Keeping chickens is a rewarding hobby and small business opportunity. Many jurisdictions are allowing small flocks of chickens, from 6 to 100 depending on your property size and neighborhood characteristics.
If your goal is egg production, there is no particular need to keep a rooster. Hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster, no problem.
And yet, having one or more roosters can add new dimensions to chicken keeping, lead to greater opportunities to grow your business, and create improved food security. Adding roosters opens up the possibility of raising your own birds, start to finish. Here are some important things to consider if you are thinking about adding a rooster or two to your farm.
Keeping Chickens – The “Modern” Way
One of the challenges if you are starting out on a small scale is wading through all the information that is designed for large scale chicken production, and that is mostly what you will find out there! So let’s first look at what modern production systems look like, and then figure out what works on a smaller scale.
At a minimum, to have chicks from your own eggs you need to have a rooster available for at least a few weeks in the year to fertilize the eggs that you collect for hatching. Figuring out just how many eggs you need to set for hatching in order to achieve a specific number of pullets (young hens) can be a little bit tricky, but you get used to doing chicken math with practice.
Modern chicken production is often done in single-age groups or cohorts, although there is an alternative approach that I will talk about in a minute. This means raising a group of birds together, and then replacing them with another group, usually with little to no overlap between them.
The production of cohorts goes something like this:
- Breed the hens (by having a rooster with them)
- Collect eggs over a period of days
- Set and incubate the eggs
- Hatch the chicks
- Keep that group of chicks together (and isolated from other flocks) until they mature which is when pullets start to lay eggs or cockerels start to crow or reach the desired meat-bird size.
- Move the group into its final role and facility:
- If they are meat birds, move them into a finishing pen or butcher them, or
- Move the pullets into egg-laying facilities where they either stay together as one replacement flock, or join an existing egg-laying flock.
This modern production view seeks to create efficiency by handling single-age flocks of chickens as they move through the production system, where all the birds at any given stage are the same age. The theory is that this makes the work very predictable, helps to shape a uniform product, and minimizes exposure to disease. Between each stage, full disinfecting of facilities is usually the recommendation.
This modern farming view sees chickens as “production units”. It is focused on efficiency. And that drive for efficiency is what has created the systems in which chickens are so crowded together they barely display normal behaviors. Although the cohort system was supposed to minimize disease, the push to maximize production on minimized inputs (efficiency by definition) has led to significant stress and disease potential among the flocks in big barn systems.
This system can be made to work on a small farm. It is the advice most often given when searching for information on raising chickens – you should be striving for efficiency and since the big business model is efficient you should do what they do. But this system was not designed for a small farm. It works at an economy of scale that is out of reach for most small producers. And it often works against the very nature of chickens themselves.
As a small farm, the efficiency model tells you to outsource your hatching eggs or chicks, and raise cohorts as quickly as you can. But this leaves you, the small farmer vulnerable because you don’t command the attention that a big business done. That means you wait in line for hatching eggs or chicks to be shipped. You may not be able to access the breeds or quantities you desire. And you are subject to price increases both for the stock and for shipping. It might investing in some good equipment, but for me that investment has more than paid off.
But there is an alternative model that can be successful on a small farm, and that is a system based on resilience instead of efficiency. Resilience allows you to take care of your own business, your own self, independently of the market system. Resilience can be particularly important during economic stress, because it can provide you with the security and resources to continue when others will be forced to shut down.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of exactly what can go wrong. The sudden interest and demand for chickens and eggs has left many small farmers competing with a surge of people looking for access to stock. Farmers in control of their own stock were safe and in a great position to respond the demand.
Keeping Chickens – The Old Fashioned Way
Small farms often don’t have the luxury of investing in systems that are based solely on efficiency. They can, however, still thrive by using principles of resilience instead.
Small flock husbandry that involves keeping your own breeding stock can help insulate a small-scale poultry business from market fluctuations and access to stock. It is easier than you think.
Depending on how many replacement chickens you actually need, it can be quite simple to put together a small out-crossed breeding flock and using them to supply yourself with hatching eggs. While it is true you have to invest in feed for the 24-26 weeks it takes those chicks to mature into pullets, if you already buy hatching eggs or chicks, then you are doing that anyway. What changes is that you are in fully in control of the timing and stock quality of what you produce.
With even a small amount of selection going into your rooster and hen breeding pen, you can start to see improvements year after year in the quality of the birds you produce and your profit margins.
- Want chicks to be out of the brooder faster? Select for fast feathering.
- Want larger chicks to start with? Choose bigger eggs from older laying hens and see an immediate increase in the size of your chicks.
You are in the driver seat and you can start benefiting from that with your very first hatch!
When you choose your best birds to breed from, you are selecting for the type of bird that performs well under your management. That is a really important point. It doesn’t matter how well birds perform for someone else. What you want is to have birds that thrive and produce the types of products you want to sell (eggs, meat or stock) under your management practices.
And there is no particular reason to worry about cohort management on a small farm. You CAN do it that way, or you can do it the old-fashioned way where you keep multi-aged flocks. If breeding is your plan, it is pretty hard to do anything other than keep multi-aged flocks anyway.
One of the advantages of multi-aged flocks is that you allow for more natural behaviors among the birds. More natural behaviors means happier, healthier birds overall which can improve your production.
More opportunity, More control
Keeping roosters gives the small-scale farmer full control over the production and breeding of stock.
