New- Random Thoughts on Breeding Philosophy and Many Other Topics
Random Thoughts on My Breeding Philosophy and Many Other Topics
By Lou Horton
This article will represent a definite departure from most other postings on my site. I have been breeding and showing exhibition poultry since the middle of the 1960s and have been a licensed judge since 1970. What will follow are the fruits of all that experience. The items will appear as I think of them and will be added to on a regular basis so if you find them of value, you might want to check back periodically to see what is new. Some items will pertain to one type of exhibition poultry but most will pertain to any type. I have found raising exhibition poultry to be a tremendously rewarding and satisfying hobby for almost 50 years now. I sincerely hope that something in this series of articles will help you to enjoy it a little more too. If you have suggestions for topics, send them to me.
The line breeding system
I believe in line breeding. By that I mean starting with an outstanding individual of either sex (of course, an outstanding pair would be better yet) and using them to build a line of birds that are descended from the foundation stock. A simple description of how such a line would be started is to take the example a single exceptional male. One’s first task is to pair him with a female (or two- best if they are related) of the very best quality one can obtain. They should carry their own strengths and should not be weak in any area in which the male is weak. Raise just as many young from that mating as possible, assuming one has good rearing facilities. From those well grown out youngsters, select the two or three very best female offspring and in year two, mate them back to their father. The very best male offspring should be mated to their mother(s) in year two. In subsequent years, the process is repeated: foundation male to daughters, granddaughters, etc. until he is too old and then he is replaced with the very best son or grandson and the process is continued. The same thing is done on the female side of the line and it is best if the two lines are allowed to run parallel for several generations before any cross is permitted. Avoid brother /sister matings.
If the original foundation stock was prepotent (able to transmit their quality to their offspring) the following generations should contain most of the foundation bird’s strengths and fewer and fewer of it’s weaknesses. Be aware that not all outstanding showbirds are prepotent.
What are the advantages of a line breeding system? With a properly conceived and managed line breeding system, it can be expected that after several generations that the overall quality of the offspring will be high and that they will be quite uniform. A good example that comes to mind was the flock of White Runners that was developed by John Lightfoot. John passed from the scene in the late 1980s as I recall but he dominated the Runner classes at major show for decades. By the time I got to know John, he was up in years and no longer raised large numbers of the Runners each year. As I recall, he would raise no more than a dozen or so most years and from that group, he would select just a few to show. He would often travel to shows with just a pair or two. Keep in mind that this was at a time when it was normal to see 30- 40, or more White Runners at many major shows. While John didn’t always win, he won way more than his share and virtually every quality line of White Runners today has Lightfoot blood in it.
Pay attention to the details!
This item has more to do with the showing aspect of the hobby which is, after all, why many of us are in the hobby. Whether you realize it or not, most judges get excited when they run across an exceptional bird while judging a class. That excitement sometimes turns to disappointment, however, when the bird is examined and a hidden major defect is found. The disappointment is especially acute when the defect is one that the exhibitor should have noticed. Case in point: a hidden white feather on a Cayuga or East Indie. Another example: a tiny stub (piece of fluff feather) on the leg or between the toes of a clean legged breed of chicken. In both cases, the judge is obligated to penalize an otherwise outstanding bird because the exhibitor did not do his/her “homework” prior to the show.
In other cases, an exhibitor who takes the extra time to fit a bird exceptionally well may make the difference between a second place bird and a champion. Some years ago, Bruce Sherman of CA was dominating the White Rock bantam classes. I recall speaking with Bruce about his fitting process which included using a toothpick to clean under the leg scales of his best showbirds. That is the kind of thing that can make that little bit of critical difference when a judge selects the birds to send to champion row. The judge may not even realize why that bird stands out a little bit. Please understand that fitting a bird involves many things from the growing process all the way to washing, etc. My point is that such little extras (as long as they are considered legal) complement the natural qualities of the bird and enhance the bird’s appearance.
When Kim Theodore of IL. was showing feather footed bantams, she took the extra time to design her pens and even her carrying coops to be smooth sided so she could keep most of her showbird’s foot feathering intact and unbroken. You better believe that that was noticed and taken into consideration by the judges who handled her birds. Just some food for thought.
A big part of the ability to make steady progress with one's breeding program is the ability to realistically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of one's birds when compared to those of other breeders. If one does not possess the ability to see the flaws in one's own birds, it is impossible to fully understand what improvements need to be made. The ability to be realistic in such evaluations does not necessarily come naturally to everyone and may need to be developed with occasional "reality checks" supplied by other breeders.
Use every show as a learning experience
I am a firm believer that one should learn something new at every show one attends and with every visit to another breeder. Ask questions. What kind of questions? What do you need to know? Questions about breeder selection, incubation, rearing procedures, housing, predator control, fitting for shows, whatever one does not already do to perfection. I have been raising poultry for over forty years and I find that there is plenty I can learn from others. Over the years, I have found other breeders quite willing to share their experiences- one only has to ask.
