I have spent the last several years building a small-scale breeding program at Rose Hill Farm.
My goals include the following things I hope to achieve:
- Rainbow eggs – because who doesn’t want it to feel like Easter every day?
- Dual purpose meat and egg production – because I want to produce my own chicks, and trying to do this with fully separate egg and meat breeds feels too hard.
- Cold hardy – because we can hit -25 C in the winter
- Heat tolerant – because we can hit +40 C in the summer
- Winter egg production – because who wants to feed a flock all winter without decent returns
- Easy to handle – because I don’t enjoy dealing with cranky or aggressive animals
- Beautiful colors – especially blue and splash
- Creating a signature Rose Hill Farm bird
I look at my list and know it is a tall order to achieve all this on a small scale. But I am having fun trying to work towards these goals.
Step 1: Pick my breeds
My first step was to choose the breeds I would focus on. My picks include:
Americanas – for blue eggs, and the creation of olive eggs
Marans – for deep brown eggs, and the creation of very dark olive eggs, as well as high quality meat
Barred Rocks – for light brown eggs, and they are excellent dual purpose meat and egg producers
This is still a lot of breeds to work with when trying to raise birds from my own eggs and crosses. But this is where I have started.
Within these breeds, I made the following decisions:
Americanas – to have both Blue/Splash and Silver
- I started with Silver because it was locally available (Botanie Rock Farm), but added Blue/Splash (Wild Acres) once I had my own incubators to work with.
- I love these birds because they are bright and colorful, and they give me the opportunity to have blue, green and olive eggs in my daily collection. The olive eggs come from crossing Americanas to the Barred Rocks and Marans – the blue x brown creating olive and the shade of olive coming from the lighter (BR) or darker (M) eggs.
Marans – Blue, Blue/Copper, Blue/Birchen as the focus, but some Black/Copper
- It is widely held that Black/Copper Marans have the darkest brown eggs of any of the Marans line. They were also the first Marans I was able to access locally.
- By my heart belongs to the Blue/Splash Marans. I just love the incredible shades of blue, gorgeous dappling of the splash. Therefore, I focused on getting separate lines of Marans. I have a Blue/Birchen rooster from Briarwood, Black/Copper hens from Greendale, and Blue, Blue/Copper hens from Wild Acres. These are the parental lines I am working with moving forward.
- It took some research but I found an excellent line of dual purpose Barred Rocks from True North Hatchery. These birds have been carefully selected for both meat and eggs, as well as having excellent temperaments. They are the most dependable egg layers on the farm, and I produce all my own meat – meaning I know exactly how my dinner has been raised!
Step 2: Set my breed specific goals
This one is achieved by keeping my three starting breeds Americana (blue and blue-green), Barred Rock (light brown) and Marans (mahogany brown).
The first two don’t really require any effort. But there are particular concerns for maintaining the deep brown of the Marans. This is very challenging with Blue Marans lines who typically start out with lighter eggs than the Black Copper Marans. This makes it important to try and identify the darkest eggs in the hatch and tracks from those darkest eggs as the highest priority birds to add to the breeding list. Some breeders believe that interjecting the Black Copper matings in with the Blue lines will improve the egg color. I haven’t had the opportunity to test this yet.
Then in addition to the basic three, crosses of blues to browns are needed to create shades of green and olive. There are useful color charts that help predict the outcomes.
Both the Barred Rocks and Marans are considered to be good dual purpose breeds. While the Americanas are okay, their meat quality is not the same as the other two breeds. Therefore I don’t focus on dual production of the Americanas.
The critical factor for meat production always seems to revolve around breast development. My goals here include learning the optimum windows for harvesting these breeds for meat – at what age do they make good broilers or roasters? I want to make sure I am selecting for rapid growth and development, but not sacrificing a nice compact body, short neck and rounded breast.
Stay tuned with the blog to hear how my results turn out, and the tips I am finding success with along the way.
Americanas do pretty well in the cold because they have fluffy faces and small crowns and wattles. Barred Rocks and Marans, not so much. These roosters seem especially vulnerable to frost bite.
