FERTILITY in birds is not as easy as it seems.
It is not a question of throwing any male into a pen with any female and waiting for the results.
Unfortunately when it comes to pure bred birds you have to work for results.
How often have I heard from people who cannot seem to get it right, and so they blame the birds or the person who sold them duff birds…me!
You need to ascertain firstly what breeds you are dealing with: large, small, feathered feet or clean, heavy or light weight. Each breed reads differently. With bantams you can probably have a ratio of 10 girls to each male quite comfortably. With large birds, 4 females to one male is ideal. If the male is particularly vigorous, you can adjust the ratio later on.
Secondly, you need to ensure the viability of your flock. NEVER breed a sick or injured bird, an underweight bird or one with a visible deformity that will breed on, unless of course there is no other option. Ensure all birds are weighed before being placed in a breed pen, deworm, despur the cocks, make sure there are no parasites.
The secret to correct breeding is simple: You need to cull severely, do not feed and keep what will not work for you, select correctly, and have a good eye for what works from year to year. A photographic record of each year’s breeding helps.
Check housing, ensure comfortable warm housing in winter, ventilation that is above the head of the birds, good laying areas with plenty of soft dry bedding…hay is ideal. Place ONLY the girls in these houses, making sure you have space for four girls and a male later on, or ten bantam females. Bantams do better in smaller houses but for a large breed pen like Australorp you need a house approximately 2 metres by one metre by two metres high. Fence this house in with a small run for outside access. Don’t make this too large as you don’t want to give the cock too far to run.
PICTURE COURTESY OF GAIL DAMEROW ‘ A GUIDE TO RAISING CHICKENS” PAGE 185.
I ALWAYS USE BROAD ELASTIC FOR THE TIES AS I FIND THE NARROW ELASTIC TENDS TO CUT INTO THE CHEST OF THE HEN. ALWAYS MAKE SURE THE ELASTIC FITS UNDER THE CROP AND WILL NOT SLIDE UP. I ALSO SEW IN SOME SMALL LEAD WEIGHTS AS USED BY FISHERMEN ON THE EDGES OF THE SADDLE TO PREVENT IT FROM FLIPPING UP WHEN THE COCK MOUNTS.
When the girls are settled, and all laying well, you can put in the male. Observe to see all is well and there is no screaming or hiding under the house. If you see after a few days that the cock is favouring one hen, remove her. Check the girls regularly for wounds especially on the back, above the thighs. If necessary remove injured hens, or give them a saddle to cover the back.
Never leave a cock in for more than 3 weeks. Remove him, use another cock until breeding season is over. In SA it is usually between July and November. Then give your girls a break, take the cock out, place the girls in a large open run and let them sunbathe and relax.
Do not breed all year round it is unfair on the birds and they won’t last another season.
Collect eggs twice a day to avoid broken eggs or soiled eggs.
CAUSES OF LOW FERTILITY:
1. Non viable adult stock. Genetic weaknesses, illness, deformity. Rounded backs on the cock or the hens. Weak stock. Parasites. Bullying among the hens or with the cock. Lack of nutrition. Lack of water. Dissention among cocks and hens. Cocks too old or too young, hens too old or too young, moulting early. Ratio male to female wrong. Cocks too heavy for the girls. Cocks ‘bored’. Cocks and hens too fluffy on the rear end and need to be trimmed. Feathers on legs interfering with mating. Spurs and claws too prominent on the cocks.
2. Non viable housing. Housing draughty, too small, too large. Housing too cold or too warm. Predators or noise that disturbs. Cocks seeing other cocks in the next run and concentrating on them instead of the hens.
3.Feeding not correct, no calcium in the feed, no oil in the feed. Not enough food or water, not enough access to feed and water because of bullying. Wet or mouldy feed, feed not appealing to the birds.
4. floor eggs because the nesting is not suitable. Soft shells due to incorrect feed, disease, or heat stress. Hens dropping the eggs or breaking the eggs. Too many hens on one nest. Collection of eggs not done regularly, dirty eggs are diseased eggs.