Never underestimate the local predators
Of the regrets that I have accumulated over the years, none is more painful than the good birds I have lost because I underestimated the abilities of the predators in my area(primarily raccoons). The one incident burned into my memory involved the loss of 18 Gray Calls I had penned together because I believed that I had them in my most secure enclosure. At least one raccoon managed to scale the side of the building to the eaves which were twelve feet off of the ground and squeeze through studs 12 inches apart and then drop into the house. The result was a loss of birds I simply could not afford to lose which set my breeding program back by years. Had I simply covered those air vents with hardware cloth, the loss would have been averted. Enough said?
Remember that taking that extra step in securing your birds may cost you some extra dollars and/or time and effort but weigh that against the anguish you will feel as you survey the loss of birds you worked so hard to develop. Always assume a worse case senario when you assess your pen and building security and do it sooner rather than later.
Do not neglect to include vigor among your breeding priorities
Not only is vigor and vitality a vital ingredient in any breeding program but it is a highly inheritable characteristic. It is a huge mistake to use a bird as a breeder that is not vigorous and obviously healthy in all respects no matter how good the other qualities it may possess. Such "unthrifty" birds often never quite finish out in their plumage and tend not to be as active as more vigorous birds.Their eyes tend not to be clear and bright. One risks passing on such traits to the offspring and that may well end up leading to a dead end breeding program.
Do not raise more breeds/varieties than you should
It is so very easy to gradually add to the breeds and varieties one raises and if one exceeds one's capabilities, it can decrease rather than increase the enjoyment derived from the hobby. Let me explain that statement a little more fully. There is a definite tendency among all poultry fanciers to add breeds and color varieties to one's flock as time goes on. It is, after all, very hard to resist those very good chickens, ducks, or geese that you always wanted to try at a bargain price. After all, you do have an extra pen available and that mating wouldn't cost much to feed. So goes the thought process just prior to adding that'one last variety" to the flock.
So, what is wrong with that thinking? Maybe nothing, but it may be a big mistake in your situation. First of all, it is just not the pen space for the breeding stock. One also has to account for the rearing facilities one will need to raise young from that stock. That includes brooder and rearing space so that one extra pen may end up causing the need for three or four more pens. Then there is the cost of rearing enough chicks, ducklings, etc. from the new mating to provide a selection needed to improve the flock over time. Depending upon the type one is working with, one may be talking space and feed and labor to care for 25-50 extra little mouths to feed each year. Will raising those extras mean you can't raise as many of something you are already working on? Maybe.
I guess what I am saying is, I would rather raise two or maybe three varieties well and be proud of them than raise six types with mediocre results and the smaller amount of satisfaction that I would derive from those results. Just some food for thought.
Do your homework, then set your own breeding priorities
I believe that one of the most basic mistakes new breeders of any type of fowl can make is to not take the time and effort to interpret the Standard description of their breed(s) for themselves. They may have a general idea of what they want to create but they are often unsure about the priorities they want to set. As a result, they allow others (judges, other breeders) to dictate those priorities. That often leads to aimless breeding programs where "everything" is a top priority. When that is the case, the results are usually disappointing because real progress is slow or non-existent.
A simple example is the breed of bantam chicken with which I work- the Wyandotte. There are many possible goals for improvement in a bird with as subtle a type as the Wyandotte possesses. It took me a couple of years to settle on my own interpretation of what the Standard means. I consulted Wyandotte breeders who I respected and also a few judges but in the end, I had to set my own goals and breeding priorities. In my case, I settled on tail and head points as my primary areas of focus and improvement. That means that when I select birds for my program, I will not tolerate major flaws in those areas regardless of other qualities the bird may possess. Those are, as they say, my bottom line when culling time comes.
Does that mean I will ignore other qualities? Not at all. I consider such things as quality and width of feather, body width and depth, wing carriage, temperment and avoiding short legs among others as very important breeding points and such things are frequently targeted when I set my yearly breeding goals. I formulate my yearly goals when I put together my breeding pens for the year. I find that is a good time to evaluate the progress that was made the previous year and to set new goals for the coming year. I put those goals in writing and take a look at them occasionally to remind me of what I want to pay close attention to.
Please do not assume that I conduct my breeding program in a vacuum. I periodically seek the opinions of the handful of people I respect enough in this area of expertise to allow them to affect my own evaluations of my birds. There are couple of breeders and a couple of breeder /judges in that category. The opinions of others (including the judges who evaluate my birds at shows) are considered but are not allowed to affect my breeding priorities in a significant way. I may appreciate them pointing out something on an individual birds that I had not seen but even then, one has to verify their observation. A case in point occurred at a show where I exhibited a bird that I thought very highly of both as an exhibition bird and as a potential breeder. The judge penalized the bird for having one "weak wing". I examined the bird myself and had two others whose opinion I value do the same. We found no evidence of a problem. I then showed the bird at another show under another judge- no problem. My conclusion is that I should discount the original judge's obervation. To allow different judges to "steer" your breeding program would be similar to setting out in a journey in a boat that had no rudder. Because judges will have substantial differences in how they interpret the descriptons in the Standard, their advice will naturally conflict. In the final analysis, you as the breeder must be satisfied with the results of what you achieve. Make yourself fully responsible for those results.
