Well, my life is calming down a lot and spring is coming up so it’s time to start refocusing my attention on this homesteading blog. Now, I know, I am no longer on a homestead, but I am working towards it again and in the meantime people are still asking me all sorts of chicken questions and I think it’d be a waste not to spread my knowledge! Today I am going to talk about my experience with dual purpose sex links and why this is an important thing to learn for the future of self sustainability.
Back when I was on the farm I created my own dual purpose sex links that were bred to suit my needs as well as my customers. My criteria were simple. I wanted a generation of birds that I could sex at hatch and separate. The pullets needed to be great layers and the roosters needed to be large and worth raising for slaughter. Initially all I could find on sex links were based on breeding very light weight laying breeds together to produce sleek low-feed laying pullets and roosters that could be euthanized at hatch so you wouldn’t have to waste any resources or money on raising them. Although I understand this dynamic and why it works in the industrial hatchery business I felt it was not honoring an older tradition of self sustainability. It was far too wasteful.
So I looked into birds used for both meat and egg laying, first settling on Cornish and Dorkings, which were breeds known for their meat but also were pretty decent layers. Cornish are used in the American meat industry to create “Cornish Crosses” also known as CornRocks or just broilers, the same sort of chicken you can buy in the grocery store. However Cornish Crosses take three or four generations to get that ungodly large breast and quick growing. First generation crosses are still very decent if you’re used to heritage birds for the table. Dorkings are known for their large amount of breast meat. They were probably the first breed to have this and I was pleased with the amount they created but they were painfully slow growing. Some of the roosters didn’t reach full size until two years of age! To add a fast growth rate I decided instead of using a Cornish for my rooster I would use my very large heritage Rhode Island Red. He was nothing like the hatchery RIR’s you see in everyone’s backyard flock. He was HUGE, a brilliant Mahogany color, and as docile and friendly as you could possibly want a rooster – unlike the Cornish who had a reputation for having pugnacious roosters. I gave him a number of my largest Silver Gray Dorking hens and I couldn’t have been happier with the results.
The chicks hatched out with gorgeous Mahogany colored pullets and white roosters who’d grow to have black on their heads and wings later on. The pullets were robust and large, favored here in New England for their size because people believe larger birds fair the winters better. They had hybrid vigor which means they laid an abundance of large tan eggs. The roosters were even more impressive. They grew much faster than the purebred Dorkings and made very decent carcasses by the time they were four to six months old. This is still far longer a growing time than the broilers you can buy but the meat was unbeatable. I had far more breast meat than heritage birds usually have and since they were given ample room to run around they had large powerful legs that made for the best dark meat I have ever eaten – almost gamey in flavor. This is something I will continue the next time I find myself living on a farm! But for Dorking enthusiasts that like that really slow growth rate you can also cross a Red Dorking Rooster to Silver Gray hens to produce sex links. You might also be able to create sex links with red Dorking roosters and white Dorking hens depending on if their white plumage is due to the “dominant white” gene or something else. You’d have to test each line and see.
The benefits of sex links are enormous for a small homestead. It allows us little guys to compete with the large hatcheries because we can sex the chicks as soon as they pop out. This allows us to charge more for the pullets while being absolutely assured we won’t be selling anyone an accidental rooster. It also allows us to sell them a lot sooner before we waste any money on feed. Most breeds take a lot longer to sex, sometimes even months, and there are many customers out there who simply cannot have roosters, even accidental ones. This also allows us to either dispense of roosters at hatch or raise them for meat which means we’re not wasting any of our own resources if we don’t want to. It sounds harsh but the sex links you often buy off hatcheries are usually layers and the vast majority of those roosters are put down immediately for exactly this reason – the lucky ones are sometimes used as living “packing peanuts” to keep small orders of chicks warm while they’re being shipped through the mail.
Now I have told you my story and preferred cross I will let you know a couple others that may work as well. Here in the US we favor Cornish crossed with Plymouth Rocks to make large meat birds. You can do this in a way to make them sex-linking but it may take more ground work than you may wish. While theoretically a Dark Cornish Rooster over White Plymouth Rock hens can produce sex-links it doesn’t always because it depends on the line of White Rocks if they are indeed dominant white or some other combination of genes that just don’t work. The only way you’d know for sure would be to try it with the birds you have and raise a few chicks to adulthood to see.
Another common dual purpose cross would be a Gold Laced Wyandotte rooster over Silver Laced Wyandotte hens. This will produce gold pullets and silver hens. This is a great way to use extra birds that may not have made the cut to be bred for color or show. This generation will never be able to be used for the latter but most people buying chicks just want eggs and sometimes something pretty that lays eggs so it doesn’t really matter for that.
If this is something you’d like to try or you’d like to learn more about it there’s a wonderful far more in depth article on Backyard Chickens complete with charts, how to figure out the correct cross, and why it works. And if you like the idea of having sex links that are easier on your feed bill and more focused on just their laying abilities there are a ton of resources out there for just that but most of those boil down to Red Sex Links and Black Sex Links. Red sex links are most often a Rhode Island Red rooster over a Rhode Island White hen. Black Sex Links are most commonly created by crossing a Rhode Island Red rooster with a Barred Rock hen. All of that can be found on the article I have linked above. And finally if you’d like a chicken that can be sexed at hatch for more than one generation try looking into autosexing breeds like Cream Legbars, Bielfelders, Rhodebars, etc. Good luck and happy chicken keeping!