Canadian Poultry Magazine


By Fred W. Beeson   

Features 100th anniversary Key Developments Poultry Production Poultry Research Production

August 1933

Cross breeding makes possible the output of a high grade chick that will prove profitable to its owner, yet cannot come into future competition, as a breeder, with pure or standard bred birds.

(From the address delivered at the regular monthly meeting of the Vancouver Poultry and Pet Stock Association)

In speaking on cross breeding I realize I am tackling a big and a wide subject and one to which there are many angles. After a brief review I shall confine myself to two phases of it – its value to the commercial egg producer – its effect on the breeder.


Cross breeding, or the mating together of two distinct breeds, has been practiced for many years with most domestic animals and birds. Man desires certain qualities in the stock he keeps and uses every known method to obtain what he wants. Where it has been evident that a certain cross results in the offspring being especially suitable for certain environments selective breeding has taken place amongst the half breeds and a new breed is evolved. Such an illustration took place in New Zealand many years ago. Sheep from Kent, Eng., known as Romney Marsh, were imported into New Zealand, where at that time the only sheep was the Merino, a wool sheep, living on the hills of the sough Island of that country. The only marketable product from the Merino was wool.

The idea was expressed to cross these two breeds, for the Romney Marsh is a big sheep, grown on the rich low lying marsh land of Kent and not at all suitable for grazing on hills. The result of the cross was an animal of medium size, good meat qualities and good wool. These crosses were re-bred, and after much selection and culling, animals were produced that would breed true to type. There were named Corriedales, after the name of the farm on which they were originated. This breed was the foundation of the world famous Canterbury lamb trade. Millions of tons of this meat has been shipped to Europe, principally Great Britain, resulting in great development and wealth for New Zealand.

Again using sheep as an illustration, it is the practice in the south of England today to cross the Romney Marsh ewes with Southdown rams, the one being large and the other, the Southdown, probably the most compact and meaty sheep in existence. No attempt is made to go beyond the first cross, the combination of size and compactness of the two pure breeds resulting in an animal ideal for the lamb and mutton trade and one that can be grazed profitably over the hills and in the marshes of the south country.

In poultry, as with animals, cross breeding has been responsible for new breeds, which have more nearly conformed to the requirements of poultrymen in certain locations. Without going into details of the make-up of different breeds I can mention some that have been evolved to suit the climate or trade requirements in different parts of the world. In the States we have the Rocks and Reds and Wyandottes, all general purpose breeds and all yellow skinned, which are most favored in that country. In England we have the Dorking and the Sussex and the Orpingtons, all white skinned breeds, and originally produced for good table qualities in the south of England where in the olden days fattening poultry was an art.

Man takes nature in the raw and fashions it to his will and so it will continue. The Cornish Game, without a doubt the finest table bird in the world, is uneconomical to keep in commercial sized flocks because of the lack of laying power and somewhat slow growth. The breed is not discarded, however, for its chief use is in being crossed with other breeds, using the Game male with other more productive breeds of hens, and table birds are produced in numbers, of truly wonderful quality and quick growth.

Cross breeding for egg production on a large scale is comparatively recent innovation although it has been practiced with intelligence for many years in a small way. My first experience was on a small farm in England where a neighbor of ours kept between 200 and 300 birds. He bred pure Black Minorcas and every two years he would buy Buff Orpington cockerels and run them with his whole flock. The following fall he would have a flock of yearling Minorcas and a flock of cross bred pullets. These birds were on free range and running together although housed separately. The next spring he would buy Black Minorca males and hatch only from the white eggs so that his flock that year would be all Minorca pullets and yearling cross bred hens. The year following he would buy Buff Orpington males again and this plan was kept up indefinitely, always setting the white eggs he would breed cross-breds from his pullets and pure breds from his hens. This man was known for miles around for his high production in the winter and for his large eggs.

Since that time cross breeding has assumed considerable economic importance in England amongst those in the business primarily for eggs. It has been found that it is imperative to have males from high record hens and it is necessary to have high producing hens as well. In crossing healthy stock increased vigor is always apparent, and the good and the bad qualities tend to be intensified. Thus if one mates up two strains that are predominately broody there is sure to be trouble in this direction. Two strains of very high production with the added strength from the cross give very high egg averages.

If breeding for egg production were a mere matter of mating high producer to high producer to get still higher production there would be no need of crossing to maintain vigor.  Such is not the case, however. Breeding for egg production entails a constant never ending battle against deterioration of vigor. Were the breeding left in the hands of responsible breeders all might be well. Unfortunately it is not so. Mass production of chicks by artificial incubation in mammoth machines has taken the matter almost out of the hands of the real breeder. Couple this with the mistakes made in rearing that lowers the vitality and small wonder is it that we have sickness. Most of my audience tonight are keeping poultry as a hobby. Your flocks are small, you can select with extreme care and in most cases you do not overly stress high production.