Know the growth pattern of your young stock- do not choose your breeders/show stock too early
A common mistake made even by experienced breeders is to rush the selection process in the late summer /fall of the year. Maybe the incentive to do so is saving feed costs by reducing the flock or maybe one has the opportunity to sell surplus birds. Either way, one risks the possibility that one will let go of a bird that could have helped one's breeding program. Some breeds of ducks, most breeds of geese and many breeds of chickens may really benefit from a month or six weeks of extra maturation when selection of breeding/show stock is to be undertaken. I will cite some examples from breeds that I know well, namely the Call and Wyandotte bantam. A young Call normally will not become as good as it will be until it's second year. It will attain its adult length and many other dimensions by about six months of age. It will not attain a fully developed head (in terms of buffling) until that second year, however, and it may not fully develop it's body width and depth until then. That extra development may take a good Call and make it a great one- or not. A Gray Call drake may improve in bib color (less frosting) in it's second year- not always but often.
Now I am not suggesting that culling or selling surplus Calls should never be done before year two- a big bird will still be big and a long billed bird will not shorten it's bill in the second year. What I am saying is that birds of good potential should perhaps be given some extra growing time before a final decision is reached on them.The extra cost of carrying over a few extra Calls will not amount to much and a good Call will usually sell for at least as much as a yearling.
A mistake can be made even more easily when evaluating young Wyandottes. Young Wyandottes take about five to six months to develop their width and adult type. Usually pullets will be as good as they will ever be when they begin to lay. Males, however, may take a month or even two more to show what they can become. A male that looks too long and narrow may suddenly "pop" within a two or three week period. That means that he will suddenly approach his potential in terms of his adult type. Buff colored males in particular may improve slightly in color in their second year ( some mysterious light colored spots on their wings often disappear). In some breeds, old time breeders felt that the difference between first and second year chickens was so important that they would never breed from pullets in particular- only yearling hens and older. A noted breeder of Rhode Island Reds (Choice Culver) from the nineteen fifties once told me that he had never used a young female in one of his matings.
An important criteria I use when deciding if I will retain a second year bird is the width and overall quality of the wing feathers after it's first full moult. A hen or cock bird which retains good width of feather in it's second year will often make a valuable breeder. I will wash them after they have completed the moult and then make my decision. I guess that the old saying "haste makes waste" really applies in such situations.
I believe that temperment is an inheritable characteristic
Temperment is not something which is obvious when one first looks at a bird but it is a valuable characteristic when the temperment is good. It can increase the enjoyment level when one works with the birds and it can make the difference between winning and losing in the showroom. Furthermore, I believe that temperment can be passed from generation to generation, whether it be good or bad. Good temperment means a bird which is not overly aggressive or wild. It can be handled easily and is not hostile toward it's flock mates. In bantam ducks in particular, I would include a lack of shyness which is often a problem in a show situation. A Call or East Indie which cowers in the back of it's cage or which tries to fly up through the top will not make a favorable impression on the judge. Likewise, a bird which attacks the judge is likely to get an unfavorable evaluation from that judge.
I have seen ample proof in the decades I have raised poultry of all kinds that temperment(good or bad) is quite dependably passed from one generation to the next. I would strongly recommend paying attention to it when selections are made. That does not mean that one is always in a position to pass on an otherwise outstanding bird because it possesses bad temperment but one should limit as much as possible the use of birds which are bad tempered. I have seen strains developed without regard to temperment end up plagued with temperment problems indefintely.
Small Matings vs. flock Matings
I have found over time that small matings made up of high quality birds which are well matched are to be preferred over large matings in which high quality birds are mixed with mediocre ones. I understand that the thinking behind the large mating philosophy has some merits: it maximizes the affect of extraordinary birds (especially males) because it gives them a chance to affect the quality of a larger number of offspring. It also increases the likelihood that there will be more offspring from which to select come fall.
The advantages of the small matings are even more compelling, in my view, however: With the small matings made up of the highest quality birds available, a larger percentage of the young will be of good to excellent quality. That means that limited space and feed will not be wasted on birds that may not be worth what it costs to raise them. Also, with a smaller number of offspring, it is easier to keep good records and therefore to keep track of the genetic background of each bird through web marking. If a trio mating, for example, were involved, it is often relatively easy to know which of the two females laid each egg if one takes the time to observe the size and shape differences in the eggs. That would permit the breeder to know with certainty the sire and dam of each duckling, gosling, or chick produced. Such information can be worth it's weight in gold, especially if the mating clicks. I should also mention one other advantage of small, single male matings. In multiple male matings, the larger, more aggressive male often dominates and the vast majority (or all) of the offspring may well come from him. The result is, (in bantam breeds) the smaller, perhaps better male is wasted. As a matter of fact, a male that has been bullied by another consistently often will not mate even when given a pen and females of his own. Such males may take some time to get over their timidity and part or all of a breeding season may be lost in terms of gaining his offspring.
