Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Managing a breeding chicken flock & sexing chicks

Pic: Rhode island red rooster

I got this question from a posting I did in February.

"How can you tell roosters from hens? I was under the impression we just had to wait a few months and then we will know. We just bought 20 chicks last week, is there a way to tell right off? Or do you buy them already sexed?"

If you're producing chickens for your own use, the roosters are what you'll probably end up eating. 50% of the chicks that hatch will be roosters, and you only need a rooster for every 5 or 10 hens for fertile eggs, but you'll want two or three roosters. Roosters will put themselves between the flock and predators, and they tend to get killed more frequently if you have predators. They also turn up infertile. So if you're counting on your flock to breed its own replacements, make sure you've got a backup.

If you're selling chicks, you'll probably find that you can get a better price if you can sex your chickens and sell hens to the folks who can't have roosters. Around here, locally produced straight-run chicks are $2-3, where hens will sell for a dollar more, and roosters 50 cents less. That's day old chicks.

For my own operation, I make a market in meat birds for folks who really want an authentic Coq Au Vin or other dish that wants a true heritage bird, and to the local ethnic community that prefers a non-cornish cross bird to eat. By the way, this coq au vin recipe is pretty darned tasty. I highly recommend it.

So I don't sex the chickens that I hatch at all. I raise them all identically, and at about 6 weeks of age I can sort through the chickens by sex characteristics if I have a customer who wants hens specifically.

The chicks that I order I usually order sexed to ensure that I get the mix I'd like. I raise a batch of black australorp roosters every year for chinese customers who prefer a solid black bird to eat. White birds are apparently not as tasty. Personally if I was limited to one breed of chicken, I'd probably pick the barred plymouth rock. Good size chicken carcass, good egg layer, calm disposition. If I were to pick an egg laying breed I have to pick the white leghorn. You cannot get more eggs from a chicken than that bird produces.
Pic: Black australorp hen

You can produce chickens that are easier to sex by doing hybrids, which have different feather patterns based on the sex of the chick (colors of feathers, number of feathers in the tip of the wing, etc) or by vent sexing the chick. You'll find a brief description of both methods here.

pic: Delaware hen


Anonymous said...

You know, I find it funny (odd) that so many people seem to be taken with the Barred Rock. I got a bunch two years ago, along with Red Rocks, and I would happily get rid of all of them! They seem to be really varied in size, I've had problems such as impacted crops, and they aren't photogenic (they don't show up well!). Not that the photogenic bit is relative to anything other than the blogging aspect. But they haven't reproduced themselves like my other hens have (I've only had one Barred Rock gal go broody and she only hatched/raise ONE chick). Whereas my other mixed breeders are very good at being mothers.

When in NZ, I had a bunch of the black Australorps and loved them. Now, most of my chickens are mixed breeds (though I am experimenting with the Isa Browns as egg layers this year--they are just coming on 8 months old now). I have a bunch with feathered feet and they are bigger and heavier--thus good cross purpose chickens--than all the other breeds I've tried raising. Interestingly, the stroppiest mother I ever had was one of the Red Rock hens. She was like a Hawk Harrier flying at me when I got near her chicks. It was hilarious and somewhat unnerving (which only added to the hilarity!).



Bruce King said...

For me, a broody hen is a defect. The hen math goes like this; if she takes a 10 days to lay 10 eggs, then starts sitting on them. She then sits on them for 20 days or so until they hatch; some won't, so figure you get 8 chicks out of it, and she won't go back to laying for a month or two after that at a minimum while she raises her chicks or if you take the chicks away, while she comes back into laying form.

A non-broody hen in that same timeframe will produce another 20 eggs, and then another 50 eggs. If they hatch at the same ratio, I get 56 chicks vs 8 -- and when you're selling chicks, that's a big difference.

I like the black australorp, too. Mostly I raise Australorp roosters for the reasons I mention.

Anonymous said...


I just started some Black Australorps and they are the sweetest chicks ever. I wanted to know what age is good to slaughter some of the roosters. I want them to be pretty big but not left to long. Want fryers not soup pot chickens. Right now at 4 weeks they are only about 1 lb.

Bruce King said...

I think you can get the best results by weighing the live bird and killing at a given weight, not an age. This allows for things like weather, or poor forage or other conditions. If you kill on a calendar basis you'll have smaller birds sometimes, larger other times. If you kill when the bird is ready you get a more consistent result.

For fryers, I like a 4-5lb live weight bird. This results in a smaller carcass that will fry completely without overcooking the outside. for roasting or smoking, i prefer a 6-8lb live weight bird.

If you are doing a special dish that calls for an "old" rooster, like coq au vin, you want a bird that is a year or more old, and weighs in at 8-10lbs.

Most of the time my birds get to the "eating weight" of between 4 and 6lbs in about 6 months. At 4 months they're close to full sized by not very meaty.

Anonymous said...

my male calki campbell duck thinks hes a rooster and has been tring to mate with my chickens. what should i do?

Anonymous said...

see if you get something out of it

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