Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer means extra males

Summer usually finds us with a plethora of young chickens, many of whom will not stay here forever. With poultry, a good ratio is about one male to every ten females. However, Mother Nature doesn't let us hatch them that way, more's the pity. Often the ratio hatched is about 50/50, sometimes more one way, sometimes more the other.

The problem begins when all the teen-aged roosters (which we term cockerels in the poultry world) start to have their hormones kick in. They get randy. They get obnoxious. They get over-eager and make pests of themselves to the females. And too many of them can actually gang up on a poor female and in their stupid exuberance, kill one. So they have to be thinned out.

I had a long call yesterday from a woman who had purchased chicks from me earlier this spring. She was in the midst of deciding which males to cull, and needed help. (Culling can mean any number of things, but bottom line, it means remove from the breeding pens.) She wanted to know how she was supposed to determine which young males to keep, and which to cull.

We went over a number of areas to look at, aided in part by the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection, which lists the various characteristics of the various breeds. There are specific traits that should be adhered to, and following the Standard is always the first place to start.

But reading about characteristics and applying that info can be two different things. And the best way to learn how to do so is to have an old-timer teach you first hand. But not all of us are lucky enough to have such mentors available, so we turn to others and the Internet for info.

The breed club for which I am Secretary/Treasurer, the American Buckeye Poultry Club, has a copy of the breed standard for Buckeyes (the breed we are focusing on here at the farm now.) If you're a member of the club, you can read it here. If you're not a member, you can always check your Standard (and if you don't own a Standard, get one!)

Another organization, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, has published a step by step process by which you can assess young birds for good meat qualities and rates of growth, see it here.

Between the two, one can usually figure out which males to keep, and which need to go. We sometimes butcher our own extra males, as Buckeyes make great meat birds. Sometimes we sell some of the extras to a friend who has a market for them in a larger city nearby (yellow-skinned birds appeal to certain ethnic markets it seems.) But one way or another we winnow the numbers down. Right now we have three adult males who preside over a pen of about twenty five adult females, along with about nine young males and twenty or so young females. More than ideal, but they all get along well, and don't overbreed the hens, so they're ok for now.

Later in the summer I may rotate out the oldest male, or put him in a pen with some of his great-granddaughters, to linebreed for some reinforcement of his excellent qualities. For now, the remaining "extra" cockerels have the run of the pen, and are living life pretty large. They have more than half an acre to roam, bugs to chase and eat, and cool shade under the big oak and ash trees. Live doesn't get much better for a chicken these days. Come fall, things may change, but for now, Life is Good.

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