male on the back of the female.
True breeding Mating from which the off-spring resemble their parents in all color and physical traits.
Tuft Feathers growing from the tissue at the top of the head.
Variety A color or comb variation of a breed in a class; for example, Leghorns are a breed and Single Comb Light Brown (Leghorns) and Rose Comb Light Brown (Leghorns) are varieties of that breed.
Vascularization The development of fully functioning blood vessels and structure.
Vent The external opening of the body out of which the digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems all empty.
Vent gleet A sexually transmitted poultry disease most commonly occurring in ducks; probably fungal in origin.
Ventriculus The gizzard, where food is ground into smaller particles.
Vertebrae Spinal column bones.
Withdrawal The time period between a medicine’s last dosing and when eggs and meat from the medicated bird can be legally consumed or sold.
Yarding A method of keeping birds that provides them with a building enclosed by wire, or runway, for exercise.
FOR BREAKFAST, NOTHING IS QUITE LIKE A farm-fresh egg sizzling and buttery in a pan, the deep rich orange yolk standing tall. Once you have tasted a truly fresh, pasture-raised egg, your taste buds will never be satisfied with a caged-bird supermarket egg again. You’ll sniff and swiftly walk away from a fast-food egg sandwich.
For dinner, what’s better than steaming turkey pot pie on a chilly night, or a second fried chicken drumstick at the annual June picnic? Only deviled eggs to go with them, of course!
All of these delectable foods can be raised and prepared on your property and in your kitchen when you know a few key home-processing tricks.
The first eggs from a newly established flock will always be the smallest. Those are called pullet eggs. When your bird first starts her egg-laying cycle, they are naturally smaller, as her ovaries are developing and producing eggs for the first time. Depending upon the breed, once she gets an established pattern, usually within several days, you’ll notice the eggs have increased in size. Some breeds are a little slower to develop into laying their normal egg size, while others lay very few pullet eggs and move directly into the full-size egg-laying stage.
Pullet eggs are perfectly edible. Sometimes the first eggs the hens lay will be without a yolk, however. Don’t be alarmed by this, as it usually happens only once in a while. It sometimes occurs at the end of the hen’s laying cycle as well. If it continues to happen, however, you probably should cull the hen; but it rarely does.
As pullet eggs increase in size, you’ll soon have a good sense of the size, type, and amount of eggs your flock will produce. The pullet year is always the hen’s most productive laying year; laying steadily decreases in the following years. This productive year can be somewhat modified if you start the laying cycle just before a fall molt. For example, chicks hatched early from March, early April, and before begin their own early laying cycle in July or August; they most likely will go into a molt in October or November, thus quickly ending their pullet egg-laying year. They then start laying earlier the following spring, and that year is their first full egg-laying year — and it’s their best.
Egg Handling and Cleaning Methods
When keeping eggs for your own use, it is important you not worry yourself to death about spoilage. For hundreds of years, people gathered eggs, washed them, and put them in the cellar or just kept them on the shelf in the pantry until they were ready to use them. I’ve kept eggs on a basement shelf for more than a month, then washed and refrigerated them, and discovered they were still fine for eating for several weeks after that.
Today’s germaphobic society has people believing that eggs must be refrigerated immediately after gathering, otherwise danger of a bacterial infection growing in the egg exists. In fact, refrigeration is not required immediately, and the chances of acquiring a bacterial infection are slim. However, when you wash eggs, they lose the protective layer or “bloom,” and you need to take proper precautions. That means refrigeration. Common sense tells you not to save or eat any eggs that have a crack in the shell. Even though as children we ate only cracked eggs after selling all the perfect eggs, it’s not worth the risk of illness caused by bacteria that a crack poses. Adhere to the practices in the following paragraphs and you will avoid most problems.
CANINE CRACKED-EGG COLLECTORS
If you are someone who hates to waste things, fresh cracked eggs can be cooked and fed to your cat or dog. These pets enjoy eggs, and as long as you didn’t keep them in the refrigerator for a long period, they’re not harmful to the animals.
My dogs follow me around as I gather eggs because they know they get to eat the cracked ones. I cannot recommend that practice to everyone, as it takes time to properly train a dog not to be a nest raider. I have spent the time with my dogs, and they only come near the eggs that I hand them. I am one of those who hates to see waste, so this little ritual works out great for me and the dogs.
Make a regular routine of gathering the eggs. It’s probably best to gather eggs at the end of each day; that way the hen does not set on them overnight and start the development process, should you have roosters present to fertilize the eggs. Gathering the eggs at a set time every day helps you to be certain that the eggs you are gathering have been there less than 24 hours. Although there are a few early layers and a few that lay toward the end of the day, most chickens lay their eggs sometime during the daylight hours. A hen’s internal cycle produces eggs at a routine interval, and therefore, the hen consistently lays within an hour or so of the same time each day.
I always gather eggs as I’m doing chores in the evening. Other people gather eggs in the morning. You have to develop whatever system works best for you.
Make sure your eggs are always fresh and unspoiled. Any egg with a crack in it should be considered spoiled and immediately discarded. If your pen is not heated in the wintertime, be careful that the eggs do not freeze. You may want to make frequent trips to the coop when the temperatures are below 20°F (−7°C) outside, as eggs freeze rather quickly. As the egg freezes, the contents swell, causing the eggshell to crack and thus exposing the contents inside to the surface bacteria, which can then grow rapidly in the nutrient-rich environment inside the shell. Frozen eggs will spoil much quicker if they have a crack in them. Always test an egg you think may be spoiled (see box below).
Once you’ve gathered the eggs, wash them. Use a soapy water solution to scrub off any surface manure, feathers, straw, and anything that adheres to the outside of the shell. Rinse with clear water, let them air dry, and then refrigerate. The eggs are safe for consumption as long as there are no cracks in the shell. Once you wash the eggs, you have removed what is called the bloom, the protective coating on the outer surface of the eggshell. Most people naturally wash eggs if they see they are covered with some sort of waste product, but even when the eggs look clean, they will have some sort of bacteria on them, so washing should be done to all eggs that will be eaten.
SPOILED EGG TEST
To determine if an egg is spoiled, simply place it in water. Spoiled eggs almost always float. Remove these from your eating-egg stock, as they should never be consumed. In years past, people would eat these eggs and eggs that were cracked as quickly as possible, but it’s best not to take any chances with cracked eggs, or eggs that float.
HARD-BOILED TOO HARD TO PEEL?
The most common frustration encountered by first-time chicken raisers is the difficulty in peeling hard-boiled fresh eggs. Boiled eggs made from fresh eggs do not peel easily. When they’re fresh, you lose most of the white with the shell during the peeling process.
The remedy? Simply refrigerate the eggs for a couple of weeks and the shell will come off much more easily after boiling.
Or, if you have only fresh eggs and you’ve promised to bring your famous deviled eggs to the family picnic tomorrow, add a teaspoon or so of vinegar to the water when you boil the eggs. Then, always peel the eggs when they are still warm. A tablespoon of salt added to the cooking water helps as well.
If you use the freshest eggs for today’s cooking and baking and save the older ones for hard-boiling, your peeling frustrations will disappear.
Always refrigerate the egg after washing. If they are not washed immediately, then the refrigeration doesn’t have to take place for several days. But once you wash the egg, it needs to be refrigerated. After that, eggs may be kept for several months in the refrigerator without much difficulty.
Selling Your Eggs
Before you decide to sell your eggs, check your state’s regulations. Most states require that you purchase or obtain at no charge an egg handler’s or egg seller’s license. This usually means that the first time you decide to sell your eggs you must schedule a visit from a state agricultural inspector, who will make sure that your egg washing and handling facilities are up to code.
Requirements for egg sales vary from state to state and as this book is going to print, federal guidelines are being established that will probably standardize at least minimal state requirements. Currently, flocks of fewer than 3,000 birds have different requirements from those of large commercial facilities. But for businesses with the smaller number of birds, cleanliness is key.
Most states mandate the following:
[image: Image] A refrigerated storage area with a visible thermometer and kept at less than 45°F (7°C)
[image: Image] A clean processing area where eggs are washed and then dipped in a solution of bleach (between 50 and 200 ppm)
[image: Image] After the bleach dip, rinsing the eggs in clean water that has a negative coliform test on a yearly basis
[image: Image] A labeling system
[image: Image] A clean storage area for the cartons
[image: Image] Use of new cartons only, to avoid contamination from outside sources
Fewer Incidences of Salmonella for Backyard Raisers
Simply taking eggs to farmers’ and open-air markets has become more challenging in recent years due to bacterial scares that make people afraid of contracting salmonella. The salmonella scares that worry consumers have emanated from large-scale production facilities where sanitation measures and the sheer volume of chickens and eggs processed provide vast opportunities for bacteria to get a foothold.