That means no more ordering eggs (or chicks) in December hoping to get the stock you want the following April or May. It means not having to pay for hatching eggs and chicks. It means not having to open up the box of newly arrived chicks to find too many dead in the box due to shipping complications, or struggling with lower hatching rates of shipped eggs.
With a breeding flock on your farm, you are in control. You can choose to hatch chicks at any point in the year, and you can time out that production to when it best suits you. You can create a schedule of hatchings, or opportunistically hatch when you have extra eggs.
If you want spring pullets in production for an early egg season, you can hatch eggs in the fall and raise the small birds over the winter (which means reduced feed costs compared to carrying mature birds through the winter). Or if you want a meat harvest, you can hatch in the early spring and take advantage of the readily available greens and feeds growing on your farm (I like to plan my meat birds so they can be fattened on the cull apples and fruit from the orchard). The choice is now fully in your hands because your breeding stock is readily available. You can create the pattern that fits your calendar.
Establishing a Breeding Flock
At its smallest scale, a breeding flock can be your best rooster bred to your best hen: that is two birds.
Ideally, it would be your best rooster to 6-10 of your best hens for more diversity (that is 7 to 11 birds). The rooster should be unrelated to your hens when you start out. From this grouping you can save eggs and hatch chicks which will provide a source of birds moving forward.
The rule of thumb to apply is: Keep as many birds as you want, but breed only from your best.~Rose Hill Farm~
If you are operating at this small a scale, eventually you end up with a flock of birds that is 100% related to itself. This can result in some serious inbreeding issues. You need to bring a new (unrelated) rooster in at this point to maintain good genetic diversity and prevent problems.
The better option, however, is to start out with two good (unrelated) breeding roosters. You can divide your best hens between them which gives you two sets of birds to work with. You then have a much broader array of breeding options, which looks something like this:
- Rooster A with half the breeding hens – creates Flock A
- Rooster B with a second set of hens – creates Flock B
- You could breed birds from Flock A to Flock B and generate Flock C
- You can also reverse the roosters between A and B – giving Rooster B to the first set of hens for Flock D and Rooster A to the second set of hens giving Flock E
- Depending on the age and quality of the stock you started with, you can also breed back to a previous generation (called line breeding) which is usually done when there is a specific trait you hope to set (concentrate) in the flock, like dark egg color in the Marans.
With just two breeding roosters and a set of high quality hens you can easily generate all the birds your small farm needs for several generations of birds without ever having to go to outside stock unless you want to. In general, it is a small investment for maximum flexibility.
Of course you don’t necessarily have to go to great lengths and keep generating crosses. I am simply trying to illustrate how easy it is to establish breeding opportunities, even on a small scale.
But don’t I need hundreds of birds to breed?
While many large scale hatcheries operate with hundreds of breeding birds, there is no reason to believe this is the only way to breed chickens. Breeding on a small scale is done successfully all the time, and was the “norm” for thousands of years among farmers throughout the world. People telling you that the only way to breed is on a giant scale have a vested interest in selling you something out of the big business model. But it is far from the only way, and rarely the best way.
If you are seriously concerned about the genetic diversity of breed of chickens (or any other plants or livestock), then the best way forward is to have many small-scale farmers breeding and selecting for birds that work in a wide array of climate conditions and management systems. That type of selection will more rapidly create birds specifically suited to one area/management system and then the groups can be interbred for enhanced genetic diversity.
The idea that a large randomly mating flock will automatically protect genetic diversity is misguided for an animal that needs to provide services to people. The “best” chickens are ultimately the ones that are most useful to the farmers who raise them, and thus they will continue to be raised. None of these breeds would exist to begin with if they hadn’t been selected for and honed by farmers of the past. What we seem to be missing is the idea that we need to continue with this important tradition by adapting these breeds for our current conditions, and thinking ahead to what climate change will mean for chicken production in our area.
Some important tips
Remember that if you are working on a small scale, you need to track your birds rather closely to avoid inbreeding, and you need to be selecting ruthlessly down to your very best birds for breeding.
You can keep as many birds as you like, but you should breed only from your best stock. This is a golden rule for chicken keeping. This means you are practicing intense selection, and it will create the most rapid improvements of your stock.
On a large scale with hundreds of birds, you would be culling down to just 5 or 10% of the flock to create your breeding stock. On a small scale, that might mean choosing the single best rooster you produce from an entire season of hatching or even from across a couple of years of hatching. Alternatively, you could buy a breeding rooster from someone else, one that matches your criteria for success. Or lastly you could order hatching eggs from another breeder and then select only the single best rooster of that group to start working with. The important thing to remember is that on a small scale, your choice of breeding rooster will make or break your results. It pays to choose wisely.
And what is the very best bird for your management system and location? The one that meets your needs and goals. That means if you have birds that are requiring extra time, energy or resources, then these individuals are not good choices for breeding stock no matter how beautiful they are or what color they are.
Breed Your Own Success
Think about it. If your goal is to have an easy production system for your chickens, why would you breed a bird that was – hard to catch, always covered in mites, aggressive, or otherwise anti-social? You wouldn’t.
The beauty of small-scale production is that all of these annoying issues are on the table to be whittled out of the flock you keep simply by making the decision to breed only your best. Disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, ease of handling, better feathering . . . . whatever your wish list entails, as a small scale breeder you can work to create it! And by practicing intense selection, you will be amazed just how fast you can see results.