Table of Contents
Intro to Egg Laying Chickens
Now that you have raised your flock successfully to adulthood, you may want to consider mating the chickens you have. Assuming you have a rooster, mating your chickens allows you to increase the size of your flock and ensures that you will continue to have fresh eggs. Roosters are not allowed in all areas, as local bylaws and neighborhood covenants might forbid roosters. Investigate your local regulations before you purchase roosters to avoid running afoul of the law.
Breeding Methods for Chickens
There are two different methods of mating your chickens: breeding and multiplying. Breeding chickens will require special selection of the traits that you want to continue; this is called selective breeding.
Multiplying is simply having your chickens mate and rearing the offspring. The following article will give you an understanding of how to mate chickens and go into more depth regarding breeding.
Breeding is artificial selection, which is the only means whereby a flock can be improved. Artificial selection is when specific traits within a population that are found the most desirable are enhanced over a greatly curtailed timescale. This type of genetic selection has been applied to animals and plants since at least the Neolithic era, when the peoples of the Levant domesticated cereals and legumes to found agriculture. In fact, the food purchased at your local store is the product of artificial selection—a type of genetic modification. As an example, crops such as wheat and soybean have a trait called shattering, which is when the head/pod breaks, allowing the seeds to disperse. Obviously, this is an undesirable trait in agriculture as it reduces overall yield. To prevent this, shattering resistance was selected during domestication.
In fact, all domesticated livestock have been selectively bred for maximum output; the chickens that you have raised are no exception. Be aware that breeding is a very complex topic, and the following article will only give you an overview of how to breed chickens. If you are interested in learning more about chicken breeds, we recommend consulting the American Poultry Association, the American Bantam Association, and the American Standard of Perfection. Consider visiting a poultry show and consulting a chicken breeder if you would like to know more.
Remember that your chickens are living creatures and all the work that you do in selective breeding can be undone if you make a simple misstep. Chicken breeder, Dr. Charles Everett states in his article from Backyard Poultry that the basic rule of animal husbandry is that any group will always move toward mediocrity; this can be looked upon as traits unfit for human desirability. This will require you to cull or remove all individuals that do not meet your standard. A standard can be anything you desire, from plumage and beak size to egg size and yolk color. The important point is to have a metric that you want to attain, which will be the basis of our selection. As Charles Everett writes, if you do not have an established standard, you are not a breeder, rather you are a multiplier. If your goal is to multiply chickens, then skip down to the section below for more information.
Chicken Breeding Necessities
Breeding requires a set standard, a plan, and proper record keeping. This will help keep track of your progress and matings. To prevent breeding chickens with the same parentage, it is recommended to use roosters unrelated to your flock otherwise you will run into issues with inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression is defined as the reduced fertility and survivorship of offspring following mating with related individuals. For you this can mean weak unhealthy chickens and reduced egg yield.
Breeding will also require experimentation of techniques, and as you practice you will likely find what works best for you. There are four main types of breeding:
- (i) flock mating
- (ii) single mating
- (iii) rolling mating
- (iv) spiral mating
Flock mating is likely the simplest form of breeding, putting all of your breeding males and females in a single pen. Although record keeping with this system is low, the lineage of each individual chick is unknown.
Single mating—a hen and a rooster—is the easiest and most straightforward way to begin breeding specific traits. This system will produce fewer offspring and can be more time intensive, although record keeping should be straightforward.
Rolling mating is mating between different generations. For example, younger roosters mate with older hens, and older roosters mate with younger hens. Younger refers to chickens in their first breeding season, while older refers to chickens in seasons later than their first breeding season. Rolling mating requires less record keeping and can be completed with fewer breeding pens.
Spiral mating can maintain genetic diversity, but requires extensive record keeping and maintenance of multiple different breeding pens. This system requires the creation of three or five different clans that are identified by the hens. Clans are created based upon a specific characteristic, such as color or beak size.
Rotate your Roosters
Roosters mate with the hens of a specific clan at designated time points, such as annually or semi-annually. Roosters are then rotated between clans to prevent inbreeding depression. Spiral mated hens always stay within their clans, and clan numbers are replenished with hens from those matings. Always be sure to have ample numbers of chickens if you are going to make progress in your breeding program. Because you will only be keeping a few birds from each generation (~20%), you will need a large enough population to continue your flock. Some breeders recommend having numbers upwards of 100–250 chickens every year to make meaningful progress in your breeding program.
Always remember that if breeding becomes too daunting of a task, you can always buy new chicks from us to replenish your stock.
If you are not concerned with specific traits, then multiplying is what you want to try. This is a straightforward concept that is similar to flock mating and will increase the numbers of your flock. For this, all you will require is a rooster for fertilization of the eggs. The advantage of this is that there is less upkeep and no record keeping, but the downside is that your breed may lose some of its desirable qualities as generations pass. You may always include new chicks to your flock to ensure that the gene for the desired trait remains in the population.