That’s not to say that the backyard producer can’t have problems with salmonella contamination. However, the smaller size of the operation necessitates more personal attention on the part of the raisers. Personal inspection of the eggs occurs more frequently with small producers, in part because they must come face to smiling face with the consumer. A small producer is ever building a relationship with the buyer. Trust and a top-notch product are keys to becoming a successful backyard or small farmer producer.
In many states you can sell fresh eggs from your doorstep or driveway. But if you decide to do this or take your eggs to the marketplace to sell them, it would be best to check your state, and in some cases local, ordinances to determine whether or not you are able to sell or market your eggs publicly. When thinking about selling your eggs, consider the following fundamentals.
All eggs sold must be candled. A small cool-light candler costs less than $15.
Some states require grading by size, which is actually a measure of the weight of the eggs, using the terms small, medium, large, extra-large, or jumbo. Small egg scales can also be purchased for an average of $30, with which each egg can be graded by weight.
Freshness is another way regulators rank eggs. It is highly unlikely you’ll ever keep your eggs long enough in storage that they won’t make the highest grade ranking. The demand for farm-fresh eggs is great in most parts of the country.
Refer to chapter 21, Marketing and Sales, for more on marketing your eggs.
Chickens are not the only fowl that lay salable eggs. For baking, duck eggs are far superior to chicken eggs. The best bakeries have long sought duck eggs for their thick, rich nature. Duck eggs, by far, make the moistest cakes one can find. Although fried duck eggs have thicker yolks and somewhat rubbery whites, when hard-boiled their texture and flavor are similar to chicken eggs. Do not use them for meringues or angel food cake.
Some of the finest omelets are made with duck eggs because they give an entirely different texture — fluffier and slightly lighter in hue. Because of the duck egg’s thicker consistency, added ingredients such as onions, peppers, and ham do not fall out as easily as they do from an omelet made with chicken eggs.
EGG REGS ARE STIFLING
Many people have forgotten where our food comes from; often consumers who purchase eggs in the supermarket have no idea how an egg is produced. Others would rather not think about it too closely. That the egg comes out of the same opening as does the manure terrorizes some into thinking that eggs are not sanitary unless they have gone through some “special” process that only the large-scale producers can do. Whatever this corporate “magic” might be, these consumers wholeheartedly believe that only supermarket eggs are safe.
In reality, simple care and sanitation methods — selecting, washing, and refrigerating eggs — makes home-produced eggs as safe to eat as commercially produced eggs. As urban lawmakers take a greater role in creating farm legislation, their lack of understanding ties the hands of the small producer. Without the lobbying power of the huge multistate corporations, the voice of the smalltime guy or gal is frequently lost.
Regulatory fees and special equipment costs can be shouldered only by huge operations; small producers are simply unable to compete. Although media reports make this legislation seem crucial for food safety, swallowing their message generally boils down to a lack of understanding, respect, and appreciation for how food has been safely produced for thousands of years.
Remember that duck eggs are usually larger than chicken eggs, so you need to make an adjustment to the number of eggs you use for a recipe (one duck egg is typically equal to two chicken eggs).
One must be careful with duck eggs. A small percentage of the population has an allergy to the protein found in a duck egg. If you have an allergic reaction to duck eggs, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat chicken eggs, but it may mean you’re allergic to duck meat. And it’s worth noting that some people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs without incident. Once you have determined that they are safe for you to eat, they make a delicious and pleasant alternative to chicken eggs.
If your duck eggs are to be consumed, be careful about what you are feeding the ducks. Ducks with access to a pond where they eat fish and other creatures tend to produce an egg with a slightly fishy taste and smell. Ducks ranging on green pasture produce a delicious egg with a rich, dark yolk.
Goose eggs are perfectly edible and tasty when cooked. They tend to have a paler yellow yolk and are volume-equivalent to about three chicken eggs. The taste is somewhat stronger in most cases than a chicken egg, but if scrambled (not fried), you’ll probably have trouble telling the difference.
Geese are not usually raised for egg-laying abilities, but the Chinese geese lay a good number of eggs. If you have too many goose eggs, they can easily be used as a replacement for chicken eggs in any recipe.
Turkey and Guinea Eggs
Turkey eggs also make a fine substitute for chicken eggs. It is very difficult to taste a difference. The turkey’s diet is fairly similar to the chicken’s diet, resulting in similar flavors, and their eggs are of a similar composition and texture as well. But most people don’t raise turkeys for eggs. If you find you have a rare surplus of turkey eggs, use them just as you would chicken eggs. They are about 1½ to 2 times bigger than a standard large chicken egg.
Guinea eggs also make a desirable substitute for chicken eggs. The only problem with guinea eggs is that they have a very hard shell, making them difficult to crack. If you’re not careful, you end up with more shell in your mixing bowl than you’d like.
EGG MARKETING CATEGORIES
Federally regulated raisers who sell organic eggs must be feeding their layers certified organic feed and have their records inspected once a year.
Layers must not be confined to cages. This does not mean they are free to roam all over the farm, however, but instead are typically confined to a barn or large building.
Eggs must have some pasture component in their production. Ideally this means layers are running on a grassy area to enhance the flavor and color of the yolks. Currently guidelines are being established regarding what can be called free range. Best is to be up-front with your customers and tell them your policies so they understand what you are doing.
Layers must be fed a diet high in feeds containing omega-3 fatty acids.
Many folks choose to raise chicken, duck, goose, turkey, guinea, and quail to stock their refrigerator and provide their family with fresh meat. Others want to broaden the reach of their offerings and sell freshly harvested birds to local markets. These ventures are both possible from your own home with some planning, organization, a bit of courage, and a stiff upper lip. When choosing home processing, you can know with absolute certainly what the birds ate and were given for medicine, how they were treated during their lifetime, and the practices used for slaughtering and processing them.
Awareness of antibiotic use by large operations has grown in the past decade, and many folks are concerned about the long-term health effects of these additives on consumers regularly eating the meat. Current megafarm practices pack thousands of animals into small spaces with narrowed genetic diversity that can cause diseases to spread rapidly. This makes stepped-up use of antibiotics and other supplements — many vitamins and minerals that the bird would get naturally if allowed to range on pasture — necessary to keep the animals alive long enough to process.
Some folks who otherwise enjoy eating poultry have allergic reactions to the antibiotics. Although antibiotic withdrawal periods are required — legally regulated periods between the last antibiotic given and slaughter — people with sensitivity find they cannot afford to take the chance of even small amounts of antibiotic residue in their diet.
As medical awareness grows, so does consumer knowledge of the popping up of smaller farms and CSAs (community-supported agriculture operations) raising meat without additives. These home producers can monitor conditions more closely and are choosing from a variety of breeds, a practice that supports genetic diversity and keeps flocks more naturally disease resistant.
Mustering Up the Courage
The temptation to raise poultry in the manner that one raises a beloved pet may be the biggest challenge for people hoping to try home processing. Adhering to the philosophy that all animals deserve a healthy, stimulating life makes it very easy to turn all the animals you raise into pets. However, if you want to eat meat, and you want to raise it yourself, slaughter will be a fact of your life.
If you have small children you’ll need to very carefully explain your intentions for the birds from day one. As a child I had a habit of making all of the chicks and ducks pets and butchering was not something I wished to participate in; in fact, I hated the thought of killing any of the birds and always convinced my parents to find homes for the extras. Needless to say, I ended up with way too many roosters, and as I got older, I realized the importance of flock maintenance and culling. I still dislike butchering, but I recognize that if I want to eat meat, know where it comes from, and control the quality of the birds’ lives, I have only two options: doing it myself, or sending my birds to a commercial slaughterhouse.
Some raisers have a harder time slaughtering their birds than others; some find that they cannot even eat the meat produced on their farm! If either is the case for you, find a local processing center that accepts all types of poultry and have a professional process the birds. At that point, the decision about whether to bring the meat home or sell it off is yours.
Processing the poultry at your own facility can be done simply as long as you do not have a large-scale operation with an immense flock. If you do choose to slaughter your birds yourself at home, guidelines exist that ease the process. Once you have the basic tools needed, decisions must be made about how to best slaughter the birds, and what steps to take to clean, butcher, and package the meat. The following process has always worked well for me and seems to be the simplest and most problem-free way to do it.
