Hybrid hens are the result of crossing two or more pure breeds of poultry to arrive at a cross breed which will be predisposed to perform in a predefined manner. The main reasons for developing hybrid hens are to...
- produce prolific egg layers
- produce birds for meat
- develop colour, form and feather, which will eventually breed true, thus creating a new breed. which will eventually be a breed standard prize winner in poultry shows.
- breed first generation crosses for utility birds
The aims of each type of crossing is very different and some traits are often sacrificed to achieve the desired results in the others.
The development of birds for egg laying and meat production has been dominated by commercial interests since the middle of the 20th century. These birds have been selectively developed especially for the industrial production of eggs and meat, with short term productivity as the goal.
Examples of these crossing are the little brown hens commonly sold as egg layers and the large white broilers bred specifically for meat.
Both the broilers and the laying birds have been bred for climate and food controlled conditions which is artificially lighted to simulate daylight hours for up to 14 hours per day, all year round. These birds perform best in such an artificially created environment.
The egg laying strains in a commercial setting are kept indoors in cages. In the case where eggs are marketed as 'free range' they are given access to the outdoors.
They begin to lay at 20 - 22 weeks and will generally produce an egg per day until they are about 72 weeks old when they will begin to moult. These birds are then sold by the egg producers to meat companies, occasionally some are sold live and are re-homed.
These birds can be purchased at Point of Lay (POI) which is approx 16 - 18 weeks and cost less than purebred birds.
Commercial hybrid hens will lay more eggs in their first year than any pure breed but their egg laying ability is spent at a much earlier age as all hens are born with a finite number of eggs which are depleted earlier in these hens.
Such an unnaturally high production results in a shorter than normal life expectancy due to the physical burden placed on their bodies. One of the tell tail signs that these birds are struggling physically is their apparent inability to fully recover after a moult.
There is a commonly held misconception that these birds are purebred Rhode Island Reds and are regulary sold as such to unsuspecting beginners. Nothing could be further from truth.
While it is true to say that there is a strain of RIR in these birds, they are hybrids. They are smaller, more docile, they free range very well but are not quite as hardy, will lay more eggs in their first year but will be spent at a much younger age than RIR hens.
Commercial broilers grow very rapidly, developing meat at the cost of skeleton. These birds are kept on the ground as they are unable to roost due to their poor bone development and extraordinary size, they are ready for the table and slaughtered at about 6 - 8 weeks old depending on the market.
These birds are generally purebred, developed by hobbyists and are regulated and standardised by the national poultry clubs. Many will argue that crossing for colour, form and feather has resulted in the loss of good quality utility birds, as these crossings were often at the cost of egg laying and meat.
The return of the hobbyist breeder in recent years means that once again good quality strains of pure breeds are being sought and used in breeding to produce birds which, while adhering to breed standards are improving both egg laying and meat production in their flocks.
Purebred utility birds are crossed to produce hybrids which will produce eggs or meat but will thrive in free range conditions. These are known as first generation hybrids, they will not breed true in future generations as they are cross-bred.
These first generation hybrids have an increased genetic makeup which increases their vigour, making them stronger, healthier birds and improves their egg laying.
Pure breeds and their crosses will lay fewer eggs in their first year but will continue to lay more eggs for much longer than commercial hybrids, who will lay for fewer years with a dramatic drop in numbers because of the finite number of eggs with which they are born.
Purebred birds with strong egg laying traits are used in these first generation crosses such as Rhode Island Reds and Marans.