Roosters will often engage in courtship behaviors that consist of spreading their wings and dancing. If the hen agrees, she will squat and let the rooster mount her. The rooster will tread his talons on the hen, which may cause injury in hens. Known as a cloaca kiss, the rooster will touch his reproductive organ to the hen’s, resulting in fertilization. Starting from two days after mating, hens can lay fertilized eggs up to twenty-one days.
Always wash your hands prior to collecting eggs to prevent the transfer of disease that can pass through the shell. Discard any eggs that have cracks and/or an irregular shape. According to Poultry Scientist, Phillip Cauler, most hens will lay a majority of their eggs by 10:00 am, so collect them as soon as possible. Fertilized eggs will not turn into embryos unless they are correctly incubated, and you can store them up to seven days before they need incubation. You can determine if an egg has been fertilized in one of two ways. The first is to crack open a sample egg from your hen and locate the small white spot (4–5 mm) in the yolk; this is called a germinal disc and is the site of cellular division. You only need to do this for one or two eggs to determine if the clutch has been fertilized. Another technique is called candling, which allows you to observe the development of the embryo without damaging the egg. Holding a light source behind the egg will allow you to see details through the shell. Candled unfertilized eggs will look clear, while fertilized eggs will show blood vessels.
When storing your eggs, keep the small, narrow tip downwards. This centers the yolk and keeps the air cell stable, resulting in better quality. Be aware that when storing eggs for periods greater than seven days, egg hatchability and chick quality declines. Research has suggested that after seven days, hatchability declined from 95 to 76%. Until ready for incubation, fertilized eggs should be stored at temperatures of 55°F (13°C) in spaces with relative humidity levels of 70%. Be aware that fertilized eggs can develop if left at temperatures above 85°F (29°C) for a few hours. Avoid storing your eggs in a warm, dry environment, as this will cause their quality to decline, leading to poor development.
Fertilized eggs should be incubated at high temperatures, with the optimal range being 98–100°F
(37–38°C). Keep your temperatures constant, as fluctuations of lower temperatures with incubating eggs has been shown to decrease body weight in adult chickens. Eggs will generally hatch after 21 days following incubation, although cool storage might prolong the process. Avoid helping the chick as it hatches, as you could severely injure the chick. Once all of your chicks have hatched, allow them to dry before moving them to a brooder with food and water. Brooder temperatures should be set at 90–95°F (32–35°C). Your hatched chickens will be equally split between male and female, and the sex of your chickens can be determined in about six weeks.
Benefits of Roosters
Besides being necessary for the production of chicks, roosters can provide benefits to your flock. First, they will provide your flock with structure and balance. Roosters will act as flock managers who will stop your hens from squabbling. Second, roosters will provide protection for the hens. If danger is detected, roosters will sound the alarm for the hens, and will even kill a predator if small enough. Thirdly, the presence of a rooster will decrease your hens’ stress, which can help improve egg production; though this does not increase egg production in the raw sense, it will provide a safe stress-free environment for your hens.
Unfortunately, roosters have a reputation for being aggressive, especially during mating and to other roosters. Although the number of hens to roosters varies by breed and temperament, the accepted ratio is one rooster to every ten hens. The general rule is that there should only be one rooster per flock. If you include more than one rooster into your flock, they will inevitably fight. Never assume that smallerroosters will not attack opponents larger than themselves—they most certainly will. Rooster fights can lead to violent outcomes for both birds.
Besides the damage that they can inflict on each other, rooster fighting can increase stress in your hens, which in turn will lead to decreased egg production. All of the energy lost to infighting will lead to decreased flock security and flock mating. It is suggested that if you want to keep more roosters, you should either have more flocks or a flock that is male-only. If you should decide to keep multiple roosters, house them individually.
If you have too many undesired males from mating, you can either cull or re-home them. Another option is castration. Castrated roosters, called capons, are reared for their meat, which is described as being delicate, juicy, and tender when compared to rooster meat. Caponization (rooster castration) removes the sexual organs of roosters, improving the meat quality and leads to decreased aggression.
Breeding chickens can be a very daunting task, albeit, a rewarding one. While this article summarized different breeding techniques, never forget that there are more available, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. The list provided is exhaustive, as each breeder will have their own technique. As you breed or multiply chickens, you will certainly develop your own methods. Always observe their behavior and development during this process. Never forget that you are learning a new skill, so do not get bogged down if it appears too demanding. Try starting small and growing in scale once you get the gist of breeding.
Colin Bonser, Entomology PhD
Adriaensen, H., V. Parasote, I. Castilla, N. Bernardet, M. Halgrain, F. Lecompte, and S. Réhault-Godbert. 2002. How egg storage duration prior to incubation impairs egg quality and chicken embryonic development: contribution of imaging technologies. Front Physiol. 13(902154): 1–12.