Commercial processing is an excellent home-processing alternative. It will save you the hassle, and for some, the trauma of chopping the heads off of animals that members of the family may have loved as pets.
Find a reputable facility with proper practices regularly inspected by state or federal agencies. This can be difficult in many areas; even here in the agricultural Midwest you sometimes have to travel 100 to 200 miles (160–320 km). Make an appointment to simply drop off your birds in the morning and pick them up later that day. Or, in some cases, they may be able to quick-freeze the birds for you to pick up at a later date.
You will soon learn whether or not commercial processing is cost-effective for you to make such an option useful. Prices for these services can be quite high, as these folks too are faced with numerous regulations that add costs to the final product. The advantage to having your flock butchered professionally is that the facility has all the supplies and equipment, and uses practices regulated by the state or federal government. It also saves you a whole lot of time, of course.
Tools and Equipment
Make slaughter simpler with the right tools (see list, page 288). Have a chopping block at the ready: a thick, sturdy, waist-high chunk of wood, such as an old stump, is a great help.
To prepare the chopping block, drive halfway into the middle of the wood, two 16- or 20-penny nails. Space them 2 or 3 inches (5–7.6 cm) apart —the width of the necks of the birds you plan to slaughter. You want them close enough to hold the bird’s neck tightly in place when you chop it. Because the chicken’s head is larger than the neck region, the nails will hold the head in place and allow for a clean cut at the neck.
SLAUGHTERING TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT
[image: Image] Sharp hatchet or meat cleaver
[image: Image] Several sharp knives, preferably 6 inches (15 cm) or longer
[image: Image] Knife sharpener
[image: Image] Chopping block
[image: Image] Four 5-gallon (19 L) buckets (or other large containers), two of which can withstand being repeatedly filled with boiling water
[image: Image] Large tub or wheelbarrow for feathers
[image: Image] Large, clean tub of cold water for chilling birds after plucking
[image: Image] Thermometer
To prepare the picking area, you’ll need a hot water source for scalding the birds — a process necessary for feather removal. Poultry supply mail-order companies often carry a standard size laundry tub with a heating element that makes processing your birds easy. After filling it with water, simply plug in the tub and wait a few hours for the water to heat to around 140°F (60°C). (My rule of thumb is this: If you have to yank your hand back after plunging the chicken in, the temperature is probably about right!)
If you’d rather not make a large monetary investment in special slaughtering equipment, you can always heat water to boiling on the stove in containers such as soup pots or large cookers. Figure that a 5-gallon (19 L) container about half full works for several chickens. You will need to add water periodically as some of it will be lost through evaporation and as you pick the feathers, and if you keep heating water and switching containers when the water cools, you can keep the process moving. While you are slaughtering and picking feathers off some of the birds, you (or a helper) can be heating more water.
To prepare the slaughtering area, pick an area away from the main facility but near a good source of clean, cold water and where surfaces and tools easily can be washed down after you’re done. You may want to locate it fairly close to the stove or hotplate used to heat your water so you don’t have to carry the pan or kettle filled with boiling water a great distance. It’s also a good idea to avoid being next to the pens with live birds are so they don’t get a taste for blood.
The following slaughtering steps are appropriate for the simplest, smallest-scale job, for the person who has fewer than a dozen birds to process.
Killing the Birds
1. Begin heating to boil enough water to partially fill a 5-gallon (19 L) bucket. The water should be the right temperature — around 140°F (60°C) — by the time it hits the bucket. In the winter, I fill the bucket close to full with the hot water, as it cools fast. In the summer, I mix it about 50-50 with tap water. With very hot water the feathers slip off easily after scalding.
2. Gather the birds and put them in a cage in the slaughtering area.
3. While the water is heating, place the first chicken on the chopping block.
4. Place the chicken’s neck between the two nails on the chopping block.
5. Holding the wings, grab the chicken by the feet and pull them back tight away from the head with one hand. Do this all quickly so the bird doesn’t pop his neck out of the nails.
6. Keeping the feet pulled tight with one hand, pick up the chopper with the other hand. Make a quick, clean chop, severing the head from the body between the nails and the body. The chicken dies quickly.
7. To prevent bruising in the meat, particularly in the wing area, don’t let the chicken flop around. Instead, hang on to it or place it in a 5-gallon (19 L) bucket neck-down to bleed out. You don’t want to allow it to sit there too long, however, or the feathers will “set up,” or become stiff and hard to pick. The bleed-out takes 3 to 5 minutes.
Proper position for a quick, clean kill
Removing the Feathers
To keep from burning your hands during this next stage, some folks may want to use insulated chemical rubber gloves, available at many farm stores and building supply stores.
1. While the bird is bleeding, bring the first few pots of your boiling water to the slaughtering area and pour it into a 5-gallon (19 L) bucket.
2. Next, grab the chicken by the legs and immerse it into the 140°F (60°C) hot water.
3. Make several quick dips of the carcass, quickly dunking it up and down, and allowing the water to go through the feathers. Be careful not to burn your hands in the process.
Holding the bird by its legs, immerse it several times in the scalding water.
TIP: THE RIGHT TEMPERATURE WORKS
If the water is not hot enough, you’ll start ripping the skin. If the water is too hot, you’ll see the skin blistering — on your hands and on the bird! Make sure the temperature is 140°F (60°C) and the process will proceed smoothly.
It’s easiest to slaughter in summer when the water doesn’t cool so quickly, although you must deal with all kinds of flies and every other creature in the world smelling the blood and coming at you. In winter, it’s much more difficult to keep the water hot, but you don’t have to deal with pests swarming you once the blood starts flowing.
Once the feathers are removed, place the bird into the bucket of cold water with its feet still intact to let it chill for just a little bit while you’re slaughtering the other birds. This keeps your water hot and minimizes the running back and forth for more hot water. When you reach the point where you’re done with your need for hot water, you then can focus on the second part of your project.
Scrape off clumps of feathers by moving your hand “against the grain.”
4. Holding the bird with one hand, quickly rub and pull out big handfuls of feathers and drop them into your collection bucket or wheelbarrow with the other hand. When rubbing and pulling off feathers, move your hand against the direction in which the feathers naturally grow. You’re pulling the feathers “against the grain,” so to speak.
Don’t start defeathering and put the bird down expecting to come back to it later. Once you start removing the feathers, pull them all out swiftly; otherwise, they’ll get stuck in the bird and will be very difficult to remove.
Gutting and Cleaning
1. Once the bird has chilled a bit in a bucket of cold water (see box opposite), take a sharp knife and quickly sever the knee joint and remove the lower part of the leg. I bend the foot down and make a nice swift clean cut at the knee.
2. Grab the crop — the lump in the V of the chest — and pull outward. Make a cut into to the body there to remove both the esophagus and the crop.
3. Next remove the trachea, the rigid structure that goes to the lung. To do this, cut at the point where the V closes in on the chest.
4. Next, go to the back end of the bird and you will see where the pubic bones come together and the anal opening is located. Below the base of the breast, make a shallow incision in the skin in a somewhat triangular shape, down and around and including the vent area. Be careful not to go too deep and cut the intestines, which makes the rest of the process very unpleasant and smelly. Remove that skin.
2 Pull out the crop and the esophagus.
3 Remove the trachea.
4 Cut a shallow triangle around the rear end to create an opening.
5. Next, reach into the opening you have made and grab and pull out all the organs (except the lungs) with one quick pull. You will not be able to get the lungs as they are embedded in the ribs.
6. Put the chicken down into another bucket of cold, fresh water. In the summer, I like to place the end of a garden hose in it and let it run to cool the fowl off as quickly as possible.
7. Rinse off any blood or other waste matter. Some people may unintentionally leave some of the intestinal contents on the carcass, so constant running of or changing of the water helps lower your chances of bacteria. Make sure the water is cold. It’s ideal if the container has fresh water running in it at all times so you can rinse the bird off when you remove the internal organs.
5 Reach in and pull out the organs.
7 Immerse the chicken in a fresh bucket of cold water, ideally with a hose running in it.
8. If you choose to keep the heart, liver, and gizzard because you enjoy eating chicken giblets, trim those off rather quickly (see box, opposite).
9. Located beneath the back of the chicken, the lungs are by far the biggest challenge to remove. Push your fingers into the base of the rib cage, and starting at the top, pull carefully, scooping the lungs out with your finger in one move. If not successful in one swoop, you’ll have to go between each individual rib to remove them.