The progeny test
No matter how well planned a mating is; no matter how well balanced the sides of the mating seem to be, the only true test of it's success is the progeny test. By that I mean that the quality of the offspring (progeny) is the only meaningful measure of the success of the mating. That would seem obvious if one thinks about it for a minute but obvious or not, it has important implications. If one is attempting a mating that should be considered experimental (the more unrelated the birds are, the more risky is the mating) one should proceed with caution. Never... I repeat never.. commit the entire group of matings in a given year to an experiment. Always test in one or two small matings and then expand it's use only after at least one generation derived from it has been evaluated carefully. Evaluate the success achieved in imparting the quality or qualities that the mating was designed for. Then be sure that some hidden (latent) flaws have not been brought to the surface in the offspring. A final consideration is the effect on such qualities as cannot be readily judged at once: vigor, fertility,etc. Of course the implication is that a second generation would be useful and that would be the safest, most conservative way to go. Raise and evaluate a second generation before expanding the use of the "new blood" to the rest of the stud.
Weight control is important in show birds
Some breeds of waterfowl must be in a certain weight range to show at their best. For example, Toulouse must have a fully filled out keel to show well. The same is true of keeled breeds of ducks such as Aylesburys and Rouens. It is a little more tricky, however, with Runners which should be fleshed out enough to have a smooth, round breast (no breast bone showing through) but not carrying enough weight to add width in the shoulder area.
The problem comes in with some breeds which should not go into the breeding season in full flesh. Rouens, Aylesburys and other heavy ducks often are not as fertile and productive when they are "fat". That means that the birds should be brought down gradually in weight beginning after the show season. Once the breeding season is well underway, weight control is usually not an issue because breeding activity causes weight loss. A better solution (which may not be practical for everyone) is to not use show birds as breeders. Keeping birds at a constant weight is more healthy and may lengthen their useful lives but may not be practical for the small breeder.
Keep Good Breeding Records or Else
Once in a while, a mating really clicks and that really special bird (or birds) is produced. The only thing better than that is being able to reproduce more of the same. The problem is, unless you have only one (single male) mating, you may not be able to reproduce the results of that special breeding combination. Why? Because you do not know which birds produced those outstanding results, thats why. It happens every season to somebody. They cannot be sure how outstanding breeding results were achieved because they have no clue which of several matings (or which birds in a large mating) did the great work. And the shame is that with minimal extra effort, one can keep track of such things. First of all, keep your matings small. Secondly, web mark and record the ducklings, goslings, or chicks produced from each mating. It is so simple and yet so many people fail to do it. Of course, they fail to see the importance of such records until they need them.
Do not make the assumption that you will be able to tell which birds produced the winners by just looking for a resemblance to the parents. The truth is, not every (or even most) outstanding bird is produced by outstanding parents. Some pretty ordinary looking birds can be the ones because they carry hidden genetic qualities which make them prepotent. That means that they have the power to produce offspring which are consistently better than they themselves are. Also, the opposite is true. Some outstanding individuals are incapable of producing offspring which are as good as they are. Trust me, both of the previous statements are true.
Without a doubt, I had one trio of White Calls which produced more outstanding offspring than any other mating I ever owned. One season alone during the early 1980s, that mating produced 10 pairs of show quality youngsters. The interesting thing about them was that none of the birds in the mating was outstanding in their own right. Each bird in the mating was good in most respects but none of them possessed enough visible qualities to making them likely to place well in keen competition. I never showed any of the three but the main reason was that I considered them too valuable to show. I kept the mating intact for at least a half dozen years until one female died. I replaced her with a daughter and good young stock continued to be produced. By year eight, I had lost both of the remaining members of the original trio. I used offspring from that mating extensively in my breeding program but none of the offspring (even those who were show winners themselves) ever possessed the degree of prepotency possessed by their parents. Without good records, I might have never known about that golden trio and their ability to produce champions.
What's in your show kit?
I never attend a show without my show kit. The little metal box contains everything (hopefully) that I will need to prepare my ducks and chickens for the judging process. What is in it? Lets peek inside. First, there is a jar of plain Vasiline which I use to moisturize the legs, feet, and combs of my chickens and the bills, legs, and feet of my East Indies. I use Vasiline for a couple of reasons: it is colorless so it adds moisture to the tissue without imparting any color to that tissue. It contains no alchohol so it will not dry out the tissue on which it is used. It will also not blister or in other ways damage the combs and lobes of chickens as will other products. My show kit also contains a silk cloth which I use to remove dust from plumage. There is also a wash cloth used to clean dirt from feet, legs, and bills. There is a GOOD pair of tweezers to remove age white feathers from Indies and those troublesome black feathers (often tiny ones) from my white Wyandottes bantams. Cheap tweezers will often fail to get those feathers and may do more harm than good. I also include a pair of large nail clippers to trim any toenails or beaks that somehow escaped notice earlier.
