So you think that you want to try your hand at breeding? There are basically 2 different type of breeding set ups. Pairs and flock. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. With pair mating, what you are doing is to mate several different pairs. Each pair must be either housed or caged separate from the other pairs. The advantage is that you can more closely control the matings, balancing the good points of one with weaknesses of the other. The disadvantage is the space and number of birds required. Instead of keeping one cock, one must be kept for each pen. Also you must decide how the chicks are to be raised. Are the chicks from each pair to kept separate from the chicks of the other pairs? Or are all chicks going to be raised together? The more pens/cages/groups, the more time required to take care of them.
With flock mating you have a group of birds in a pen. One to two cocks with a group of hens. (one male can "take care of" 6-10 hens). With this method all chicks can be raised together. A flock requires less time for care than several different caged pairs. Basically the method that you use depends on your building and your goals.
If the breeders are set up in the spring, you must wait for about 2 weeks to make sure that the male with the hen(s) is the father of the chicks. If the breeding pens were set up in the fall then no waiting period is required.
Feeding is no problem as there are many commercial foods on the market. Lay (either mash or bits) with some scratch. will do for a laying flock. For a breeding flock, lay and scratch will work but a vitamin supplement should be added to the drinking water. Breeder feed, if available, is best. Make sure that the birds have water in front of them at all times. Oyster shell and grit will also be needed by the birds.
How are you going to hatch and raise the chicks? Are you going to use an incubator and brooder, or are you going to allow the hens to set and raise the chicks?
First you must handle and store the eggs. If the eggs were set as they are laid, there would be chicks hatching daily, and you will have chicks of varying ages. Your goal is to set and hatch the chicks in a group(s). Hatching eggs can be stored for about 2 weeks before setting. Store the eggs in egg cartons, with the small end of the egg down. The cartons are placed in a box. One end of the box is elevated by resting it on a piece of 2X4. Each day the 2X4 is moved to the opposite end of the box thus elevating one end, while lowering the other This will turn (tip) the eggs to prevent the germ from sticking to the shell. It is for this same reason that eggs in an incubator need turning. The mother hen does this many times a day, while she sets. In fact each time a hen enters the nest to lay an egg, she will turn the eggs already in the nest.
Once a batch of eggs are on hand they can be placed in an incubator. Each model operates with slightly different instruction. Follow the directions provided with the model you are using. With an incubator you can set the eggs at your convince. With the natural method of using a hen, you will have to wait until a hen is ready to set.
If you are using the pair mating method you may want to keep the eggs separate from each pair. This is a simple matter of marking the large end of the egg, in pencil, with the cage number that the egg came from. They can be mixed in the incubator. When the directions to your model tell you to stop turning the eggs or to place them in the hatching tray, the eggs from each pair can be placed in a "plastic net " bag to keep the eggs from the different pairs separate. This will keep the chicks separate as they hatch. Using the flock method, no such labeling or separation is required. ---TIP--- When using an incubator for hatching , on the day that you stop turning the eggs or that they go in the hatching tray, change the water in the humidity trays. Instead of plain tap water use a bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. You will get fewer dead in the shells. These are chicks that die in the egg, just before they were to hatch. After the breeding season the incubator is cleaned with the same bleach solution.
Once the chicks hatch they have to be reared. If the natural method is being used, each hen with chicks must be kept separate, or the hens may fight and hurt the chicks. If pair mating is used, the hen can raise the chicks in her cage, until they become crowded. If the flock mating method is used, and the chicks are to be raised in the natural method, the hens will still have to be separated. With the incubator method, the chicks as a group can be raised under one brooder, unless you wish to keep each group of chicks from each pair separate. In that case separate brooding areas are needed.
There are many different brooders on the market to choose from. Generally they all work well. For a cheep "homemade" model, take a cardboard box about 12 X 18 inches by 12 inches high. About 3 inches from each end on one side cuts are made to remove an area about 4 inches high. This will allow the chicks to run in and out of the box. 2 clamp-on lights from local a hardware store with the "clamp" protruding through the top of the box. Use 2 lights, incase 1 goes out,you will end up with cold chicks instead of dead ones. Heavy-duty light bulbs are used for heat. The nice thing about the cardboard box is that it can be burnt when the chicks are weaned. With a commercial brooder, it must be disinfected with the bleach solution mentioned above,after use.
Most feed stores offer chick starter, either medicated or non medicated. Use the medicated form to help protect the chicks -- DO NOT FEED MEDICATED STARTER TO OTHER TYPES OF POULTRY--. This can be feed for 4-6 weeks after which the chicks are change over to a grower. Feed grower until the chicks are about 4 months old at which time they can be put on a layer type of food.
When the birds are placed on layer, it is time to select your breeders for next year. Review your Standard. Then check each bird for conformation. Do this to both your old breeders and your young birds. If you have an older bird and a young one of the same quality, keep the young one. Keep your best birds up to your limit. Know your limit and do not keep over it. Crowded birds do not do well. Dispose of the worst. The others that fit into the so-called "not bad" group can be sold to other breeders either through prearranged agreements, auctions or swap meets.
You have now bred your birds and raised offspring from them. Looking forward to the next breeding season you will have to start planning your next matings. Are you going to breed by out crossing (breeding unrelated birds together) or by inbreeding (breeding related birds together). Birds produced by out crossing generally are more robust. However they may also be very different as to color and type from one another. Out crossing adds genes. Inbred birds tend to resemble each other more, for inbreeding tends to limit the genes. Most breeders tend to inbreed, only out crossing to improve their line, or when they are having a problem with fertility, and hatchability.