8 Remove the lungs.
9 Rinse the carcass inside and out with cold water.
Butchering and Storing
Once you have killed, scaled, plucked, gutted, washed, and chilled the carcass, you’re ready to prepare the bird for cooking. You can cut it up there or freeze it whole for later processing. Whole fowl take up more freezer space but stay fresh longer in the freezer than do cut-up pieces.
Don’t leave the birds chilling in the water long. Head to the area where you will either butcher the birds or prepare them whole for the freezer.
I am by no means a superb butcher but anyone can make the basic cuts to slice up the chicken. Although the steps listed below do not necessarily result in commercial-grade pieces, the process avoids the more challenging cuts and separates the parts efficiently and with minimal equipment.
REMOVING THE GIBLETS
Some folks enjoy giblet gravy poured over their rice and potatoes, while others simply fry up the heart, liver, and gizzard for a nutritious meal. Even if you’ve never used them for pâté or pet food, keep in mind that they must be taken out when processing your bird and needn’t be wasted. Here’s how to remove them:
The heart is easy to remove. Grab it from the top of the pile of organs you have removed and turn it into a pail of clean, clear water.
When removing the liver — located in the middle of the pile you took out — look carefully for the kidney bean–size greenish gallbladder, and be careful not to poke it. If you accidentally poke the gallbladder, greenish black liquid called bile will squirt out on the liver and destroy its flavor. This liquid tastes nasty; don’t let it touch the meat! It also stains your hands and anything else it touches. Carefully cut out the gallbladder with the lobes of the liver; don’t be surprised if you ruin the liver the first time — experience is a great teacher.
After removing the gallbladder, rinse the liver. Even if you don’t keep the liver, it’s an excellent indicator of the health of your birds: If it’s pale yellowish or spotted, discard it immediately because that indicates the bird has been ill. You want a bright, reddish liver.
Cut the gizzard loose at the front of the internal organ mass (where it connects to the crop) and at the back (where it connects to the intestines). Split it down the middle and remove the contents. The lining of the gizzard of chickens can be removed very easily by running your fingernails under the ridges inside, going across the gizzard.
BUTCHERING TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT
I prefer to butcher my birds in the kitchen, where it’s clean and I can use lots of fresh water. You can also use a table and set up a butchering station with a cutting board in the garage or somewhere else with easy access to water for cleaning. The tools you’ll need are:
[image: Image] Knives with good handles
[image: Image] Plastic bags
[image: Image] Freezer storage containers or freezer bags
[image: Image] Permanent marker or butcher’s pen
For this process, you will need a large cutting board with a smooth surface and no cracks or crevices where bacteria can grow. Be sure to use knives with good handles.
1. Grab one leg, pull it off to the side, and take a sharp knife to the joint that connects it to the body. Make a clean cut right through the connecting bones of the joint and you’ll have a leg-and-thigh piece.
2. Find the joint at the top of the leg (drumstick), and with another quick cut at the connecting bones, you have two pieces, the leg and thigh. Repeat steps 1 and 2 on the other leg.
3. Next, make a cut up each side through the thinner area at the base of the keel. Cut along the side until you reach the area where the wing attaches to the body. Find the joint where the wing attaches and cut between; do this on both sides and you have removed the breast.
4. Split the breast by slicing across the keel to separate a large section and a smaller lower section of breast. Splitting the breast allows it to cook more evenly.
5. Take the back, cut off the neck, and then bend the back at its midpoint to separate it into two sections.
Chilling and Freezing
Freshly butchered poultry should be cooled as quickly as possible. It can be stored safely in a refrigerator set at 40°F (4°C) or colder for several days, no longer. I never store mine in the refrigerator for longer than two days at that temperature.
If you don’t plan to eat your poultry right away, freeze it as quickly as possible to 0°F (−18°C) or lower. When packaged in plastic bags with all the air squeezed out, the carcass can be kept for two years with little loss of flavor or texture. If storing for long periods, regularly check that your freezer is operating properly.
If you want to freeze the bird whole, do one final quick rinse with cold, clean water, and if you want to keep them, stuff the giblets back inside the carcass. Place the birds in proper freezer bags, mark the date that you butchered them on the bag, and pop them in the freezer.
Freezing chickens whole can use more freezer space than many people have available, so you may wish to cut them up beforehand (see steps opposite).
Once the bird is cut into the pieces you desire, quickly place them in the freezer. The longer you delay, the greater the risk for the meat acquiring bacteria.
I use freezer storage bags with twist ties or a lock and seal for my birds, but any freezer storage containers will do. For larger birds, you’ll need larger bags. These can be purchased from commercial sources, but usually you have to purchase in bulk. If you’re only butchering a few large birds and can’t locate just a few large plastic freezer bags at a reasonable price, you can always wrap them in freezer paper, which will keep them fresh for quite some time.
It’s wise to rotate your stock and always use the oldest birds in the freezer first. If slaughtering and processing are done properly, you shouldn’t have any worries about contracting salmonella. Don’t be alarmed if, during slaughter, you poked the intestines and intestinal contents got on the meat. Simply rinse it off and get it into the freezer as fast as you can.
Slaughtering Other Poultry Species
Turkey slaughter is perhaps simpler than chickens, except that they are larger birds, which makes slaughter a bit more awkward. Picking feathers off turkeys is easier but you need larger containers for the hot and cold water. Large rubber tubs or old laundry-room sinks work well. An extra helper should make the task a little less burdensome, depending upon the size of the turkey.
Guinea fowl and pheasants are also very easy to pick and are a simple, quick source of meat.
Coturnix quail are simplest to process if you skin them rather than pick off their feathers. As cruel as it may sound, it is most efficient to just pull their heads off. Once their heads are off, don’t even bother dipping them in hot water; just skin them quickly, remove their internal organs and rinse them. You can have a dozen quail ready for the freezer in no time. (See chapter 15, Coturnix Quail, for more details.)
Waterfowl present the biggest home-slaughtering challenge, because the removal of their feathers is difficult. Try to slaughter in cooler weather when their feathers firm up. Waterfowl butchered in warm weather will retain fluffy down feathers on the carcass, making them unappealing and unpalatable.
The water for defeathering needs to be hotter for waterfowl, sometimes even boiling to get the feathers off geese. After checking that the water is the proper temperature, dip the bird, pull off some feathers, and repeat as often as is necessary to get all the feathers off. Skinning the bird may be simpler than picking, but it removes some of the flavor. Many people use duck wax to strip off the downy feathers that stick maddeningly to the carcass (see box opposite).
TAKING FEATHERS OFF WITH WAX
If you’re set up for it, defeathering is easier if you have a small heater with a container of what’s called duck wax warming. Duck wax can be obtained from most hunting or outdoor stores. To melt the wax, fill the container half full of hot water and add the slab of duck wax. The wax will melt and float on top of the water.
The container should be big enough to get at least part of the fowl into it. I used a kettle on a kerosene heater before kerosene got so expensive. A standard stockpot also works great on a hot plate.
Once you’ve dipped the duck or goose in the plain hot water several times and have most of the feathers removed, you’ll find there’s that nasty little downy stuff left stuck to the skin. That’s when you dip the carcass in the duck wax and then into a container of cold water until the duck wax hardens.
After the wax hardens, peel the wax away from the skin the way you’d peel an orange to remove the down. You may have to dip them in the duck wax and dip them in the cold water and peel several times before all the fluff is removed.
Reuse the duck wax by putting it back into the container of hot water after you’ve stripped it off the duck. When the wax melts again, and at the end of the day, use a strainer to skim out the feathery parts.
This process effectively prepares a duck or goose carcass for sale to a consumer; all other methods are far more complex. Keep in mind that waxing requires more time; you certainly won’t be able to get as many ducks or geese butchered per hour as you will chickens, turkeys, pheasants, or guineas.
[image: Image] Keep the water you’re rinsing the birds in before cutting and freezing clear and cold, not tepid
[image: Image] Rinse the birds in the cold water frequently and change the water after every bird
[image: Image] Don’t take a lunch break when birds are sitting in water
[image: Image] Continuously rinse and wash all tools and surfaces
[image: Image] Use clean water and a bleach solution to clean up afterward
[image: Image] Pace your work to get your birds into the freezer as quickly as possible
Cleanliness = Healthfulness
Use the highest degree of cleanliness you can manage during slaughter and butchering processes. Whether you’re preparing a bird for your own or for someone else’s future meal, ask yourself if you’d want to eat that finished product after what’s been done to it. Processing will turn out a safe, healthful bird for consumption if you are meticulous about keeping all tools and bird parts free from debris and fleshy materials.
