What is Clan Mating?
If you are interested in breeding your own flock for the first time, know that there are a number of different breeding methods you can choose, including line breeding, flock mating, and clan mating. All have their pros and cons, and some might be a better fit than others for your own situation and goals. On our farm, we’ve chosen to use a clan mating system for our Ameraucanas and Black Copper Marans.
Clan Mating (also known as Spiral Mating) is a system of breeding where chickens are separated into at least three different groups, or clans. You can absolutely have more than three groups if you wish, but three is the minimum. In the initial year of a clan mating program, chickens mate within their group, and in all subsequent years, males are rotated to the next clan over. (I was unable to discover where this breeding method originated, but I first learned about Clan Mating from Harvey Ussery’s great book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.)
Pros and Cons of the Clan Mating System
Before we get into the details of setting up your own clan mating system, let’s talk about the pros and cons of this method, at least as we’ve experienced them:
Clan Mating Pros:
Clan Mating Cons:
Clan Mating in Tandem with Other Methods
You don’t have to use Clan Mating exclusively if you don’t want to. Clan mating can be used in tandem with other methods, and it can also be used as an excellent maintenance program after you’ve used other breeding strategies to improve your flock.
Last year, upon the advice of an very experienced breeder, we set up a parallel line breeding program for our Black Copper Marans using our best cock and hen. We hatched some wonderful offspring from this pairing, which we are using to fill any gaps in our clan mating program and improve that program more quickly.
For example, we used a beautiful rooster from our line breeding program to replace one in our clan mating program, after we discovered the one in our clan mating program carried a recessive gene that we want to remove from our breeding stock. As we continue to use both strategies, I am looking forward to seeing how the results of each program compare over the years.
How to Create a Clan Mating Program for Your Home Flock
Starting your own Clan Mating program is simple and straightforward. After the first year, you’ll be following the exact same pattern year after year. I’ve included visuals below--click here to download and print them for reference, and click here for a sheet to help you keep track of your groups.
Step One: Create Your Initial Clans
In the first year of your Clan Mating program, you will create at least three breeding groups. Assign each group a name--a color, a number, or something fanciful. It can be as simple or as silly as you like--our groups are simply “1, 2, 3”.
You will need a minimum of three cocks and three hens to form your initial groups. How you form your first year groups is up to you. You might choose to group individuals that aren’t closely related, or to make pairings that balance each other (a high tailed rooster with some low tailed hens, for example), or that lock in a desirable trait (the perfect tail angle!). It’s also okay if your initial assignments are completely random.
If you don’t have at least three pairs to start your program, that’s okay. You can begin with just a single breeding pair, hatch enough offspring from that pair to create your three clans, and begin your clan mating program the following year.
Clan Mating, Year One
Once you have your groups sorted, it’s time to breed! Of course, before collecting and hatching any eggs make sure that your groups have been separated for at least three weeks--the length of time sperm from a rooster can remain viable inside of a hen. You want to make sure that all the old sperm is cleared out and you are truly hatching from your intended breedings.
In the first year of clan mating, mate WITHIN THE CLAN. So, if your groups are Clan 1, 2, and 3, as in the example above, you will be mating your Clan 1 cock with Clan 1 hens, your Clan 2 cock with Clan 2 hens, and your Clan 3 cock with Clan 3 hens. This is the only year that you will do this.
An important rule of clan mating: ALWAYS assign chicks to the clan of their mother. This is straightforward in year one, when both mom and dad are in the same clan. When you hatch, you’ll keep track of which group each chick hatched from--we will discuss ways to accomplish this in a bit.
Preparing for Year Two
Okay, so you’ve set up your clan and done your initial year of mating. You have a bunch of beautiful pullets and cockerels from your first year of hatching, and a new breeding season is on the way. All of your chickens have been assigned to the clan of their mother.
From your new chickens, select your best females to remain in their clan. Select the best cock from each group as well. When making selections, compare chickens to others in the same clan, instead of looking at your flock as a whole.
The goal in selective breeding is improvement over time. When selecting cocks for our breeding program, the goal is that any new cock is an improvement over his father. If you don’t see improvement, or for some other reason don’t have a cock that is a suitable replacement for the father, it is okay to use that cock for a second year. It’s also okay to rotate over two cocks, especially if your groups are large and need two roosters for good coverage.
When cocks are retired from the breeding program, they can be processed, kept as emergency back ups, or integrated as protectors into the laying flock. Some of our favorite roosters from our clan mating programs are now helping us to make beautiful Olive Egger crosses in other groups.
Clan Mating, Year Two and Beyond
In the second year of clan mating, the cock you’ve selected from each group will rotate over to the next group. A cock from Clan 1 will mate hens in Clan 2, a cock from Clan 2 will mate hens in Clan 3, and a cock from Clan 3 will mate hens in Clan 1. You will rotate cocks the same way in every future year of clan mating.
Remember, chicks are ALWAYS assigned to the clan of their mother. So, when your cock from Clan 1 mates with hens from Clan 2, ALL offspring from those matings--male AND female--will be assigned to Clan 2. One of those Clan 2 males will, in the following year, mate with hens from Clan 3, and their offspring will be assigned to Clan 3.
After the second year, you will continue to repeat the pattern of Year 2 for all future years of your clan mating program. All chicks hatched will be assigned to the clan of their mother, and cocks will always rotate over in the same direction.
How to Pedigree a Chicken and Track Clan Membership
To maintain this system you don’t need to know the exact parentage of each chicken, but you do need to know which clan they are from. Keeping track of this is easier than you might think and just requires a few simple tools. Let me walk you through how we do this at Silver Fox Farm.
First, we label each egg with its clan name or number as we collect them. A grease pencil is the best tool for this. I enjoy labeling this way all season long, even when not hatching for ourselves. If you’ve purchased hatching eggs from us you’ve seen these little notes--we include a guide to the labels with our hatching eggs so that our customers can know a little bit about the groups and the roosters heading them.
During incubation, we separate the eggs by clan at lockdown, using mesh bags designed specifically for this purpose. The chicks hatch in the bag (yes, I was skeptical at first, too, but they are okay!).
After hatch, I use small colored rubber leg bands to keep track of our chicks' parentage. You can also track each chick using a simple toe punching code (see below), but I've found toe punching to be unpleasant (for me and the chicks). I like the permanence of toe punching, but overall prefer to use leg bands. Chick leg bands are easier on the chicks, last for two weeks, and I can track many groups by using combinations of colors and bands. We reuse the bands hatch after hatch.
Once the chicks are two weeks old, I give them numbered wing bands and enter their clan and wing band number in my records. Wing bands are great because they allow me to track birds individually within the clan, which I use to take notes about type, temperament, health, and more. You can also source numbered leg bands, but you'll need to change the bands out as your birds grow.
While some folks wing band their chicks at hatch and skip toe punching or leg bands, I prefer to use both tools. I personally find it difficult to wing band such a small bird, and wing bands are more likely to fall off at that age.
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We love clan mating for its simplicity, ease of record keeping, and the fact that it allows our chickens to enjoy a full social life all year long.
Do you have any questions about clan mating? What breeding methods do you use for your flock? I’m curious to hear your own experiences, plans, or questions!
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