While I continue to make adjustments to my rearing to try and minimize the moisture that can lead to frost bite, my goal here will be to reduce the size of those crowns for the Rocks and Marans. It would be a LOT easier to manage these birds if their crowns and wattles were smaller. But this is a challenging, long-term objective. It will involve careful selection of the smallest crowned birds, and perhaps some cross breeding to try and achieve a bird that is better suited to my area.
The other aspect of cold hardiness I am interested in is with the chicks. I don’t want chicks I have to coddle. I am interested in chicks that can be moved to outdoor brooders quickly, like within 1-2 weeks after hatch, not 5-6 weeks. So far I have had a lot of success moving Barred Rocks and Marans chicks outside rapidly. I suspect these breeds are much more hardy than people realize. The chicks do more poorly if it is wet, but cold has been a minor issue.
I have not had any issues with any of these breeds and heat. As long as they have plenty of water and access to shade, the birds have all been fine.
This goal is aimed squarely at the Barred Rocks. Of the three breeds I work with, Barred Rocks have the highest egg production and the greatest chance of producing well in the winter (i.e. they lay eggs more days of the year than the other two breeds).
In addition, I have witness their potential first hand. One of my first Barred Rock hens (Mamma) was 4+ years old when I got her and laid an egg a day all that winter without extra heat or light. Go Mamma! Her counterpart, Orchid, did not.
And this is really the point. If you want to enhance a trait, you need to identify the superstar individuals in your flock and then carefully breed forward. Unfortunately for me, Mamma was killed by an owl before my Barred Rock rooster was old enough to breed. We only have some part-bred daughters of her to work with, and those results have been middling.
But once I got my first set of Barred Rock eggs from True North, I began screening for winter egg production of the pullets. I made sure that I grouped and tracked two sets of birds: the ones that were the first to lay eggs, and the ones who laid all winter. Interestingly, they were not the same birds.
Over time I have continued to track and identify the individuals who are the most productive in the winter, these specific hens become the breeding pool for the next generation of hens. I am contemplating keeping a mix of first to lay AND winter layers, but tracking does get tricky after a while.
Easy to Handle
Across all my birds, I have zero tolerance for aggressive roosters. If a rooster becomes obnoxious and starts attacking people, then he is culled from the program. I am okay if a rooster is shy and not particularly easy to catch, but aggression is not okay.
This emphasis on looking for easy to handle birds is paying off over time. Most behaviors have a genetic component. An ongoing emphasis on easy of handling is resulting in some truly wonderful birds who are very social and like to be handled.
While color may be a cosmetic factor to consider, it costs just as much to feed a bird you don’t like as it does to feed one that is beautiful and eye catching. For me, the Blue Marans are my favorites for color. I have been especially focused on finally seeing a Splash Marans for the first time, which finally happened this summer (2019) when I could breed my Wild Acres Blue hens to my Briarwood Blue Birchen rooster. Splash only occurs at a rate of 25% from a blue x blue breeding. I now have 2 splash pullets and 1 splash rooster that I hope will become a breeders. Time will tell.
Ideally I hope to focus on the blue, blue/birchen and splash colors for the Marans. But I am not entirely convinced I want to remove blue/copper, black and black/copper so I am still considering what proportion of the flock should be in which color types.
Signature Rose Hill Farm Bird: the Rose Hill Blue
To date, my efforts to create a signature bird have focused on establishing a Blue Barred. It started by accident, when a blue barred rock rooster hatched in my flock (“BB King”). Since that time I have been working to replicate this bird, and to create blue barred hens. The challenge is that the blue coloration is created as dilute black, therefore breeding two blues produces the blue-black-splash scenario. And the only way to guarantee blue is to breed black and splash together, or to establish a blue/splash breeding flock.
I am slowly working on the dynamics of this flock – with the ultimate focus on dual purpose productivity and cold hardiness as noted above. Stay tuned for pictures and news of how this goal is working out.
Step 3: Track my Flock
Having these goals is great, but all of them require a certain degree of tracking for individual birds over time, from hatching through several years of breeding.
I am slowly developing my favorite methods and products that help me along the way. I’ll share these, along with sources, in the blog.