When the cleanup is finally done and the birds are in the freezer, you can take a breath and feel good about the fact that you’ve processed meat that you raised yourself. All that’s left to do with those birds is cook yourself up a delicious roast duck or chicken and biscuit dish, sit down with your family, and dig in!
Turkeys, Waterfowl, Guineas, and More
Poultry as Pets
NOT EVERYONE’S INTEREST in poultry revolves around having a large amount of eggs or producing a fresh source of meat. Some are just looking for an unusual pet. Poultry can provide a unique alternative to the typical pets if you’re willing to put in just a little bit of extra time. Although you’re never able to potty train or housebreak a chicken, duck, goose, or turkey, you can make certain breeds into pets — or at least loyal companions. As you consider this venture, understand that there are certain limitations to how much poultry can be “domesticated.”
Geese and Ducks
Waterfowl have many qualities that make them wonderful pets. They are loyal and dedicated to their master. They will follow you everywhere and can be very possessive of you when there are other people around. They can be almost as protective as a dog.
The birds that attach most easily to people are goslings, although I’m not sure it’s the preferred place to start when you’re looking for poultry as pets. They can be kind of messy, grow rather large, and can be a bit cantankerous for some. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to hatch goose eggs in your own incubators, talk to the goslings inside the eggs as they near the end of their incubation cycle. Once you can hear them moving around inside the shell, they can hear you and will begin to identify your voice as caretaker. Upon hatching, when they hear your voice they will come toward you. This is called imprinting. All poultry are somewhat attracted to human voices, but geese are particularly strong in this trait.
If you’re not able to hatch them yourself, start with very young goslings. As soon as they arrive, spend a great deal of time with them. They bond rapidly and will be attached to you for their entire lives. I’ve taken many goslings to school for projects with my college biology students and watched babies become extremely attached to the student who adopted them for the week.
The more time you spend with them, the more they attach and even follow you. If you leave them alone for long periods of time, they won’t bond as tightly. As they grow up and become adults, geese still want to follow you around the yard and be in your company any time they have the opportunity to do so. This is not true of all geese breeds; the exception is the Egyptian goose, which never fully domesticates. Even the rather obnoxious Chinese geese attach rapidly to people. Embden, Toulouse, American Buff, Pilgrim, African, Shetland, and Roman Tufted all can make excellent pets.
Remember that a cute, soft, vulnerable gosling quickly grows into a 10- to 20-pound (4.5–9 kg) bird with a large wingspan and a strong bill. When they become adults, male geese in particular become very protective of their owners. This is true during any season of the year, but particularly true during the breeding season. Exercise care when young children are present around pet geese and their owners; they will attack and pinch perceived trespassers with their sharp, serrated bills. Geese also change temperament during the breeding season, even when they’re around their master, with whom they will not be as docile. Male geese become very protective of their mates, and of their owner if they have no mate, and act exceedingly aggressive.
If you spend time with newly hatched goslings — or even talk to them when they are still eggs — they will be attached to you for the rest of their lives.
CHILDREN + PET GEESE = BAD IDEA
Geese have a distinctive, forceful pinch, and their bills are serrated and sharp, making the experience of being “goosed” all the more memorable. A goose can seriously harm a young child. It is better to err on the side of caution and avoid having children around geese during the breeding season. If a young child comes running toward the goose’s master, the goose will defend its owner, the person it sees as its mate. While this aggressive protective behavior is merely annoying to adult humans, it can be dangerous for young children.
Ducks may be the better option for pets because ducklings don’t grow as large as geese, they imprint easily, and they are less aggressive and cantankerous toward people who approach their master. They show some protective behavior around their owner, but nothing compared to geese. Like geese, ducks follow their owner everywhere, until breeding season, when the behavior diminishes. The only drawback: ducks are extremely messy when they reach the three- to four-day-old stage. You can drive yourself nuts trying to keep them and their living quarters clean, because they love to go from the water to the food and back to the water until they’ve transformed their whole pen into a complete mess. Wet feed and bedding ferments and develops quite an unpleasant aroma after only a short period of time.
Most duck breeds make decent pets. Buffs are perhaps the easiest pet breed and are always my first recommendation. Pekins come in a close second. Although they are large and somewhat messy, they gentle down fairly easily and can be managed without much hassle. Rouens, Magpies, and Swedish all have a relatively even temperament. Stay away from the Campbells (Khaki, White, and Dark), as they are somewhat nervous and it’s very difficult to tame them. Runner ducks are also nervous, but some can be domesticated to make suitable pets. The ease with which you are able to tame waterfowl is directly related to the time you spend with them during those early formative days.
Those who like a challenge find turkeys to be loyal, faithful friends. I don’t know a breed of turkey alive that cannot be domesticated to the point where they follow you just about everywhere you go. It’s easiest to make poultry pets when you have just one of the species. This allows them to bond with you and not their own kind. The challenge with turkeys comes from the difficulty of keeping it warm enough when it’s by itself. Turkeys can be dangerous pets for small children because they peck at shiny things. They don’t do it maliciously; it’s just that their near vision is not very good, so when they see eyeglass frames, rings, earrings, or eyelets on shoes, for example, they peck at them. They peck forcefully, and their beaks are rather strong. If they peck at something shiny on a child, they might cause injury.
Male turkeys are perhaps easier to handle and make into pets as they tend to always want to show off. I had a turkey that was retired from a zoo. He would follow me everywhere around the farm and when I least expected it, he would show up behind me and gobble. A few times he scared me so much with his gobbling that he caused me to almost jump over a fence. He was fairly harmless, but I made sure that he was confined when young children came around so that he could not reach or peck at their jewelry or shining eyes.
Chickens make great pets. They’re small, relatively harmless, and easy to purchase and feed. Breed choice is crucial, however. Stay away from the high-strung, high-producing, laying breeds, as they tend to be somewhat nervous and prefer a hands-off policy. While not unfriendly, these breeds don’t want to be touched, held, picked up, or carried. Mine sometimes come over and take a treat out of my hand, but they aren’t happy if I reach out to try to pick them up. If I do, they squirm, flop, and try to get away.
WATERFOWL BATH, BANQUET,
You’ll need bathing facilities and a water source for your young water-fowl pets. Always make sure they have plenty of water and a place to bathe. I have seen people use their own bathtubs for such purposes, but I recommend you get an old washtub to provide a place for the waterfowl to bathe. Geese and ducks typically want to bathe even if it is –20°F (–29°C) outside.
Be sure to give your pet ducks and geese plenty of dry bedding where they sleep and a balanced source of food. They love occasional treats, especially lettuce, other greens, and pieces of melon.
An outside house, such as a small doghouse, works fine as a shelter for waterfowl. Ducks and geese are very hardy; minimal insulation in the shelter is needed. You’ll need to protect them from predators: be sure you can close up the house tight at night, and keep it within a fenced enclosure for protection when you’re not home during the day.
Most bantams make excellent pets. Cochin bantams are easy to pick up, carry, and put down, and they’ll be your buddy for life. Silkie and Japanese bantams have the same endearing qualities. Remember to be mindful of the differences between males and females of certain breeds. For example, Old English bantam hens make docile, friendly, and affectionate pets. Old English bantam roosters, however, are cantankerous and always looking for a fight.
Large chicken breeds that become rather friendly, calm, and easy to handle include the Buckeyes, Cochins, Speckled Sussex, and some of the Wyandottes and the Delawares. These breeds are so friendly, they can be somewhat of a nuisance, following you everywhere and seeking your attention.
You can train your poultry pets to come when you call. Usually they recognize your voice; you can yell anything and they come to you. Over the years, I have had chickens that would fly to me when they saw me coming. I’ve even had birds fly up and land on my shoulder or jump up on my lap when I sat down on a bucket in the barnyard. I have had ducks follow me everywhere, and there is no end to how attached geese can become. They’ll follow you to the doorstep of your house and wait by the door, dropping smelly little love presents for you while they wait.
Housing for chickens is ideal if they have a roost at least two feet off the ground, though roosts three or four feet off the ground make them happier. Because you’re giving them pet status, and not liquidating them as part of your stock on a regular basis, they’ll need some sort of semiprotected facility. Provide them with table scrap treats if you like, much as you would a dog or cat. Leafy greens, fruit products, and chunks of bread are their favorites, but — like all pets — they must have a balanced diet, not one composed entirely of treats.
Dealing with Predators
MANAGING PREDATORS MAY BE THE single most challenging — and frustrating — task for the beginning poultry raiser. Although some regions of North America require greater vigilance, you must be on guard against hungry predators constantly wherever you live. This doesn’t mean your flock will be wiped out the instant you become distracted; you simply have to take precautions.
