HomeNewsletter → A Call to Arms: Chicken Pedigree Registries
A Call to Arms: Chicken Pedigree Registries
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Let me ask a simple question: Why don't rare chickens have a registered pedigree?
Breed registries are a critical tool in promoting and preserving any type of rare or valuable animal.  If you want to buy a purebred puppy for a common breed you’re likely to end up with a dog registered by the American Kennel Club.  The AKC registers more than a million puppies each year.  Livestock registries are also common, and they serve the purpose of ensuring that individual animals are genetically similar and that the animals reflect the breed standard.  Registries also provide useful ancestral information that can be used to trace genetic defects and avoid inbreeding problems.  Zoos have also championed the use of registries for endangered species much for the same reasons as domesticated animals.
A few years ago we began breeding red wattle hogs at Greenfire Farms.  They’re a wonderful swine breed and arguably produce the best-tasting pork in the world.  The problem with red wattles was their sheer scarcity:  A few hundred red wattles remained on the planet, and breeding stock was difficult to find and often inbred.  The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy had created a red wattle registry, but all registrations and pedigree information had to be handled through snail mail; a process that was slow and cumbersome.
So, we wrestled with the idea of how we could elevate the well-being of red wattles. We finally hit upon the idea of creating an online registry database that would give red wattle enthusiasts instant access to family trees, photos of individual animals, breeders’ names, and allow users to calculate the inbreeding coefficient of piglets that would be produced from a hypothetical mating so that red wattle farmers could make better informed decisions when selecting their breeding stock.  Greenfire Farms was able to find Doug Meyer, a software genius, to write the program, and the ALBC was kind enough to donate all the data from its registry.  Then, working with the Red Wattle Hog Association, we opened the database to the public and waited to see what would happen.  You can see it here.
The result was nothing short of amazing.  The initial trickle of data became a flood, and today more than 1,500 red wattle pedigrees can be found online.  In a few minutes you can fully explore the ancestry of any given hog, and you can determine its inbreeding coefficient.  The availability of this information changed the entire discussion in the red wattle community, and now sophisticated and informed breeding decisions are made as a result.
Let’s turn for a moment to chickens.  Traditionally, chickens in America have not had a registered pedigree.  Some cockfighters kept meticulous ancestral records, but as a general rule in the United States the pedigrees of most chickens, even prize-winning show birds, have gone undocumented.  This probably stems from a number of reasons.  A single hen can produce a large number of chicks; maybe as many as 200 a year for some breeds.  Roosters are usually grouped with multiple hens in a breeding flock.  Sometimes there are even multiple roosters.  This group breeding approach makes it impossible to precisely identify the parents that produced an individual egg.  And, recordkeeping with old technology was a time-consuming a tedious affair that required organizing a large volume of records for animals that individually were not seen as particularly valuable.
Today, the reasons to ignore a chicken registry have all but disappeared.  With online computerized databases it is easy to assemble, manipulate, and distribute large amounts of data.  Some breeds of chickens are now extraordinarily valuable.  For example, a pair of Greenfire Farm’s white American Bresse sells for more than a pair of our red wattle pigs.  With microchip identification or even just an improved numbered leg band it is now easier to identify and track individual chickens.  And, since many chicken breeds are now being newly imported for the first time, it is possible to begin recording the pedigree of an entire breed literally from the time the first chick is hatched in the United States.  So, why not create an online registry in the United States for rare chicken breeds?
We can’t think of a reason why not.  This is now being done in other countries.  For example, Sweden has a gene bank of its rare native chicken breeds that contains a registry by flock.  There are strict rules for being in the gene bank including that all registered chicks have to be hatched and brooded by their mothers, not by mechanical equipment.  It’s an intriguing approach that promotes truly self-sustaining breeds.
In America, creating and maintaining a registry could actually give breed clubs something valuable to do.  Let's do the thought experiment that someone takes the initiative to form the American Cream Legbar Club.  The ACLC selects board members, and a written breed standard is adopted.  For a period of three years the board leaves open the registry; it reviews applications from anyone who submits a cream legbar to be included in the registry.  Each submittal would require several pictures of the bird, and the board could determine if the bird came close enough to the written standard to merit inclusion in the registry.  Every bird included in the registry would be given a registration number and have a data file including its pictures.  After three years, the registry would be closed to entering unregistered birds (except in unusual circumstances like a newly imported cream legbar), and in the future only chicks that were the descendants of registered birds could themselves be registered.  Cream legbar hobbyists could register their birds online for a small fee (say, $3), and could access genealogical data about their birds.  Over a period of years an enormous database would grow with the valuable result of promoting pure lineage and avoiding inbreeding.
At Greenfire Farms, we are taking a small step toward creating an online pedigree database for our breeding birds.  This experimental online record will be limited in scope.  We’ll record data for our breeding birds, and hopefully one day soon you can go to our website and click on the “Explore Pedigrees” button.  This will take you to a database that will allow you to see pictures and detailed information about our breeding birds and reveal a family tree of the chick you received from our farm.  The creation of the database and populating it with information will take time, but we hope that by the end of 2012 this online database will be operational.
How cool is that?  Perhaps this experimental database can be the seed crystal that inspires others to begin open registries for rare chicken breeds.  We see this as potentially the single best thing we can do to elevate the chicken fancy in America, and if you’re willing to promote the concept of registry databases, you can be an important part of it.
If you're interested in contacting Doug about designing a livestock database you can go here.