It is essential that you remember several points:
FOR YOU, THE HEN IS LAYING AN EGG FOR YOUR BREAKFAST OR FOR YOUR BREEDING PEN. FOR HER, SHE IS PROCREATING AND THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS FOR HER.
She must be comfortable in her accommodation, she must feel good about her health, and she must feel safe, warm, fed.
These factors all contribute to happy healthy birds and lots of babies.
I will give you an example:
I had Australorps for many years and loved them dearly, but they could drive you insane.
They are the only large breed hens I have ever had, that could withhold fertility simply because they did not like the cock provided for them. I either got no eggs or I got eggs that were never fertile. They would hide from the male, or gang up on him and give the meaning “hen pecked” its true derivation.
Once I changed the cock, all was peaceful, I got my eggs and they were all full.
If I put the original male back into the pen, they all shut up shop again.
So, watch your breed pens, observe every tiny aspect of the breeding cycle. Don’t simply throw the male in with his females and forget about them. Select carefully which birds will breed. Select the hens that are the best layers, the largest eggs, the heaviest among your flock. Don’t breed underweight birds, they won’t survive.
You need to have an eye for this as with any hobby, and the person who is prepared to go the extra mile and do the extra work will prevail.
I was once given a trio of Silver Dorkings, and told the cock was too old and the hens had never laid. It was a question of either getting it right with them or destroying a valuable and rare trio. I took the challenge, dewormed the cock, despurred him, fed him well, and kept him away from the girls. I dewormed and treated the girls the same. Fed them well, gave them a pen to themselves. It took a while to encourage them to lay, but lay they did. And when I was satisfied they were laying well, I put the gentleman in with them…and produced some beautiful babies, 24 of them as a matter of fact.
It was simply a question of listening to what the birds wanted, being sensitive to their needs.
If you see that the cock you have decided to breed is not doing the job, don’t persevere with him. Take him out of the pen, feed him well, let him rest try again later. Sometimes there are reasons why the cock will not breed.
1. Cock is too old or too young. Choose an age group that fits together, young hens with an older cock, older hens with a younger cock. Watch them for signs of trouble and be prepared to step in if necessary.
2. The cock is being bullied by the hens. This does happen. Find out who is the trouble maker and remove her, or remove the cock and put him in with some gentler girls!
3. The cock is not feeling well. He has worms or is ill, has bumble foot or has leg problems. Check that the comb is very red and spongy, the sign of good hormones and good health in a male. Check his spurs that they are not hindering his mating. Check him over for signs of parasites, itching, red vent or oily feathering and crusts around the vent. Check the girls too. Never breed a cock that has a leathery pale comb you will never have fertility.
4. The cock is too big for the hens, and he cannot balance.
5. The hens have rounded backs and the cock is unable to balance.
6. The cock is too fluffy and this happens with Orpingtons. Trim the feathers around the vent for the cocks and the hens.
After three weeks remove the cock, and replace with another you have screened already.
Birds do get bored or tired . Give them all a break, you would be amazed how long you can keep them going if you do this regularly. My oldest Australorp cock gave me babies at the age of 12 years.
This cock won best soft feathered large on show in 2008. He bred many champions in his own right and died at the age of 9 years.
WHAT SHOULD YOU FEED THE BREEDERS?
Feed them a good compound feed as a base, Meadow Feeds layer pellets does quite well.
To this you must add extra grain, wheat, whole maize and sunflower. Give them maas regularly for the fat and lactose content, and if you give them milk or soured milk, make sure it is full cream not low fat. They need the oil content especially the cocks for the hormone levels in the males.
You can add a half cup of cod liver oil or Ocean Gold shark oil to the feed every week. This helps too with the oil content. Compound feeds do not give the oil or fat content necessary for breeders.
Provide plenty of greens if you can.
Provide plenty of variety in the feed, like fruit: pawpaws are good, bananas, tomatoes, oranges, guavas, avocados.
See the section on feeding.