Who’s Out There?
To be proactive, familiarize yourself with native predators — domestic and wild — and any animals of particular concern in your neighborhood. Once you have researched what animals live in your area, you must develop a plan to outwit these creatures waiting to feast upon your fowl. In this chapter, you’ll find descriptions of the more common predators of poultry. This list is not complete, but it will give you some idea of what to watch out for and prepare yourself for. Also included are some basic methods of protection for your flock.
Sometimes your poultry flock’s worst enemy are the very creatures you’ve kept as pets or working animals around the farm.
Cats love birds. It is simply a part of their nature. However, you needn’t worry excessively that your birds will be attacked if you train your cats to stay away from them. I have had farm cats and poultry all my life without problems, except on the rarest of occasions. My cats are trained to live peacefully with their poultry, and you can train your own cats to respect your limits (see box, page 400). On the other hand, stray and feral cats emerging from woods and thickets can cause you, your baby chicks, and even some grown chickens a great deal of grief. I’ve seen my farm cats sleeping with half-grown chicks beneath brooder lights on a cold winter’s day; I’ve also seen feral cats sneak up and grab adult bantam chickens foraging in the yard on a warm, sunny afternoon.
TRAIN THOSE BARN CATS
Cats need to be trained at an early age so they can clearly differentiate between what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. Expose your growing, not-yet-weaned kittens to young poultry. Spend plenty of time with the kittens observing their interactions with the fowl and teaching them that the birds are yours and are not to be harmed. If the kittens start to stalk the poultry, give them a spray of cold H2O and yell at them. Don’t expect to be able to leave a starving cat with a supply of young poultry. Like all mammals, the cat will hunt for food to survive. Keep your cats fat, happy, and well-trained, and they’ll stay away from your flock.
Feral cats and baby chicks do not mix. The brooder facility must be secured with tight-fitting screens over the windows, and all small holes covered with screens, boards, or metal. Otherwise cats and other small predators will reach a paw through a crack in a doorway and yank a young fowl out.
When your chicks reach an age at which they are able to roam around outside, between four and six weeks old, it’s time for you to have a good feel for the presence of feral cats around your flock. If you’ve seen them in the area before, keep in mind that they’ll most likely attack the young poultry if given a chance. Because cats feed most any time of the day, you need to be on guard at all times. Fences usually don’t keep them out of the area as they are skillful climbers. I have seen feral cats scale the side of the barn and get in through the haymow door. Leave no gaps for them to obtain access.
When chicks are eight weeks old, they’ve outgrown the stage where cats will bother them. Stay vigilant, though, about more independent chicks that are roaming around the yard alone.
If your chicks hatch underneath a mother hen, she’ll scare off a feral cat unless it’s particularly aggressive. Most mother hens protect their baby chicks from all predators. But don’t relax if you’ve seen one of your hens chase off a stray, especially after the cat has captured and eaten a baby. Once a cat develops a taste for any variety of fowl, they’ll be back on a daily basis. It’s important to be proactive and prepare yourself for this possible problem.
Beyond a doubt the creatures that have caused the most damage to my flocks over the years are dogs. Our dogs are trained as protectors of the farm; they do not bother the birds. This is both good and bad, as our flocks become accustomed to our dogs and therefore do not fear any dogs. So when a chicken-killing dog shows up, the birds don’t know to seek protective cover.
Dogs destroy property. They pull down fences, tear wire, and rip through pens to kill for the sake of killing. Cats, as discussed, tend to take one chick at a time when hungry, or several a day to feed their kittens. Stray and feral dogs that become predators tend to not stop their attack until all the chickens they can reach are dead or so severely mangled they have to be put out of their misery. Keep in mind that predatory dogs don’t have to be large; even toy poodles and Chihuahuas can be very aggressive.
To prevent dog damage, put up sturdy fences with security gates and secure doors on your buildings, and keep a watchful eye out for strays casing the place. Often dogs do their damage when no one’s around, night or day. They come when you are least expecting it.
Laws vary by state, but in many regions, if stray dogs bother you or your operation, it’s legal to shoot them. Before you pick up the rifle, however, check to see if dogcatcher services are available. Many areas even have compensation funds available for those who lose livestock to stray dogs. Poisoning is not acceptable.
Dogs are harmful and can destroy any and all poultry. Dogs have no limits as to what they will attack — young and old, small game birds to full-sized turkeys and geese. Fences work for some breeds, but large dogs are known to destroy fences or jump them to get at the birds. Strong, high, secure fences are the best defense for keeping dogs at bay.
The wild animals in your area are a constant threat to your birds, but you needn’t just stand by and watch while they search your property for food. Draw from my experience methods for keeping them at bay.
Fisher and Marten
Active inhabitants of Northern forested areas, fishers and martens take poultry without hesitation and do serious damage to fences and buildings. Strong and rather mean, they are members of the weasel family and skilled killers that can wipe out your flock in a short time. Build very strong structures with secure pens, and be sure all the doors are secure at night and all windows are covered with heavy-gauge wire.
Although farms and dogs, and cats and barns, go together like butter and corn on the cob, the decision of whether or not to have a pet or working dog or cat in and around your flock should not be made casually. When you have well-behaved dogs and cats that are trained to not bother the birds and mix with the flock as they like, the birds get used to their company. Your fowl’s lack of fear then makes them more susceptible to the attacks of feral dogs and cats.
Fox, Coyote, Bobcat, and Wolf
Plenty of predators such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and wolves live in fields and open country. Foxes like fields and edges of forests. They are swift and tend to kill one bird at a time, taking it back to their home. They can move in, grab a chicken, and move out before you have an inkling about what’s happening. You may be sitting in your house when you suddenly hear the chickens go wild. Then the chickens will calm down as if nothing is happening while the fox is carrying one of their friends away.
Foxes can pass through fairly small spaces, such as the holes in woven wire field fence made for hogs or cattle, and a mesh fence provides an easy opportunity to sneak into the pen. Once they find a food source, they will set up residence somewhere in the area and continue to come back looking for what they may find. They prey on chickens, ducks, and (rarely) adult turkeys. Chicks and ducklings are particularly vulnerable.
Unlike the fox, the coyote probably will do most of its killing and hunting during the night. Coyotes can take down larger birds than can foxes. None of your poultry is safe from coyotes; however, they are much more fearful of humans than are foxes and usually keep their distance. If they see humans moving about, they won’t attack your birds. But once they get the scent, they’ll be back to check out the menu when you’re not around.
Bobcats and wolves are big and strong enough to catch and devour all species of poultry. Although they are extremely solitary creatures, they can’t turn down a free meal if your poultry facilities allow them entrance.
All of these predators are large, and even with fencing, it’s difficult to keep them out if they want to get in. It requires highly secured pens shut up safe and tight at night. Any exposed birds are at risk. A 6-foot-high (1.8 m) extremely heavy-duty, heavy-gauge wire fence will deter most of these animals if there are no gaps and no way to dig beneath the fence. Having a well-trained watchdog is enormously helpful; an alarmist canine keeps prey at bay and warns you of their presence.
Because hawks are federally protected, there’s not much you can do to control them. When I lived in the pine woods of northern Idaho, I dealt with several species of hawks that thoroughly enjoyed the feasts my poultry provided. They are skilled hunters that can swoop down, grab a chicken, and be gone in just a few seconds. They made meals of every Polish crested chicken I attempted to raise.
If you live in an area where hawks are common and you want to raise chickens or any poultry, you will need to provide a wire or net cover of some sort over the fowl. Hawks are skilled at darting in and out of trees and brush to get their desired meal, so natural cover overhead won’t suffice. Fix properly covered pens and only carefully let your poultry out when you are with them to help deter losses. Free range is not an option if you have large hawk populations, unless you can tolerate losing a bird or two a day.
A close relative of the weasel, the mink is another serious predator. If you have a creek, stream, lake, or any other body of water within a half-mile (0.8 km) of your poultry building, be aware that mink may be a problem for you. These mammals follow streams up to the source looking for food, so even a simple drainage ditch on your property that dumps into a creek can invite mink.
It’s essential to cover your pens if you live in hawk country.
The one time I had a problem with a mink family, I discovered that the animals traveled from the creek the half-mile (0.8 km) up the ditch to the chicken building. They successfully destroyed all the ducks living in four different pens in one night. Rarely, mink will kill only one or two birds, but usually it’s mass murder. They kill in a manner similar to that of the weasel, but prefer to eat the heads off your fowl, leaving the rest of the body.
