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Line breeding involves breeding a strain back to itself to promote and perpetuate the good qualities that the line possesses and not bring in unknown lines which may have a detrimental affect on the line. In my opinion it is something that should be undertaken only with a knowledge of what will be required and the risks involved. I believe that line breeding can be a valuable breeding tool if practiced with care. I don't think it is something beginners should try without research and I think the literature about it is scant and contradictory.
As far as I understand it, the basis is to purchase (or breed) a "perfect" or nearly perfect bird. Then you use that bird and some others as the basis for the foundation of your line. Some sources suggest that a superior male is better since it can be bred to a number of females and will produce results quicker than a female that needs to be bred to a number of different males. Then you will breed that fantastic male to some very good females (different sources give different numbers). The resulting offspring will have 50% of the superior male's genetic makeup or "blood".
Then you would breed that male back to the best daughters from those matings. It doesn't matter if they are from one female or different females. Now your offspring will have 75% of their "blood" or genetic makeup coming from that fantastic male. After this point it won't matter what you breed to what as long as you keep breeding so that all the offspring contain 75% or more of the genetic makeup of the best male. Some authors talk about some different combinations that would yield different percentages but it is never clear to me how one would figure out which were 25%, 50% and 75% made up of the genetics of the desired male.
Basically then the line would be complete since the genetic material from that superior male would now be relatively safe since a number of birds now have it (lets pretend illness would never wipe out an entire flock). Personally, I wouldn't breed full brothers and sisters but some individuals don't seem to think it would be a problem once the line was established with the genetic makeup at 75% of the original bird. Some authors go so far as to say that at that point you could go on your merry way breeding anything to any other bird.
If you find your line needs strengthening in a particular area, you may need to do an out cross to get it. You'd find another excellent bird that has the trait you want that yours lack. Basically you'll cross it into one or two birds in your line and then breed that bird back to the best offspring the following year until you get the trait you want and eliminate any negative traits in the new line. You wouldn't bring that new "blood" into your line until you were certain you had eliminated all the bad traits that it might bring in.
One thing that all line breeding proponents seem to agree on is that it requires extensive records. A few authors seem to think those records should be about production, vigor, fertility, egg development, chick growth, etc. in addition to parentage. Most other things I have read or heard seem to indicate that the records would be of parentage and relationship only. I believe one ought to include production (laying, fertility, hatchability) and vigor as primary selection criteria in a line breeding system. I think this is where it is easy for breeders of exhibition birds get in trouble.
It is easy to focus too much on type and let production slip. As a result, many exhibition birds are notoriously poor producers. Health, vigor and reproduction are VITAL if the line is to survive. I'm not saying that type isn't important. I am saying that if you want the line to continue, then you need to include reproduction and vigor as primary selection criteria.
Another thing all people who line breed seem to agree upon is that you will need to do EXTENSIVE culling to get rid of any unwanted traits in your line. This is one reason I don't think line breeding is good for beginners. You need to have some experience first at hatching, rearing and evaluating your birds before you are ready to do what this requires. You need to know what is normal and desirable before you can eliminate what is not desirable.
It can be difficult to get good stock to immediately start a line breeding program. Starting with a superior male and some very good females is great if you can get them. Some breeders keep careful records and you can safely purchase stock from them one year and be certain that they are not brother/sister. Other breeders don't keep track of which parents the offspring have come from. It would be difficult to purchase stock from such a breeder to start your line breeding program. If you want to start with superior birds, you still have the challenge of finding someone willing to sell them to you. You also need to consider whether or not you will found your own strain or try to perpetuate one started by someone else. If founding your own strain you'll want birds from different sources, combine until you get what you want, then close the gene pool.
The above plan will only work if the line produces itself. It doesn't take much looking to find examples of birds that produced better than themselves or produced exceptional birds, even though they themselves may not have looked all that exciting. It also doesn't take a lot of work to find examples where a beautiful bird produced something that didn't look at all like it. The whole point of line breeding is to try to produce birds that look very much alike since they all have very similar genetic makeup but it can and does happen that some birds don't breed true.
Another hazard of line breeding is that you may have to start over again and quite possibly more than once. If your starting stock has some major genetic flaws, they will show up pretty quickly in a line breeding program and you'll have to start again. The careful records may help you locate the source of the problem and eliminate it but you'll likely need to bring in new birds to fill in gaps and start the process again.
I do believe that line breeding is a valuable breeding tool but it shouldn't be entered into lightly. The breeder needs to recognize the hazards as well as the value and be willing to cull extensively to get where they want to be. Hopefully this information will help the breeder think through some of the issues surrounding this practice.
Following are some articles on the web that may help or may just cause confusion.
Profitable Poultry Production
The following article is written for pigeons but is excellent for many purposes. Squabbing Pigeon Breeders Handbook
Another in-depth article on breeding is Principles of Selective Inbreeding
The following article has a very good outline of a number of breeding techniques: Mating Strategies
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