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Spring is finally feeling like it's just around the corner, and almost every homesteading friend I know has chick fever. Even if we all have as many chickens as we really need - it seems almost impossible this time of year, to resist the urge to add some adorable new fluffballs to the family.
Every year, as more folks are becoming enthralled with all the wonderful heritage breeds of chickens that can add color and diversity to a flock, more and more of us are turning to small breeders that specialize in the breed we're looking for, rather than placing an order from a large hatchery or running to the local feed store. This is a trend that excites me so much, since it means more and more folks are breeding and preserving these wonderful (and often endangered) heritage breeds.
When looking for an excellent small hatchery or local backyard breeder to purchase heritage chicks or ducklings from, I think it's wise to ask a few important questions, before bringing home new babies for your flock. If you're planning to set up your own breeding flock with the chicks you're buying, it's even more critical to have as much information as possible, about the stock you're acquiring your birds from. Here are the questions I'll always ask, before purchasing stock from a breeder of heritage breed poultry:
1. Where did you acquire your foundation stock?
Especially if you're intending to breed and sell chicks or ducklings, it's important to know all origins of the parent flock. What bloodlines are represented in the birds you'll be purchasing? Especially if you're working with a rare heritage breed or landrace, and helping to increase the numbers of these wonderful birds, it's critical to know that you're purchasing birds who's lineage can be clearly traced. A reputable breeder will be more than happy to chat with you about where they purchased their birds, and may gladly offer to show you documentation.
2. Do you breed other varieties, and if so, how long are breeds separated before hatching?
Many small hatcheries or backyard breeders keep more than one breed or chickens or ducks. Often, flocks are free-ranged together most of the year, and only separated into "breeding pens" for hatching season. If more than one breed is kept by a breeder, I feel it's very important to know how long the females have been separated from males of another breed.
There is plenty of bad information floating around the internet, and not all breeders do their research. A week or two simply isn't adequate to ensure purebred offspring, so I'd be sure to purchase chicks from someone who separates their flocks for a minimum of three weeks before collecting eggs for hatching.
3. How large is your breeding flock for each particular breed?
This one is especially important if you are buying your stock with the intention of hatching out chicks or ducklings - either to replenish your own flock, or to sell. "Genetic depression" is a term for what can happen when a small flock is inbred over several generations. Resistance to disease can be compromised, fertility often wanes, and undesirable traits can pop up. While it is absolutely possible to build a robust and healthy "closed flock" without adding outside bloodlines (and many of the top heritage breeders do this) please keep in mind that these are not tiny flocks - they're carefully managed flocks with many hens and multiple roosters, with rigorous, careful culling in each generation.
The reality is that you can not build a robust flock that will be self-perpetuation over many generations, from the genetics of three birds. If the breeder you're considering keeps only 3-5 birds of each breed, I would ask myself what my goals are for any chicks I'd be purchasing from them. If you're just looking for some beautiful egg-layers, you'd be fine getting chicks from a tiny breeding flock like this. But if you're looking for foundation stock for your own self-perpetuating flock, I would keep looking, and find a breeder that is carefully maintaining a strong pool of genes in their own, sizable flock.
Those three questions are the ones that I personally feel are really important when it comes to purchasing chicks or ducklings. I would never consider buying new stock without asking each of those three questions. The next four questions may or may not be important to you, depending on your goals for your flock:
4. What titles have your birds won?
Are you intending to show your birds? Or would you like to sell chicks and ducklings at a premium price, knowing that they're coming from stock that has been proven to adhere well to the breed standard? If so, finding chicks or ducklings who's parents have shown well is a great way to start your flock. Breeders who show their birds will be more than delighted to tell you all about any titles their birds have won, and might also be happy to share tips for getting started with showing your own birds, when they're old enough.
5. Are you NPIP?
NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) certification shows that a flock has been tested for certain diseases, which vary depending on state and type of flock, but always include Pullorum-Tetanus. Generally, NPIP certification is required if you want to show your birds, or if you want to ship chicks or hatching eggs out of state. It also gives peace of mind to many potential customers, even if you're just planning to hatch and sells chicks locally. If you are maintaining an NPIP flock yourself, having documentation that your new chicks or ducklings come from an NPIP flock is necessary for keeping your certification.
6. What traits are you actively selecting for in your flock?
Any breeder who is maintaining a flock of breeding birds over the course of several generations will have certain traits that they favor, as they choose which chickens or ducks to retain in their breeding flock. It may be that they simply choose birds that fit the breed standard well, or ones that have become family favorites. On the other hand, it may be that they also have been actively selecting for certain less physically-obvious traits - like good mothering, gentleness, or even a strong sense of "home territory".
I think it can be very interesting and helpful to know if a breeder has been selecting toward any particular traits in their flocks. For myself, I've been breeding both chickens and ducks for many generations now, with certain traits in mind. As I see offspring from each generation more and more consistently demonstrating these traits, it's really rewarding, and I'm always happy to chat about my breeding program with anyone looking to purchase chicks or ducklings from me. I think most small hatcheries are the same way - we just LOVE chatting chickens, and are delighted to get a chance to talk about our breeding plans and goals!
7. Do you have pictures available?
Particularly if you are hoping to breed or show your new birds, but the breeder you're considering does not show the parent stock (so they have no titles), it can be really helpful to get photos of the flock that your chicks or ducklings will be hatched from. Many small hatcheries and backyard breeders maintain rigorous bio-security measures, and you might not get a chance to see the adult flock in person. So good photos can be helpful. While they can't show everything, you can tell a lot from a photo, and any glaring deviations from a breed standard can often be noticed right away.
I hope this list of questions might be helpful, if you're looking for a great local source for quality chicks or ducklings! I truly believe that many of the healthiest and best chicks and ducklings in America are being bred in small, carefully-managed hatcheries, and from the backyard flocks of true heritage-breed afficionados. As we work to re-establish the many wonderful heritage breeds of poultry that have teetered on the edge of extinction, backyard breeders with integrity and a deep love for the breeds they're working with, will continue to play a critical role. My hope is that this list of questions to ask your poultry breeder might help you choose to purchase with confidence, from one of these wonderful small breeders!
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