For example, with our Silver Sussex flock we had been focusing on size and colour.
We have come great strides in improving their size. Colour is still a work in progress and this year we are working on leg colour as well! Unfortunately the Silver Sussex are still relatively rare, despite their excellent dual purpose qualities. Cockerels grow quickly and their carcass is beautiful when processed between 5-7 months using our method of pasture raising for the majority of their life, then grain finishing.
The biggest issue I see with these birds from a confirmation point of view, is that their colour still reverts back to generations ago when they were first imported and a Light Sussex was used in the breeding pen to improve genetic diversity. This has caused many generations of "gay colouring" or, over-white in the feathering. We are working to overcome this by not only carefully selecting appropriate coloured cockerels, but ALSO ensuring the hens are not over coloured with silver down into their breast area or down their back. The proper colouring should be considered Birchen. We are also working on leg colour. Unfortunately, the more white on the cockerel, the whiter his legs are! We are working on breeding better coloured legs, though it is a few generations of work, as with the body colour. Now, just because we are focusing on phenotype, or 'how they look', doesn't mean we've stopped breeding for how they preform, or their functionality! We are still monitoring for egg production and choosing the best coloured birds out of the best growing birds.
So, where did we start? We started with some black copper marans from two different breeders on the island. We quickly decided we loved the eggs, liked the hens, and despised the rooster. The rooster we had was mean, and human aggressive, which is not something we tolerate. So - first mission, easy - breed for disposition! This meant that all the mean boys went in the pot, yesterday kinda thing. Then what? Well, we noticed that some of our offspring didn't have as much copper as their parents. Through further research and delving into the Marans of France standard (which can be hard to read!) we learned more about the colouring. Black Copper Marans cockerels should have 'parsimonous' colouring on their breast. This means, randomly placed splotches of copper. A fully coppered breast is not acceptable, nor is a solid black chest. And this goes for breeding blue or splash copper marans too! By choosing a better coloured rooster from a third line we brought in, we saw some great improvements in the offspring, though we still watch our pullets (because they are just as important in breeding as the cockerel!) to ensure they have a nice amount of beautiful, dark copper in their neck feathers. We try to avoid a 'brassy' copper colour, and instead choose those with darker copper.
Now let's talk about those eggs. Breeding marans can honestly be one of the most challenging to work with because not only do you have the normal challenges of confirmation, you have the additional challenge of egg colour! In order to increase darkness of eggs, you need to choose your darkest coloured eggs to hatch. Select the best cockerels and pullets and go from there. Although it's impossible to tell once grown, unless you've marked them, the roosters also carry genes for egg colour. The boys hatched from the darkest eggs, when crossed with hens who lay dark eggs, will produce dark eggs as well. There can be the odd occasion where, for some reason, egg colour is not as dark in the odd hen here and there. Unfortunately it's not predictable, just pops up on occasion.
At Briarwood Poultry we are working really hard with ALL of our marans to get the darkest eggs possible. One of the biggest challenges has been the Blue Marans. The black copper marans are fairly good, and the wheaten marans lay awesome eggs. Though on the flip side, the blue marans are incredible layers of nice big eggs, and for body size they are really suitable dual purpose boys while the wheaten marans eggs are a bit smaller and it does take them a full year to fill out. For this year, we will be working on egg colour and body colour (copper does still pop up in our offspring though we have been breeding copper free blue marans for 3 generations now!) with blue marans, body size with wheaten marans, and egg colour with those black copper marans.
Until next time :)