Mink have no trouble climbing and getting through any hole much bigger than a golf ball. Both the weasel and the mink tend to do their damage at night.
Again, keeping all holes sealed and making sure your birds are locked in a sealed-off pen at night is the only sure method to control mink. Trapping is the best route if you have problems.
The easiest predator to catch, opossums are also a nocturnal nuisance. If you find a dead bird that looks as if the back end was eaten out first by the attacker, and then it proceeded up the bird from there, you likely have an opossum problem. They typically start eating at the vent opening and work forward on the chicken’s body.
When I first moved to the Midwest, I had mixed pens of ducks, geese, turkeys, and chickens. Of course, chickens and turkeys roost and the ducks and geese sleep on the floor. Every morning I’d find a half-eaten duck on the floor. It took me a few nights of hourly checks to finally encounter the little marsupial in the act.
Although opossums generally feed on eggs, young fowl, and garbage, they will graduate to adult birds as food becomes scarcer in the fall. They can squeeze through any hole — baseball-size or bigger — and dig into earthen pens to do considerable damage, mostly to birds on the floor, which they can reach easily.
Every small nook and cranny must be sealed off to prevent access. They love my sandy-bottomed shelters and will dig under doors to obtain access, so a solid floor bottom for your shed is a deterrent. They can also get through cracks in doors that don’t seal quite tight, pushing through areas you’d never think possible. And remember, they also will climb up and obtain access off the ground, so a shelter with a ceiling may be a good idea if opossums are about.
Live traps work best to catch opossums. Bait them with a dead bird, old eggs, or table scraps. You then have to dispose of them, of course. Whatever you do, don’t take them down the road near someone else’s farm and turn them loose. If you have real issues with their disposal, call the local Department of Natural Resources or state wildlife agency and let the conservation officer deal with them.
I usually intercept opossums while doing chores. They move so slowly, I can easily thump them with a stick or baseball bat that I keep at a midway point on the chore route. You can also shoot them if it is legal in your area. Be careful: Opossums have many sharp teeth and actually do “play ’possum,” pretending to be dead. Do not assume the animal is dead and reach down to pick it up. More than once I’ve thought my dogs killed a marauding opossum, only to have it get up and walk away sometime later.
As a person who always tries to work with nature and not against it, owls are the predators I can handle with confidence. They operate after dusk and prior to dawn. If you are a responsible poultry keeper, your flocks are all locked up in their respective buildings before darkness falls and the owl has nothing domestic to sample. For 20-plus years I’ve had great horned owls living on the hill in the woods above my poultry pens. Each year they raise a brood of young and I rarely lose a bird. They feed rabbits and other wild creatures to their young and as long as I am responsible, everything is fine.
These night prowlers love poultry and are especially fond of chicken. They are relentless in their attempts to eat every member of your flock. Though they look cute and innocent with their masked faces, they really are bandits. A mother raccoon with her babies can cause the most damage. When training them to kill, she’ll go to extremes to teach them. I never had the misfortune of having to deal with them when I lived in the West where their numbers are fewer, and here in the Midwest I’ve only had several encounters with them. The first was brutal, tragic, and something I will never forget, but it taught me a good lesson on their behavior.
My first encounter took place when I was renting an old farm and had fixed a place in the barn to keep my small flock of chickens. I spent considerable time sectioning off part of the barn with rigid fencing, built a sturdy wooden door, and was sure I had created an environment that was totally safe for my birds. But I made one mistake: I didn’t close in the space between the rafters on the barn hayloft above. It was about a 6-inch-deep (15 cm) space about 2 feet (0.6 m) wide and 12 feet (3.6 m) off the ground.
In hindsight, I realize my security measures presented no challenge for the resident raccoon family. They climbed straight up the 12 feet (3.6 m) of wire, squeezed through the hole between the rafters and the hayloft floor above, dropped to the ground, and proceeded to kill part of the flock, mutilate others, and then tried unsuccessfully to drag their kill back up the 12 feet of wire to get them through the small hole.
When I discovered the mess the next morning it was a hideous sight of blood-stained wire, half-eaten birds, and birds that had to be put down. Do not assume raccoons are incapable of getting in any size hole. If they think they can make a tiny hole in wire larger, they work at it and make it large enough to get through, ripping and tearing at simple chicken wire with great ease.
To keep out raccoons, you need strong, reinforced welded wire, such as field fencing, covering chicken wire. Reinforce it with sturdy boards or metal close to the ground.
Not as large as raccoons, rats are a serious problem for the poultry raiser. Not only do they sample your flock, they can eat as much feed as the average chicken. When they can’t find enough feed, they switch to eating the eggs and poultry. They creep into the nests, break eggs, and eat them. They travel in feeding packs, are death to poultry chicks, and can wipe out hundreds in a night when they go on the rampage. An adult fowl of any sort that’s trapped or unable to move is fair game for rats. A bird unable to flee from a rat’s feeding frenzy is destroyed and all but the bones are consumed.
Rats can squeeze through quarter-size holes and chew through wood. I have even seen them chew through thin layers of concrete. Concrete floors must be at least 4 inches (10 cm) thick to keep them out of the pens. Metal patching has to be thick or they will gnaw through it as well.
Vigilant dogs and cats should be your first rat population control measure, but you may have to resort to poison. Be sure that poultry, pets, and young children don’t have access to the poison. Follow a plan for changing poison types periodically to prevent rats’ developing a tolerance, rendering them ineffective.
Be proactive. Upon first sight of a rat, begin an eradication program, or you will be sorry. The old saying, “For every one you see, there are 10 more” really holds true for rats. See Appendix H at the back of this book for a rodenticide chart with descriptions and comparisons of the poisons.
The smelliest predator, the skunk, really prefers eggs to birds, although it sometimes will eat baby chicks. It only rarely attacks adult chickens in late fall or winter when the food supply is tight. Skunks love eggs and are typically content to just pilfer from that part of your operation.
Use the same methods as for opossums to keep skunks from obtaining access, although they do not climb as well as their rat-tailed friends, and prefer to dig to get into the building.
Live traps work well, but once you catch a skunk, you’ll have to figure out how to remove or shoot it without getting sprayed. You’ll hear lots of advice about how to keep a skunk from spraying, such as finding the correct angle from which to shoot it. Most of these anecdotes are simply tales that could get you perfumed. However you remove the skunk, when it dies, the muscles relax and the scent drains out of its body. Once you kill it, deal with it quickly.
Although I have a great interest in snakes and educate the public about all the good they do and the bad rap they get, they are predators of poultry.
I grew up out West and dealt with rattlesnakes that would invade the poultry yard periodically to make a meal of young fowl. Here in Iowa, I have many snakes on the farm; fortunately no rattlesnakes inhabit the region, but a large number of bull snakes (Pituophis catenifer) do, and they are a great help in rodent control. Occasionally, these snakes get a taste for eggs, and some days I have had a bit of excitement, shoving my hand in a nest only to find a cool, slick reptile coiled up instead of a clutch of eggs. Rarely do they find their way into the brooder house and take a young bird.
I have had reports from some parts of the country where other species such as black snakes are very fond of poultry. Therefore we must remember not all of our predator problems are warm-blooded. The important thing is to watch for them and remove them.
Weasels are small, ruthless killers who get to your birds through the smallest of holes: a hole the size of a quarter is enough for a chicken dinner. Once they start killing, they don’t stop. More than once, I’ve opened up a building and found nothing but dead birds. Birds usually are found with two holes in the neck where a weasel has grabbed it and then left the chicken to bleed to death. Lots of feathers scattered about strewn, ruffled bodies or birds lying grouped in a corner where they ran for cover before being killed are other clues to a weasel attack.
If you live in an area where weasels are abundant, you probably will end up having this problem at some point in your poultry-raising experience. Keep your buildings and bird facilities maintained to ensure that there are no holes big enough for even your thumb to fit through.
A weasel can enter a building through a hole the size of a quarter.
When I was a child growing up in the mountains of the West, we had serious weasel problems. I had to take great care to make sure all holes in the building were sealed off with metal. I patch holes with sheet metal and even the ends of metal cans, whatever it takes to cover all the small holes. A completely metal building might resolve a weasel problem entirely.
Make every effort to keep weasels out of the building, because once they get in, they won’t stop the slaughter until every bird of every species is gone.
Predator Control Tips
Don’t be discouraged if some unknown critter is pinching your eggs and babies or slaying your birds. Every raiser has to deal with at least one predator at some point in his life. Be proactive in the following ways:
[image: Image] Don’t overfeed your birds or allow a lot of extra feed to lay around on the ground.
