A lot of homesteaders and even suburbanites raise chickens and don’t much care about genetics. You might simply run down to the farm store and get more chicks if you lose some to disease or predators, or butcher them once they stop laying those fresh eggs. Total sustainability, however, demands that you be able to breed your chickens (and any other livestock, actually) in a way that keeps your flock strong, disease-resistant, and productive.

What Kind of Chickens Should You Have?

Icelandic chickens are a good starter bird for homesteaders. They’re great dual purpose birds that lay medium-sized eggs prolifically even in long, cold winters, and they work as decent meat birds too. The best part is they’re also stellar foragers — in the right environment, you won’t have very much at all in feed costs, and the hens also are excellent mothers, so that means no incubating and babysitting eggs. All you’ll have to do is let Mama do what she does.

They’re also beautiful, and pretty lucrative; as a rare landrace bird their fertile hatching eggs go for $40 a dozen in many areas and chicks can be $6-11 each. The flip side is that if you want to make extra money with them, you can’t own any other breeds.

You’ll probably want to stay away from the Cornish Cross meat birds if you want an actual sustainable flock; they’re not good for breeding and you’ll be dependent on buying chicks. Any dual-purpose eggs/meat bird, on the other hand, will do well; you can cull young/extra roosters for the table, and stew the laying hens once they’ve stopped producing.

The big question for the long term is how to keep the flock going. Sure, you could just let a hen sit on some eggs, but if you started with one rooster and a few hens, it won’t be long before you’re breeding sire to offspring, and that’s not a sustainable practice at all.

Enter the clan breeding system.

How Does Clan Breeding Work?

Chicken expert Harvey Ussery — who also raises Icelandic chickens, by the way — has a fantastic article on the art of clan breeding.  The short version is this:

  • Split your breeding stock into 3 groups, or clans. This would theoretically require you to have at least 3 roosters and 3 hens.
  • The first breeding season, breed each rooster to the hen in its own clan.
  • Any chicks resulting from that union are assigned the clan of their mother.
  • Next breeding season, breed Clan A’s rooster to Clan B’s hen. Clan B’s rooster would breed Clan C’s hen, and Clan C’s rooster would breed Clan A’s hen. Again, any chicks go to the clan of their mother.  And so on.

In order for this to work, you need to cull religiously, only keeping the best of your stock for the next breeding season. Let’s take a look at how this would work in a homestead for both meat and eggs. Clan-based breeding, however, means systematic, controlled breeding, not some free-for-all. The chickens can be all together until about 3 weeks before your breeding season starts.

A Sample Setup

Let’s say you start with one hen/rooster combination per clan, for a total of 6 chickens in your flock. Come the breeding season, you breed each clan pair. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you end up with each hen hatching 10 chicks. All chicks will be attached to the clan of their mother, and this hatch leaves you with 30 chicks in addition to the 6 adult chickens you started with. Statistically speaking, you’ll have probably 50% of each sex, so that means 15 more roosters and 15 more hens.

You’ll go through the new chicks as they grow and decide on 1 rooster for each clan who has the best genetic traits; who’s taking care of the hens, who shows strong breeding, best personality, etc. You’ll keep only the best one. The rest you’ll either sell (which brings income you can put right back into your flock), or you’ll butcher in the fall (which means meat in your freezer).  Roosters are harder to sell than solid laying pullets so chances are you’ll end up selling hens and butchering roosters. Depending how big a flock you want, you may choose to keep 2 hens out of the new generation.

As you go into winter that first year, you should have the following:

Breeding roosters: 6 (2 per clan, 1 older and 1 young)

Laying hens: 9 (3 per clan, 1 older and 2 young)

As you can see, you’re not only setting up your genetics, you’re also staggering the laying age of your hens, which means just as some get older and slow down on laying, you’ve already got another generation behind it. Soon you’ll have a few hens slowing down each years just as a few more start laying.

In the second breeding season, you put Clan A’s rooster together with the Clan B hens, and so on. You’ll get another 30 chicks, and you do the same as last time:

  • Pick the best young rooster (or 2, if you’d like to protect against predators ruining your breed line) from the new batch and butcher/sell the rest — including the rooster from year 1.
  • Pick the best 2 hens from the new batch and sell the rest — including the oldest hen in each clan.

And now you’ve maintained the genetic diversity, while improving your chickens’ line, and set up for long-term breeding that will yield meat and eggs for as long as you maintain the system. Taking out the oldest rooster in each clan each year prevents your sires from breeding their own offspring, and selling the oldest hen or two each year means you’re keeping a fairly young flock that’s stacked 2-3 years deep. If something happens (like a SHTF event) and you suddenly have no other source of meat BUT your chickens, you can scale the flock size by simply keeping an extra hen that year. Even if something happens preventing you from breeding one year, your hens will be young enough so that you can skip a breeding season if you have to and not see a drop in egg production. You might want to keep a spreadsheet, and use colored leg bands or toe-punching to keep track of which chickens are in what clan.

It’s a bit of work, but it’s well worth it — fresh eggs, fresh meat, and a self-feeding, foraging flock that can also help with spring garden tilling and summer bug/tick control.

This system can work for other livestock as well. We’ll discuss its use in starting a dairy goat herd in a later article.

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