For purposes of security, I also carry special pliers used to affix and remove the "hog rings" I use to lock the cages after all judging is completed. Why I take that measure is another story I will get into at another time.
It is a fact of life that one must sometimes deal with thieves in the showroom
In a perfect world, one would never have to worry about anyone taking a bird that did not belong to them. Unfortunately, some people are not above doing that, either because of a competitve drive which has warped their sense of right and wrong or because greed drives them to steal something that they see as valuable. Either way, the result can be the same for the victim who loses something he/she perhaps cannot afford to lose.
There is a limited number of things one can do to protect the birds from thieves, but in my opinion, (having been a victim of theft several times over the last four decades) they are well worth doing. First and foremost, do not show a bird that you absolutely cannot afford to lose.
That may be a very difficult thing to do and a big sacrifice to make, but it may be the best course of action in some cases. If one must show valuable birds, take extra steps to protect them during the most critical times when theft is most likely: coop in and coop out. Bring those birds in last, and take them out of the show first. Prior to judging and after all judging has been completed, secure the cage door with a hog ring or zip tie. I know, you are thinking"what is to prevent the thief from just lifting up the entire section of cages and taking the bird". The answer is nothing- assuming the thief is willing to give up the most commonly used excuse when a thief is caught. "Oh, I am sorry, I thought that bird was one of mine." Hard to use that excuse (and the protection it offers) when one has just been observed lifting the section of cages to get at the bird. Also, make it obvious that one is keeping a good eye on one's birds and even make arrangements with other exhibitors to watch the birds. Last but not least, encourage the shows one attends to use good security practices and decline to return to shows that do not take that responsibility seriously. That means securing the building well when no one is supposed to be in the building and stationing club members at exits during coop out in particular. Of course, when a thief is caught red handed and there is no doubt that a simple mistake has not been made, the show should take action whether that action be calling in the authorities or banning a "sticky fingered" exhibitor or visitor from the show permanently.
The real test of a breeder is at the breed level
Many of today's exhibitors do not believe that they have had a good day at the show unless they win one of the seven ABA classification championships at the least. As I see it, the real test of the quality of one's birds is how well one does at the variety and breed level. Why do I say that? I say that because that is where the judge is actually comparing "apples and apples". The judge is no longer comparing "apples and apples" when choosing among several breeds and it gets worse as one goes up the chain to Champion Bantam. So many other factors come into play at that time: a judge's personal preferences and/or biases. Then it gets more complicated when multiple judges get involved. I know for a fact, for example, that I won a Reserve Champion Bantam at an ABA National on one of my East Indies primarily because several judges were determined to punish a particular judge who was pushing a bird on Champion Row that he had originally sold the exhibitor. Those judges settled on the Champion Bantam Duck as an alternative choice that they could agree on. Don't get me wrong- winning such awards is an honor and a thrill but consistently winning at the variety and breed level is the purest test of the breeder's art in my opinion. If one looks back at show ads from the "golden age of poultry" in the first half of the 1900's, almost all of the emphasis was on wins at the breed level. Most of the ads emphasized wins involving displays, breeding pens, etc. Why? They did so because such awards emphasized the ability to select birds of uniform quality; "matched" birds such as the females in a trio mating.
You will get out of your breeding stock the production you earned through the quality of care you bestowed upon them
Winter is usually the most difficult time to care for poultry. The cold, dealing with frozen water, the short, dreary days all contribute to a tendency on the part of care takers to do less than they really should. I believe, however, that there is a strong correlation between the quality of condition that a flock enters the breeding season with and the egg production, fertility, and hatchability that they achieve. Attention paid to feeding well, treating for parasites, and keeping the birds clean will usually pay dividends when breeding time comes.
Pay attention to egg production records when selecting breeding stock
When I began my breeding program in Rouen ducks in the late nineteen sixties, I kept track of the egg production of each female since I was stud mating the birds and each female was penned separately during the breeding season. I was shocked to learn that the average number of eggs laid by my Rouen females at the start of my breeding program was less than 25 eggs per breeding season.
While I did not want to sacrifice size, type or color to improve egg production, I made a mental note to take the egg production of the female parent into consideration when selecting breeding stock if all other quality measures were equal. That really did not entail any sacrifice on my part (other than the little bit of trouble it took to keep track of the number of eggs laid by each female) and I was amazed at the difference it ended up making. By four years into the breeding program, the average number of eggs produced by each female Rouen went from less than 25 to just about 40. That meant that I had to keep fewer females to get the number of ducklings I wanted each year and that I could be more selective in choosing those females. In case you are wondering about the males, I would choose a young drake out of a very productive mother over one from a less productive one but again, only if all other qualities were equal. My point is that one does not have to give up decent egg production just because one is working with a flock of exhibition birds.
