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This week's Book of the Week feature is Talking Chicken, by Kelly Klober.

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From Chapter 6: Caring for Your Birds

There are no magic bullet health cures and part of your task as an heirloom breeder will be to become a discerning user of the products that come available. Do not invest heavily in anything until proven that it will really work in your pens. Run your own trials and do so only on very small numbers at first.

It may indeed sound funny to say, but good poultry flocks are most certainly built by subtraction. Once past the early numbers building stage with heirloom birds, when producers have to tolerate a certain number of small defects, they need to get deadly serious about quality and performance improvement.

Crack open that old Standard of Perfection manual and study those conformation, color, and weight descriptions until the knowledge is mastered of what constitutes a really good bird in your breed or breeds of choice. For those just beginning now, the smaller things do start to count. As a small farm producer equal weight must be given to the performance traits.

A good bird will feel solid in the hand and should appear alert without being overly flighty. I was once handed a pair of a certain breed with the proviso that I must not let them go until I was inside something with four solid walls and a roof. Selection for temperament is something that is always very much in order and if simply walking by a pen sets the birds inside into a panic then those are chickens that you can do without. For poultry to be among the smallest of livestock species I am always surprised at how many are concerned about the aggressiveness in them. Roosters have always had a reputation for scrappiness and most country children have a tale or two to tell about being “flogged” by an overly protective, broody hen.

With birds from very small, closely bred populations, aggressiveness is sometimes something for which you have to select. With excessive inbreeding and/or advancing age, libido is often one of the first things to suffer. It is nearly maddening to have a breeding pen where they just stand around, including a rooster that behaves like one of the girls.

I want to see a heritage rooster dropping that wing and turning smartly on his feet. For a time we worked with Buff Wyandottes from a line noted for spotty breeding. The original birds were sold to us with that caution. To counter that I deliberately chose breeding males with a bit of extra punch and I have a couple of small scars to show for it. Roosters that fill eggs sometimes have to fill those humans around them with a bit of caution, also.

Nearly every aspect of the heirloom flock’s basic care must be predicated on their initial rarity and possible inbred status. The latter can manifest itself as slow growth, low libido, poor and slow hatchability, weak chicks, and even some deformities such as crossed beaks and bent toes.

Not every bird with curled toes is inbred (some may have just had trouble hatching). It is a strong indicator though and there will come a time when you will cull virtually every such bird for that fault alone. Not long ago I saw a small hatchery owner study a first-rate pair of Cochins for the better part of a day and then pass on them because of one bent toe on the male. Such is the level of focus that producers must bring to all of their breeders and potential breeders. A poultry yard with a lot of yard chairs and upturned five gallon buckets may not so much indicate a lazy producer as one who really sits down and takes the time to study his or her birds.

It is one thing to look at a chicken, but to really see it takes time and real focus. At many shows and markets I have attended, all I could really afford to do was look. This wasn’t a lost opportunity at all as much market comparison was done. Producers need to know their birds as individuals and to see their faults as well as their strengths. As my birds grow I will work through a set of young birds at regular, two to four week intervals. In the early stages of flock building with very rare birds, producers can afford to cull only those birds with the more glaring of faults. As numbers grow, however, you need to become ever more strict and exacting in the culling process.

If flock building is going well each new generation should be at least as good and hopefully better than the one that produced it. The right pair, if given the time, support, and producer expertise, can turn out dozens of copies of themselves and even some that are better. There are some in the poultry world that have scrambled and eaten eggs that others would have paid very well for because they have already produced enough birds in the year for their needs.

There are others who will produce some birds of quality, but because of variability in the flock, environment, and possibly even their own self-doubt have had to do it by producing large numbers. One of the things that has so badly hurt the keeping of purebred poultry in my lifetime is the finger pointing and arguing that one way of doing things is better than another. Some producers with certain breeds have become very protective of their turf with some show breeders selling nothing, lest they have to show against their own breeding (someone else beating them with their own breeding would really be quite a compliment). Few seem to know what to make of the emerging groups that are using pure heirloom breeds to establish anew, small farm flocks for eggs and meat. What has emerged in recent years is not only just how few flocks of many breeds and varieties exist, but just how small many of these flocks are and how many chick suppliers dip into them. It is now widely believed that just three hatcheries now hold near complete sway over the off-season trade in baby chicks and they then drop ship for a great many other hatcheries the year around.

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About the Author: 

Kelly Klober was raised on a small farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species, including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.

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