Therefore you are able to get along without the grief that visits the man raising poultry by the thousand. The average poultryman in the business for a living has not always been a poultryman. He is usually from some other trade or profession and jumps into poultry farming with only a vague idea of what he is up against. Also he is mostly short of capital and tries to get along with less housing space and equipment than is necessary. He may buy a thousand chicks and the fun (or grief) begins.  Overheating, chilling, overfeeding, overcrowding, sweating, are only some of the troubles that loom up. Everything that goes wrong lessens the chance of the chick becoming a good specimen and yet many of these birds are used for breeding work. The poultryman is tampering with life that by selective breeding has become highly strung and susceptible to ill treatment.

I tell you it would be far better for the industry were we to give these people something more able to stand abuse and something that they cannot use for future breeding. What can we give them? The answer that fills the bill entirely is a “cross-bred”.

Recent talks with breeders leave no doubt in one’s mind that the cross-bred is being thought about and it will not be long until the advantages of the first-cross are generally realized. At present the egg producer on this continent is not demanding a cross-bred, because he knows little of them. Suppose he did demand this very thing, how would it affect the breeder? Would it ruin his sales of high class pedigree stock? Would it spoil his sales of flock mating hatching eggs and chicks?

The very mention of cross breeding has been considered heresy on the part of poultrymen in this country. The poultry inspectors shun the subject. For a time the various promoters of poultry in Canada and the States talked “more and more” production but now the tune has changed to “economical” production. The advent of scientific cross breeding will not hurt the genuine breeder. Rather it will give him greater control of the breeding work again, which, the last several years has gone too much into the hands of the hatcheryman. This is no knock on hatcheries. They form an essential part of the program of distribution. But, with a few exceptions, where the hatchery operates a breeding farm as well, this class of business is not raising the standards of quality with the product they are offering the public and by the cheap prices they tempt the poultryman with.

Let me illustrate how the genuine breeder can benefit by selling and popularizing the use of cross breds for commercial purposes. Mr. A is a breeder of pedigreed poultry. His flock mating consists of trapnested hens and their full sisters, rigorously culled. He sells a thousand chicks from this mating to Mr. B (a commercial egg farmer). The next year, or at the latest the year after, Mr. B mates up his flock, rarely with pedigreed males, and sells eggs at a little over market price (5 cents to 7 cents per dozen premium) to a hatchery. He then buys chicks from the hatchery and many hundreds of chicks are sold from this mating. These come into direct competition with Mr. A’s flock mating chicks. They are standard bred and in all likelihood will be called Mr. A’s strain.

They are sold at a low price and Mr. A is left with the alternative of shutting down on his hatching operations or cutting his price.

Now, supposing Mr. B knew of the advantages of buying cross bred chicks; knew that they were hardier, easier to raise and better able to stand up to a certain amount of abuse; knew that the cockerels made good broilers and the hens good table birds; and that he came to Mr. A, who had been advertising a first cross of light and heavy breeds, using males from very high record trapnested hens with a flock of high production hens. Mr. A would sell him the chicks which would give every satisfaction, and would stand up to the more or less forcing conditions that our present economic system necessitates, and do this for a considerably longer time than the highly strung, sensitive pure bred. Mr. B could concentrate his energies entirely on egg production instead of turning himself into a so-called breeder for two or three months each year. Not one of these birds that Mr. A has sold could ever come into competition with him as a breeder. He would be turning out a more suitable product for the commercial man and at the same time safeguarding his own interests.

If the hatcheryman wants to get into the cross bred business there again the breeder will be benefited because it is absolutely essential that the male birds come from high record stock, and who can supply these but the pedigree breeder? All off type males, that are otherwise good, can be used for crossing, which means that the best only will be kept for the improvement of the standard breeds. It has been argued recently that the same vigor can be procured by mating up pure breds of totally different bloodlines but in the next breath stated that it is almost impossible to avoid inbreeding by buying from the well-known breeders in Canada and the States because their strains have been so intermixed. Crossbreeding avoids every possibility of this nature.

The egg farmer does not and probably will not ever care a rap for type, color of plumage, stubs, sidesprigs or this and that that the breeder has to study in the mating of his pure bred stock. That there will always be those who desire good looks as well as usefulness cannot be doubted. It would be a sorry day were we to lose sight of the beautiful. The breeder can cater to the two classes of buyers, giving each exactly what is wanted and satisfying both – but not with the same bird.

Science has recently given us the key to a great problem and we now know – thanks to the work of Prof. R.C. Punnett, of Cambridge University – that by mating certain breeds together the sex of chicks at hatching time can be easily distinguished. This is known as sex-linkage. Thus, a further use for the cross bred has been found and today it is possible for a breeder to offer his customers day old pullets or day old cockerels from his sex-linked crosses.

To summarize, cross breeding makes possible the output of a high grade chick that will prove profitable to its owner, yet cannot come into future competition, as a breeder, with pure or standard bred birds.

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