One of the most common questions I receive over at the Iron Oak Farm blog is “can I breed chickens that are related to each other?”
The simple answer to that question is yes! And to be honest, you will most likely have success with a batch of healthy offspring.
Breeding chickens can be a lot of fun and is my favorite aspect of keeping chickens. It’s such an easy process because unlike mammals who go into labor, can have birth complications and may need assistance (I’m still a nervous wreck when our goats are kidding) chickens have taken the entire process of “pregnancy” and sealed it into this neat, tidy and almost self sufficient package called an egg.
Usually people get interested in breeding chickens their second year raising them. Sometimes you get that rooster that was supposed to be a hen, and the opportunity presents itself. Whether you use a broody hen or purchase an incubator, breeding chickens is as easy as collecting eggs and keeping them warm. In 21 days you will have a new generation!
After that first generation grows up though, is when things get tricky. All of the offspring are related to the original rooster, and the males and females from that hatch are related siblings. So do you need to introduce a new rooster each spring?
Yes and no.
It depends on what you’re trying to do with your flock.
Without going too far into the science of genetics, I will attempt to explain the 4 different ways you can breed chickens.
Inbreeding, Line Breeding, Outcrossing, and Crossbreeding
Because chickens do not have to concern themselves with ethics or the moral codes of procreation these terms are neither good nor bad. They are simply tools used to manipulate genetics.
Inbreeding is a loosely defined term that refers to breeding chickens that are closely related. It is a tool used to intensify genes. If you have good genes, you can intensify those qualities in subsequent generations through inbreeding. Where problems come up is if there are problems in the genetic code. Inbreeding will also intensify those problems.
Sometimes chickens have genetic problems hidden in their DNA (I am simplifying here). When you mate 2 unrelated chickens the chances of those problems surfacing is rare. However, if you breed two chickens who both carry that genetic problem, the chances of it surfacing in the next generation rises significantly.
Inbreeding helps to produce offspring that are genetically identical. This can be good if you’re looking to reproduce quality birds. It can also help breeders predict what the next generation will look like depending on the parents.
However, if inbreeding is used for too long, fertility often drops.
Line breeding is the practice of breeding father to daughter or mother to son. This is usually a safer practice than breeding siblings. This is a good way to establish a breeding flock if you only have one pair to work with. See my post Starting a Clan Mating System with a Single Pair.
Outcrossing is when you introduce new genetics of the same breed to an established line. Bringing in new genetics can be used to correct sub-standard aspects of a flock. For example, to correct body type or a feathering issue.
Outcrossing is breeding within the same breed but with new genetics. So for example. You may have been working on a line of Buff Orphingtons for several years but notice that there is some pepering of the tail that you can’t breed out. (Peppering is an undesirable dark brown color that often shows up on the tails of the buff colored breed). You can outcross your birds with an unrelated line of Buff Orpigntons that does not carry the peppering trait.
Like other breeding practices, outcrossing must be used with caution because with this new genetic code may come hidden problems within the DNA. With any breeding tool comes risks and that’s what makes breeding exciting!
Cross breeding is when you breed two chickens of different breeds.
Like the above three examples this is also a tool used to create new breeds or to correct problems within a breed. Sometimes cross breeding is used in heritage breeds that don’t lay many eggs. Often the heritage breed is crossed with a high production chicken (like a Leghorn) to increase egg production. Then the Leghorn traits are bred back out.