The use of Genetics in Breeding Champions

THE DONT'S OF GENETICS-BASED BREEDING:

1. Do not continue pairing father and daughter and brother and sister for too many generations. Heterosis (vigour) may be the result of inbreeding for a while, but the chances of weakening catching up with you is always there, and, the longer you practice inbreeding, the better the chances of catastrophe striking becomes.

2. Do not risk everything on a single pigeon, no matter how great a champion he may be. Nature places a lot of emphasis on survival. One of the chief mechanisms Nature uses to insure survival of a population is diversity. The more diverse and variable a population is, the more able it will be to respond to changes in the environment. This, of course, also applies to inbreeding as discussed under point 1.

3. Do not be unrealistically optimistic. There are so many variables and we know so little about genetics that the best we can do is to increase the probability of making progress. Set realistic objectives for yourself and your pigeons. Measure your success in terms of the number and quality places your pigeons take per racing season. You will be surprised at how rapidly you improve your position in the club and federation/union if you increase the number and quality places your pigeons fly by only 5% to 10% per year.

4. Do not listen to so-called experts too much. Experienced fanciers mostly have honourable motives when they give others advice, but unfortunately they don't know what you know, what your objectives are and what strategy you follow to achieve your objectives. Furthermore, like genetics, pigeon medication and racing systems improve all the time, and the old hands often do not keep track of such developments. If you feel that you should consult someone, be sure to pick one experienced fancier whom you trust and whose pigeons perform at least as well as you would like yours to perform.

5. Do not collect pigeons from everywhere and from anybody who offers you pigeons. Be especially wary of pigeons with no accurate pedigrees, and about which you have no confirmed information. You can try the odd one in racing to measure the products of your breeding strategy against, but don't add any pigeon to the breeding loft unless you have very good reason why you believe that that particular pigeon will add value to your gene pool.

6. Do not be impatient. Don't change your strategy if you don't achieve short-term success. If you are patient, you will notice progress, starting with the quality of your breeders, after which racers will follow. It might be necessary to forego short-term success, for example, if you need to withdraw selected pigeons from racing in order to strengthen the breeding stock. This will probably take at least three years, but, once your genetics-based strategy starts working, your pigeons will race well much more consistently than if you were to seek short-term success.

7. Do not eliminate pigeons without have a clear and definite reason for doing so. Once one of our club members, whose pigeons "always" race well, also got his turn to be "off the board". He was so angry and disappointed that he culled all ten his entries for the race. Clearly his objective was to punish his pigeons, or to take revenge. The point is – top racers do not always have the ability to pass their good genes on their offspring, whereas poor racers sometimes do. This can only be determined by racing and breeding. Study a pigeon's pedigree first before eliminating him – pigeons with the "right" pedigree should be tested as breeders first.

8. Do not breed with pigeons that clearly carry unwanted genes. Two friends and I once imported a rather expensive hen from a well-known Belgian fancier, We took turns breeding from the hen. In three years she produced not really top class racers for any of us. All three of us put our first rounds of chicks from her in our breeding lofts. They did not produce anything of significance either. We kept trying for three years, because the hen was expensive and had a wonderful pedigree packed with champions. Two of us subsequently gave up on her, but the third member of the partnership is still trying – five years later.

9. Do not apply inaccurate selection criteria. We all know pigeon fanciers who swear by a certain eye colour, wing shape, feather colour and many more "indicators" of quality. It is probably true that there is merit behind many of these beliefs, especially if one does not focus on one or two criteria only (some fanciers select their pigeon based on eye sign only, which I believe is a mistake). Seeing that we do not have the facilities or know-how to do laboratory tests on the genetic makeup of our pigeons, the racing basket remains the most important judge of quality.

10. Do not breed based on racing performance only. This might sound like a contradictory statement. A good yardstick of racing performance is the basket, but the basket tells you very little about the breeding potential of a pigeon. As we have already said, it is not always the best that breeds the best! Champion racers do not always have the ability to pass their excellence on to the next generation. This is where the pigeon's pedigree plays an important role. It might be worth your while to test pigeons with the "right" pedigree in breeding, even if they don't perform well in racing. If the parents and most of the brothers and sisters of non-performer races well, chances are that the non-performer might be the one to pass the good genes on to his or her progeny.

11. Do not place too much emphasis on "ancient" ancestors. A common mistake made by fanciers is to place too much emphasis on ancestors that are too far back in the pedigree to have a significant impact on the most recent offspring. For example, pigeon fanciers often boast about the magnificent performances of his "Janssen" or "Delbar" or whatever, but if you study the pigeon's pedigree you find, perhaps, one Janssen or Delbar three or more generations back. Even more serious – fanciers often sell pigeons as descendants of this and that international or national champion, but if you look at the pedigree, you find that this pigeon features many generations back. If you were to calculate the genetic contribution of this pigeon to the present-day offspring you will find that it is insignificantly small. Look at the following example:

12. Do not try to select for too many traits at the same time. Considerable progress can usually be made if selection is applied only to one trait. Each additional trait that is considered reduces the amount of selection pressure that can be placed on each individual trait. If four traits are selected for, the selection intensity possible for each individual trait is reduced to one-half of what it would have been had it been the only trait selected. No traits, however, that significantly effect the value of your pigeons should be ignored in the selection process.

When reading these articles, you must have asked yourself the following question numerous times: "How do the writer's pigeons perform?" Steven van Breemen was asked the same question when he published his ideas on breeding and genetics. His reply was: "Give me five years, and I will show you the results." Less than five years later he bred the Goede Jaarling (NL-82-448368), a pigeon that won the Chateauroux race (National) against 8,139 pigeons. Not only was Goede Jaarling a magnificent racer, but he also bred numerous winners against thousands of pigeons over nine generations.

Now, I am most definitely not Steven van Breemen, and it would be really audacious of me to compare myself to him. I have completed my research in February 2005 to the extent that I feel confident to apply the system to the full. Furthermore, the more I read about genetics, the more do I realize that I actually know very little, and often contemplated giving up. Still, I am following the system described in these articles now and can already see the results, especially in the quality of my breeders. I will, furthermore, continue studying genetics in the hope of gaining more understanding. Once I feel that my pigeons are ready I will stick my neck out really far to demonstrate the results.

By Dr Jaap Nel

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