I still use a modified version of that system even though I no longer use a stud mating program. I often employ trio matings in both my East Indies and my Wyandottes. It is really easy to just put a hash mark on the tag I have on each pen identifying the mating each time I collect an egg from that pen. If I can easily tell which shape egg is being laid by each female, I will keep separate track. Otherwise, I just go by the mating total and divide by two. Not as accurate but better than nothing.
The one thing I can promise you is if you pay no attention to egg production in choosing your breeding stock, over the long term, that egg production will decrease.
So.. you don't like the judge
You would like to send an entry in to an upcoming show, but the problem is, you do not care for the judge who may be assigned to your classes. What are the appropriate ways one could handle such a situation? Well, one can enter anyway with diminished expectations for success at that show. I have done so many times because I wanted to continue to support that show and/or because I had other motives for going to the show. I might be looking forward to seeing some friends I seldom see, or I might have commited to delivering birds at the show, for example. Of course, I could go to the show without entering; to deliver the birds, see my friends, etc. Those are responses that I consider both ethical and appropriate.
What responses would I consider unethical and inappropriate? Those would include calling the show management to threaten not to enter if judge________ is assigned to do my classes. Neither would I respect anyone who would enter and then publicly attack the judge with loud complaints and insults. Such behavior has no place in our hobby, in my opinion, and frankly, neither do the people who practice such behavior.
Most exhibitor dislike of certain judges stems from a disagreement with that judge's interpretation of the Standard as it pertains to their entries. That is both understandable and inevitable.. nothing is wrong with such disagreements as long as they are not allowed to become personal. The judge may well have the more nearly correct view of the breed's Standard requirements than does the exhibitor. Also, some judges are simply more skilled at judging than others because they are human beings, after all.
I believe that 99% of the judges who work poultry classes do so with the intention of doing their level best to pick the best birds for the top awards. Some are just better at doing that than others. After all, not all breeders and exhibitors are created equal either. I am not naive, however. I have been around showrooms for almost a half century now.. I know that some judges (a few) judge the coop tags instead of the birds. My response to those people is to avoid showing under them if at all possible and to allow other people to figure out for themselves what is going on with those judges. I think that our hobby is about having fun and relaxing and that life is too short and too precious to ruin even a small portion of it with anger and invective. If one is not enjoying our wonderful hobby, then it is probably not the right hobby for them.
Using strategy at the show? Really?
Believe it or not, sometimes some strategy in the showroom can pay dividends. Lets start with the entry. For several years, I generally entered only my four best birds- one in each class. My thinking was it only made sense to show what I thought was my very best. That assumed, however, that the judge would agree that the bird I thought was my best would be his choice as well. In fact, it didn't always work out that way. A competitor who was also a friend (Darrel Sheraw) pointed that flaw in my thinking out to me. He pointed out that when he showed three in each class (as he usually did) that often a judge would choose a bird from his string that he did not place as highly in his own mind. I decided to follow Darrel's advice and found on numerous occasions that he was right; judges picked birds on a regular basis that I would not have chosen even though they were mine. I realized that the judge was not forming his opinion on numerous observations over a period of months as I had but on the basis of a brief evaluation and that difference sometimes led to different evaluations. Also, perhaps his criteria were somewhat differently weighted than mine. In any case, I found that I won more consistently when I showed two or three birds of fairly uniform quality than I did when showing only one per class. More on different aspects of show strategy later...
More on show strategy
I found that when entering multiple birds in each class, I had another advantage that I had previously not considered- more options in cage placement for my best birds. A good example was the big combined National Show in Columbus, Ohio in 1999. There were over 500 Calls entered in that show and I realized that the judge would only have perhaps 30 seconds per bird to make his initial evaluation. In the class of old females, I had three entered including my well known Gray female "Billie Babette". Billie had an outgoing personality to say the least and loved the show experience. The other two females were a little more typical- they were more shy. One of the cages allotted to me was on the second row and it was a corner cage. Normally, that would be a bad break because most Calls would be intimidated by being so close to the aisle on two sides.. but I knew that Billie Babette was not typical in any way. I placed her in the corner cage and she flourished. She ate up all the attention she got from passers by including the judge, who selected her as Best Call, Best Duck, and Reserve Champion Waterfowl with 1,800 birds competing. With Billie in the corner cage, I was also able to put my other two females in cages that were better suited to their personalities which helped one of them place second to Billie in the class.
Occasionally, one will be faced in a situation where the multiple entries are placed on two different levels, one higher and one lower.In that case it is wise to put the larger of the two birds in the lower cage and the smaller one in the higher cage as I have found that being at eye level tends to make a bird look larger. Of course, the strategy would be reversed if one were showing, say, Cayugas, and therefore the extra impression of greater size might be an advantage.