[image: Image] Keep all pen doors secure at night and train birds to sleep inside; don’t allow them to sleep in trees or outside in the open, where they are more vulnerable.
[image: Image] Monitor fences around pens.
[image: Image] Keep a guard dog.
THERE ARE MANY who deserve recognition, and I wish to thank all who contributed ideas and suggestions for this book. Your ideas and thoughts helped to create it all.
Special thanks to Melanie Slattery for doing some of the typing; to Annalisa Reganfuss for reading the first draft and providing me with ideas for topics to address; and to Ed Hart for reading the final draft.
So, You Want to Be a Breeder?
SOME DO-IT-YOURSELFERS ARE SATISFIED with simply raising a few birds for eggs, meat, or the beauty the birds contribute to their lives. Others want to maintain specific breeds or varieties, or they may have that little scientist inside them that wants to create a new variety of bird or improve on birds already available. Whatever the reason, a number of poultry raisers are eager to move up to that final level of poultry raising — breeding.
You may hear that breeding separates the amateurs from the professionals. Whatever your station, if you choose to breed your birds, you’ll find the hobby (or business) is a wonderful adventure. If you start breeding and working with particular varieties or start making crosses and developing highly desirable traits in the varieties that you are maintaining, you have entered a deeper level of knowing and caring for your flock. Once bitten by the breeder bug, you never again will be content to just receive a box of chicks in the mail from a hatchery without having a clear purpose in mind for their use in a breeding project.
Planning Your Breeding Project
The first step toward becoming a breeder is to sit down and decide your intent. You do not have to be a budding scientist setting out to create a new breed of chicken that lays the largest egg or is the fastest-growing meat bird. You may well be looking to deepen or make more prevalent a particular feather color in your birds. Or you may have a particular disease in your area and wish to create birds with a resistance or tolerance to the disease and select out your strongest candidates for this purpose. Some people just like to play around with breeding projects; they want to see what happens if they put a particular rooster with certain types of hens. Whatever your reasons for wanting to become a breeder, your desires can quickly develop into a rewarding hobby.
Know Your Breed
Before jumping into a breeding project, take care to fully understand the history and traits of that breed. For example, Dorking chickens have a long history and well-documented traits that make it easy to ensure that you are not inappropriately altering the breed. Dorkings are known to have five toes, a broad body situated low to the ground, and a desire to be broody even during their first pullet year. If you want to breed true Dorkings, you must strive to maintain those characteristics.
It’s inappropriate to select hens that never want to set if you are breeding Dorkings, as the desire to hatch eggs is a key trait of this breed. By constantly culling — not selecting for breeding pairs — all of the hens that go broody in an effort to increase the egg production in your Dorking flock, you may think you are doing something spectacular; but in fact, you’ll eventually destroy the traits of the breed. The same thing can be said for selecting breeding pairs that are higher off the ground than is typical. Continual selection of breeding pairs that appear to have desirable traits that don’t actually meet the guidelines of the standard is not breed improvement but breed destruction. These rules hold true for all breeds or variety. So before starting on a breed maintenance program, know the traits and characteristics that make that breed unique and be sure that you select for those traits and shun traits that are not representative of that breed.
Many groups of raisers are devoted to preserving and conserving all the many breeds of poultry. If you share this interest, these breed clubs and conservation groups would be the first place to turn for information about how to do it right. The two most prominent agencies in the United States intent on breed preservation and conservation are the SPPA (Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities) and the ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). Both groups provide newsletters and breeders’ directories that can put you in touch with people who will help you select the proper breeds for your projects and sources for obtaining breeding stock.
The easiest and least stressful of breeding projects — and perhaps the best way for most novices to get started — involves simply penning up a rooster with a particular group of hens who you know are about to start or have already started laying eggs. You add the rooster even though the sperm from the previous mate is still fertilizing the hens’ eggs, because you will be letting the hens “clean up.” That means not saving any eggs for hatching for a full two weeks. Hens are capable of storing sperm in their bodies for up to two weeks without much of a problem. If the rooster the hens have been with previously was an aggressive and frequent breeder, and you start saving eggs too soon, you’ll have a considerable number of chicks running around with unknown parentage. You’ll be asking yourself, “Are these chicks from the old rooster or the new one?”
Selection. A process all breeders must undergo that involves choosing the specimens for breeding that conform to and match the desired traits outlined in the APA or ABA standard. If selecting for breeds not listed in the standards, breeders use guidelines established by reputable organizations such as the SPPA or ALBC. Breeders might also select for traits that don’t necessarily match those outlined in the guides, to create their own breed or to minimize certain characteristics and highlight others.
Culling. The act of removing specimens from the breeding flock that don’t meet the established criteria for the breed. Culling does not necessarily mean killing. You can take pullets that don’t conform to the required color patterns or size and use them for egg production. As a general rule, though, culling roosters means killing (and often eating) them.
True breeding. If a bird or pair breeds true, the offspring resemble their parents in all color and physical traits. For most breeds, true breeding is required for inclusion in the APA, but there are exceptions where known genetic variations do occur and selections must be made. For example, the color Red Pyle does not breed true and it is understood that you will have to cull some of the offspring.
Class. A division of chickens with similar types grouped together because they have a common ancestry or point of origin. An example of a class is the American, which includes all breeds developed in America, typified by yellow skin and legs. Representatives from the American class are Rocks, Wyandottes, Reds, and New Hampshires. The English class includes Sussex, Orpingtons, and Dorkings, which are usually characterized by white skin and legs. Leghorns and Minorcas are of the Mediterranean class.
Variety. A color or comb variation of a breed in a class. For example, Leghorns are a breed and Single Comb Light Brown (Leghorns) and Rose Comb Light Brown (Leghorns) are varieties of that breed.
When the hens have been penned up with a new rooster for at least two weeks, you can be fairly certain that the eggs collected after that time span are of the combination that you desire. Wait three weeks to be totally sure.
A basic breeding strategy requires some study on your part and may take more than one year to get started. First decide if you want to select birds to maintain the breed’s current temperament and behavioral traits, physical characteristics, and constitutional makeup, or to improve upon the breed. A Welsumer chicken, for example, should be a rather laid-back, calm breed that lays a deep brown egg. The breed is supposed to be of medium build and not slender. Knowing that, you don’t want to choose breeding pairs that have a trim build or that lay anything but the darkest eggs, regardless of other redeeming traits they might have.
Once you’ve chosen the breed you want to work with and researched the traits that conform to the standard, it’s time to seek out several commercial breeding businesses that raise the breed that interests you and purchase some eggs or day-olds. When you get the birds home, carefully identify the birds from each strain (each breeding business) with a different color or style of wing or leg bands. This enables you to compare growth rates and other characteristics of the strains.
If you keep accurate, detailed records, this yearlong study will teach you a great deal, not only about genetic diversity, but also about selection strategies. From such a broad genetic base you can begin to make your own selections of the best birds for breeding and begin the raising process.
Establishing New Pairs
It’s important to carefully observe a new rooster’s relationship with the hens. Spend a few minutes each day observing the flock dynamics. In many cases with chickens, and even more so in turkeys, hens will have an established, more serious relationship with a particular rooster and will be resistant to mating with a new male.
Chickens may or may not take to your matchmaking efforts without resistance. Occasionally hen and rooster have a mutual understanding; the hen will squat without a fuss and the male will mate with her. More frequently, because chicken reproduction is a male-dominated act, the hen has little choice in the matter and the male decides when and where it will happen, overtaking the hen as he pleases. This is especially true with specific breeds, such as some of the egg-laying types of chickens that tend to be a little higher strung.
If you are shifting hens away from a strong, dominant male to a weaker one, you may have to wait a while longer to get pure eggs. The new, weaker male may not want to mate until he has control over the hens. Or the females may resist the new male. They may not have ever been with a male, or a dominant matriarchal hen may set up a challenge to the less aggressive male. When you have strong challenging and resistant hens you’ll either need to be patient or present them with a very controlling, dominant male.
Ducks will not present you with the problem of liberated females; drakes dominate the entire reproductive process. Heavier ducks, such as exhibition strains of Rouens and Saxonys, sometimes show a decreased interest in breeding and even the male’s desire is lacking except for short periods during the year. Changing drakes will sometimes stop the breeding process altogether.
Geese are much more particular than are chickens when it comes to match-making. It seems that geese need to have some time to establish a relationship before they will accept a new mate. Newly introduced pairs often won’t start a family until a year after meeting.
Turkeys do not resp