Arthur, J. A., and N. O’Sullivan. 2012. Breeding chickens to meet egg quality needs. International Hatchery Practice. 19(7): 1–2. <http://www.positiveaction.info/pdfs/articles/hp19.7p7.pdf>
Ayeni, A. O., J. O. AgbedeIgbasan, F.A. Igbasan, G. E. Onibi, and M. Adegbenro. 2020. Effects of storage periods and positioning during storage on hatchability and weight of the hatched chicks from different egg sizes. Bull. Natl. Res. Cent. 44(101): 1–6.
Calik, J. 2014 .Capon production – breeding stock, rooster castration and rearing methods, and meat quality – a review. Ann. Anim. Sci. 14(4): 769–777.
Cauler, P. 2016. Proper handling of eggs: from hen to consumption. PennState Extension.
<https://extension.psu.edu/proper-handling-of-eggs-from-hen-to-consumption> Charlesworth, D., and J. Willis. 2009. The genetics of inbreeding depression. Nat. Rev. Genet. 10:
Clarke, J. M. 1981. Effect of delayed harvest on shattering losses in oats, barley and wheat. Can. J. Plant Sci. 61: 25–28.
French, N. A. 1997. Modeling incubation temperature: the effects of incubator design, embryonic development, and egg size. Poult. Sci. 76(1): 124–133.
Funatsuki, H. , M. Suzuki, A. Hirose, H. Inaba, T. Yamada, M. Hajika, K. Komatsu, T. Katayama, T. Sayama, M. Ishimoto, and K. Fujino. 2014. Molecular basis of a shattering resistance boosting global dissemination of soybean. PNAS. 111(50): 17797–17802
Hill, W. G., and A. Caballero. 1992. Artificial selection experiments. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 23: 287–310.
Janisch, S., A. R. Sharifi, M. Wicke, and C. Krischek. 2015. Changing the incubation temperature during embryonic myogenesis influences the weight performance and meat quality of male and female broilers. Poult. Sci. 94(10): 2581–2588.
Klein, S., M. Rokitta, U. Baulain, J. Thielebein, A. Haase, and F. Ellendorff. 2002. Localization of the fertilized germinal disc in the chicken egg before incubation. Poult. Sci. 81(4): 529–536.
Piestun, Y., S. Druyan, J. Brake, and S. Yahav. 2013. Thermal manipulations during broiler incubation alter performance of broilers to 70 days of age. Poult. Sci. 92(5): 1155–1163.
Reijrink, I. A. M., R. Meijerhof, B. Kemp, and H. Van Den Brand. 2008. The chicken embryo and its micro environment during egg storage and early incubation. Worlds Poult. Sci. J. 64(4): 581–598.
Scanes, C. G. 2018. The Neolithic Revolution, animal domestication, and early forms of animal agriculture. Animals and Soceity. Pp. 103–131. In C. G. Scanes, and S. R. Toukhsati (eds.) Animals and Human Society. Academic Press, Elsevier, London, U. K.
Sirri, F., M. Bianchi, M. Petracci, and A. Meluzzi. 2009. Influence of partial and complete caponization on chicken meat quality. Poult. Sci. 88(7):1466–1473.
Yang, N., and R. Jiang. 2005. Recent advances in breeding for quality chickens. Worlds Poult. Sci. J.
Butterfield, M. 2014. How can I tell if my chicken eggs are fertilized without cracking them? One Hundred Dollars A Month.
Cameron, D. 2022. Do chickens lay more eggs with a rooster? Easy Hens.
<https://easyhens.com/will-chickens-lay-more-eggs-with-a-rooster/> Everett, C. R. H. 2022. Selective breeding: how to breed chickens. Backyard Poultry.
Hemmer, M. No Date. 3 pillars of a successful breeding program. American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. <https://apppa.org/Three-Pillars>
Hudson, J. 2023. 6 ways to breed chickens like expert. Chicken Scratch.
Lesley, C. 2020. How do chickens mate: the complete guide. Chickens and More.
Lesley, C. 2020. How many roosters can I have? The golden ratio explained. Chickens and More.
Mian Inventions. 24Dec2019. How to check if an egg is Fertile or Infertile || Candle Light Test For Fertile And infertile Eggs. YouTube.
No Author. 2013. Overview of our chicken breeding plans. Willow Creek Farms.
<https://willowcreekfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/overview-of-our-chicken-breeding-plans/> No Author. 2018. Neolithic revolution. History.
No Author. 2019. Should I have a rooster? – learn the pros and cons. The Happy Chicken Coop.
No Author. No Date. The ultimate guide to breeding chickens. Mile Four.
Orem, W. 2016. Why you should store your eggs fat end up. Indiana Public Media.
<https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/keep-your-fat-end-up.php> Roeder, M. No Date. Hatching eggs at home: a 21-day guide for baby chicks. Purina Mills.