Two of the Reilly’s Chantecler chickens. Kyle holds Elvis, a rooster, who is almost a pet. Christi likes the breed because they are well-mannered—as chickens go.
Kyle bought a used ostrich egg incubator on Craigslist and then had it modified to hold 900 chicken eggs. He and Christi only incubate eggs from the top 10 percent of their breeding stock.
Which matters most, the chicken or the egg? To help with that question, we turned to Christi and Kyle Reilly who not only raise chickens but breed them. Their interest in chickens started when they were looking for a way to use the leftovers after harvesting their microgreens. They had specific goals in mind.
“We wanted a closed loop on the waste side of the microgreen business as well as dual-purpose birds. We knew that chickens could eat the by-products and give us eggs, and when the hens retired from their egg career, that they should have enough meat on them to be worth eating,” explained Kyle. “Today, commercially raised chickens are single-purpose birds, raised for either meat or eggs, and they are bred to produce the greatest number of eggs or to be ready to butcher in the shortest amount of time.”
Their third goal set them apart from most people who raise chickens. “We didn’t want to buy chicks every year,” said Kyle. And that led them to breeding.
Their next step was to get the chickens. But what kind? They didn’t head for the nearest farm and feed store to buy a few Heinz 57 chicks simply because they were cute. Instead they started doing research, which led them to dual-purpose heritage breeds, in particular New Hampshires, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Chanteclers, birds similar to those that the pioneers brought west with them because they could produce both meat and eggs.
Once they had chosen breeds, they looked for a breeder who knew something about genetics. They wanted to know exactly what they were getting, just as a breeder of Labradors wants to know bloodlines. Through Jim Adkins at the Sustainable Poultry Network they found good breeding stock.
When asked why he and Christi made the decision to look for breeding stock and delve into the complex world of genetics, Kyle admitted to having an ulterior motive.
“The truth is that after getting the microgreen business up and running, the repetitive work can get boring. I was looking for something to challenge Christi and engage her. She’s a scientist—she’s very analytical and thinks things through. She likes collecting data, making observations and taking meticulous notes.”
A Market Niche
Although Kyle said Christi likes a challenge, so does he, and he is always on the lookout for a new market niche to fill. He talked to local farmers and asked if they would be interested in buying chickens from him. Their reaction was enthusiastic. He and Christi also knew that sex-link chickens were popular because, when first hatched, it’s easy to identify their sex.
They decided to breed New Hampshire roosters with Barred Plymouth Rock hens to get a crossbreed—black sex-links. Both males and females are black when hatched, but the males have a white dot on their heads. (Ed. Note: When you see the word “barred” used in the name of a breed of chickens it means they have a “barring” gene that causes alternate bands of two distinct colors on a feather, white and black in the case of Barred Plymouth Rocks.)
“I don’t think selling the heritage chickens locally will be much of a moneymaker, but we will be providing local farmers with good stock that will help build demand for heritage birds,” said Kyle. “Selling sex-link chickens, which are crosses, not heritage birds, will make it more economically viable for us.”
And what about their Chanteclers? “They are a neat dual-purpose breed,” said Kyle. “They were bred in Canada and are noted for being very hardy, a layer of brown eggs with a reputation for being a good winter layer and having a well-fleshed breast.”
Elvis, their Chantecler rooster, is like a pet even though he is rarely handled. Christi likes this breed because they are quiet and well-mannered—as chickens go. They plan on selling the Chanteclers, New Hampshires and Plymouths as pure heritage chickens, along with the sex-link crosses.
After making these decisions, the couple had to find an incubator. On Craigslist, Kyle found one designed for ostrich eggs. He bought it and then had it modified to hold the much smaller chicken eggs. When he was finished, the incubator could hold 900 eggs. To try it out, he and Christi incubated three sets of 90 eggs to be sure the incubator was working. It did.
After 18 days in the incubator, where the eggs are turned and kept at a constant temperature and humidity, the eggs are put into a hatcher on day 19, where they are kept for about three days, until they hatch.
“Hatching is a messy process and we need to keep the area clean to prevent disease. If the chickens hatched in the incubator, it would be a mess,” explained Kyle.
Using this method, he can put 180 eggs in the incubator every three weeks, take out one level and put it in the hatcher and have chicks hatching every week. The chicks are then moved to an 8-by-8-foot brooder that’s enclosed with chicken wire and has a 4-by4-foot hover where they can get shelter.
“Of all the birds we raise on our farm, we are going to choose the top 10 percent and isolate them specifically for breeding,” he said. “We use the American Standard of Perfection to compare our birds against. We only incubate eggs from the top-rated hens. The rest of the eggs go to market for eating. There is nothing wrong with the other birds but their genetics are not as good as those in the top 10 percent. That’s what breeding is all about—making that selection.”
And is Christi as excited about this new offshoot of their microgreen business as Kyle? “For her, it’s an analytical, fun thing to do. Some people would probably tear their hair out, but not her,” he said.
It’s no surprise to him or her friends that she is now the Oregon State Coordinator for the Sustainable Poultry Network.
Further Breeding Reading
If you are interested in learning more about the intricacies of breeding chickens and about the heritage breeds, Kyle recommends the books listed in the next column. They are available from the Sustainable Poultry Network, the American Poultry Association and Amazon. The first five titles are his and Christi’s favorites.
- American Standard of Perfection by the American Poultry Association. This is a must-have for anyone interested in breeding. It describes and illustrates the official standards for each poultry breed in North America. The first edition, which appeared in 1874, listed 41 varieties, and the latest about 60.
- Poultry Husbandry by Morley A. Jull
- Judging Poultry for Production by James Rice, Goldan Hal & Dean Marble
- The Mating and Breeding of Poultry by Harry Lamon & Rob Roy Slocum
- Turkey Management by Stanley Marsden & J. Holmes Martin
- The Call of the Hen by Walter Hogan
- Genetics of the Fowl by FB Hutt
- The Production of the 300-Eggers And Better by Line Breeding by ME Atkinson & Grant M. Curtis
- Bantam Breeding and Genetics by Fred Jeffery
- Sustainable Poultry Network: spnusa.com
- American Poultry Association: amerpoultryassn.com
- Egg Cart’n Chicken Tractors: eggcartn.com
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