You need to raise a good crop of youngsters most years to get ahead
It seems so obvious but it is so often ignored: one needs to raise a decent number of young birds on a yearly basis if one is to keep up with the competition. What is implied by that statement is that anything that keeps that from happening is a serious problem. That means if one is trying to raise too many types of birds to allow for the ability to raise a good number of each kind, something has to go. You can raise a few of everything if you want but be prepared to settle for mediocre results.
Maybe the problem is that one has a problem with hatching. It may be a lack of skill, lack of good equipment, or a combination of both. Ask for advice on the management of your incubator and expect that there will be a learning curve involved. While that learning curve runs its course, a sensible plan is to fall back on natural incubation to hatch at a part of each year's young using natural incubation. Not all incubators are created equal. Especially for waterfowl, the more control one has over the humidity level, the better. I rely on Humidaire machines and am very happy with the results.
Of course, hatching is only the first step. One has to get them raised to adulthood. If they are too crowded unacceptable losses are likely. Rearing facilities from the brooders right through the finishing pens need to be spacious enough to allow the keeper to keep the pens clean and the birds to have a decent amount of floor space. Crowded facilities usually lead to disease problems, fighting and bullying among the birds as well as poorly conditioned youngsters.
The big difference between success and failure in raising waterfowl is often incubator management
Some breeders never seem to master the art (and it is an art) of managing their incubator. As a result, they seldom hatch a satisfactory number of youngsters so progress for their breeding program is slow at best.In many cases, little details make the difference between success and failure. Moisture control and manipulation is critical. The air cell must be about 30% of the egg by day 28 if the eggs are to hatch well.Much less or much more and the results will be disappointing. Likewise, how the eggs are turned is important. They should rest on their sides during incubation and be turned 90 degrees three times daily.There is research which indicates the the amount of carbon dioxide in the incubator also matters. In single setting incubation (all eggs were set at the same time) the research indicates that high carbon dioxide levels early in the incubation period are beneficial to the air vents should be closed entirely for the first two weeks and then opened gradually to normal positions for the last two weeks. If one sets multiple groups of eggs in sequence in the same machine, as I do, that information is useless because the eggs are in different stages of incubation at any one time. I open my vents about half way and use the proximity of the heat bar in my Humidaire to the water pan to manipulate humidity levels. I use the timing and ease of hatch of the ducklings to tell me if my settings are right or need to be adjusted. If the first ducklings begin to hatch at about 27 1/2 days and the vast majority are out by the end of day 28, I am usually satisfied with the hatch. I try to maintain hatch levels by paying attention to sanitation: removing dead germs before the gases inside the egg cause them to leak or explode. I clean after each hatch to assure that the hatch debris does not become a breeding ground for bacteria. Perhaps most important, I do not get into the habit of "helping" ducklings hatch. If ducklings frequently need assistance to hatch, one of two things is wrong: either the incubator is being run improperly or the strain has become so weak (lack of vigor) that they cannot hatch properly on their own. I promise you that if you get into the habit of assisting ducklings ( bantam ducklings in particular) out of the shell, they will need your help more and more as the years go on until most will die in their shells at hatch time if not helped. That is not natural and it is not right.
Coop Training your show birds may make all the difference
The critical moment for every exhibitor at any show is when the judge is in the process of handling and evaluating their birds. How the bird behaves at that moment may well determine the final result of that evaluation. At a major show with large classes, the numbers dictate that by necessity, each initial evaluation be short- perhaps no more than thirty seconds to a minute or so. If, in that time, the bird huddles in the back of the cage or scrambles around the cage in terror, the judge may have a difficult time forming a positive opinion of the bird regrdless of it's other attributes. Such behavior also makes it difficult for the judge to handle the bird without damaging it's plumage.
Any birdthat the exhibitor thinks enough of to show should have been given at least minimal coop training. That means it should have spent some time on several different days being handled and being taken in and out of a show coop. You say you own no show coops? Then you are putting yourself at a major disadvantage as an exhibitor.Of course all young show birds should get this treatment but also the older birds one is counting on to do well should be given a "refresher course" at the start of each show season. Somewhere in each exhibitor's facilities, there must be room for a battery of appropriate sized show cages. If one shows different size classes of birds, one should have show cages of those sizes handy.
I even make use of such cages when making my final evaluations of potential show birds. I find the cages to be essential. At major shows in the Midwest at least, the poultry equipment suppliers often sell show caging so it is not necessary to order it and then to pay shipping charges. In short, there are no excuses.
When and How to Add New Blood
A carefully bred line of birds may not need an infusion of new blood for decades but it is likely that at some point, it will need what I would call a "modified outcross". By that term I mean that a bird a few generations removed from the current line will be introduced to add a feature no longer present in the line or to reintroduce vigor which has been diminishing. The further removed the relationship between lines, the more risky the outcross, in my experience. Some outcrosses simply do not "nick"; that is, the resulting offspring are disappointing. While most breeders would prefer to use a male for such outcrosses, my feeling is that the best bird available should be used whether it be a male or female. The most important matter is from where that bird should be obtained. Rather than speaking entirely in the abstract, let me illustrate with a real life example: my line of Black East Indies.
I have been breeding Indies for about 50 years now. Over that time, I introduced birds from other flocks on several occasions to improve color, improve fertility and/or hatchability, etc. In recent years, I felt the need to do so again but took some time to locate the right source.Two years ago, I recalled that I had sold a mating of my best Indies to someone on the west coast about ten years ago. A phone conversation with that breeder indicated that no other bloodlines had been introduced and that fertility and hatchability were outstanding. Of course, I would have preferred to go to his place and select birds myself but since that was not possible, I ordered two high quality pairs and hoped for the best. I found that both females and one male were what I was looking for while one male was not. I then mated the one pair together the following spring while mating the extra female to one of my best drakes. The hatches were excellent and the quality of the offspring from both matings convinced me that the cross was quite successful. This spring the hatches were even better. The offspring are quite uniform at a high level.
If I manage the matings carefully while keeping at least one parallel mating of the new new blood separate for further occasional crosses I see no reason why the line will have further need for outcrosses for a number of years.
Breeding Small Bantam Ducks
Most breeders are obsessed with small size in their birds early in their breeding careers. Some even go to the extreme of purchasing the smallest ducks they can find at shows and breeding them together with the assumption that the result will be tiny offspring. Such efforts are counterproductive in two ways. First of all, such birds are often lousy breeders. Secondly, picking up birds from different sources may well result in an outcross which may even increase the size of the resulting offspring. One would better advised to start with related birds which are medium in size but very strong in type. Such birds are likely to breed well and given a decent number of offspring, young birds smaller than their parents but hopefully just as strong in type will be found each year. Birds which are standard weight and strong in type and color are ideal both in the showroom and in the breeding pen. Experienced judges are not often seduced by tiny birds simply because they seldom exhibit good type and/or condition. In both Calls and East Indies, given the keen competition seen at major shows, lack of prime condition is a recipe for defeat. Usually, tiny birds of either breed are unthrifty in their use of the feed they consume and often exhibit poor feather condition regardless of the quality of care they receive. Such birds are often (usually, in fact) a waste of time for their owners and for anyone who buys them thinking that they have discovered a "diamond in the rough". Dull, lifeless eyes and dry, somewhat ruffled plumage are the hallmarks of birds well below the weight for which the Standard calls.
You Gotta have a Plan
One should try to go into each breeding season with a clear set of priorities for each breed and variety one raises. That sounds pretty basic, doesn't it? The problem is that there must be several ingredients present before one can accomplish that. First, one must have a thorough knowledge of the components of the type in the breed one is working with. That goes far beyond "knowing a good one when you see it". You must fully understand the sometimes subtle characteristics that are necessary for the type to be right. That requires study and the ability to learn not only what qualities one's line of birds has, but which ones they lack. That means hours spent at shows and perhaps at the homes of fellow breeders, seeing and learning about the breeding plans developed by others. Going over a class of birds or breeding flocks with an experienced competitor can bring insights that cannot be learned any other way. That means hours spent looking at one's own birds, honestly evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. Use all the information gathered in this way to formulate first the image of the ideal bird in one's mind and then to analyize what is lacking in one's own flock. Once that is done, break down the steps needed to approach the ideal. What is the most important weakness in one's flock? Are the ingredients present to fix the flaw or must one go outside the flock to correct the problem? In many cases, the solution rests with selecting for (or against) a given characterisitc over several generations. Tail angles, carriage, color issues, body depth, all of these things can probably be handled through selection rather than through an outcross.
More on this topic later...
If you are addicted to taking the "easy way out" when it comes to work and chores, you'll never amount to much as a breeder/exhibitor of exhibition poultry.
Don't get me wrong; I am not a proponent of doing everything the hard way. If there is a way to get something done just as well by using a different technique or through employing technology, I am all for it. What I am talking about are those of us who allow ourselves to drift into work habits which amount to a habit of doing things "half ass". They tell themselves that their slovenly efforts at maintaining their flocks will "be just fine". Of course, they already know that that isn't true because they have already seen the results of doing things their way.
If you are a gardener as well as a poultry raiser, do not neglect to take full advantage of the synergies between the two hobbies.
I discovered quite by accident how effective my young bantam ducks can be as controllers of harmful insects in the lawn and garden. For the last several years, I have allowed my crop of young East Indies to spend each day in my gardens once they have reached the age of eight weeks or so and were fully feathered over their bodies.They are released from a secure pen where they are confined each night early each morning.They then spend the day roaming the yard as a group, chasing bugs. They have proven to be excellent catchers of Mosquitoes, Japanese Beetles, Earwigs, Slugs, and the moths that are the adult form of the Sod Web Worms (harmful to turf grass). They do very little damage to the hostas and other perennials which are found in their hundreds in my gardens and they clearly help control the pests which potentially will damage those plants.Of course, they also do their bit to help keep the soil fertile with their droppings.