Clockwise from below: Felix the rooster with his ladies; egg candling; chick hatching in incubator; new chicks. Photos by Fleur Baker
Watching a chick hatch from an egg is an amazing process, and to be a part of raising your own flock of chickens is an exciting and rewarding experience.
There are many reasons why you might want to breed your own chickens: just for fun; to replace your laying flock; to produce roosters for harvest to the freezer; to make money; to protect and show rare breeds; or just small-scale backyard production.
To raise chicks to adulthood successfully you need some good basic knowledge and skills, and a safe place for your hen to sit and for chicks to be raised. Despite all your best efforts, things may still go wrong sometimes and the chicks won’t make it.
There are two main ways to hatch chicks.
You can use an artificial incubator, which provides steady warmth (about 37.5°C) and humidity, and a space for the chicks to hatch. A fully-automatic incubator turns the eggs at regular intervals; otherwise you’ll have to turn them manually, 180 degrees, twice a day.
If you’re planning to buy an incubator, choose the best model you can afford: you get what you pay for. A good incubator is not cheap, so be prepared to spend a minimum of a few hundred dollars. If this is a once-off school holiday activity you may be able to hire a small incubator from the breeder, rather than spending big dollars up front.
Alternatively, you can place fertile eggs under a ‘broody’ hen. She’ll keep the eggs warm, provide humidity and egg turning instinctively, and usually hatch and raise chicks with very little intervention from you. You can tell when a hen is broody: she will sit tight on the nest, behaving in an unusually grumpy manner, and swear at you in her best chook language.
Most pure-bred hens will go broody a couple of times during the laying season (spring to summer). Modern commercial laying hens, such as ISA Browns, rarely go broody; while some breeds such as Silkies seem to go broody every couple of weeks, and make excellent mother hens.
Sourcing Fertile Eggs
If you’re running a rooster with your hens, and they are all healthy and active, chances are your eggs are fertile. Consider what breed(s) will be in the mix: are they purebred, or will you be producing an odd mix of several breeds? Temperament and health of the parents are important too. Collect and store eggs at cool room temperature (not in the fridge), pointy side down; they can remain viable for two to four weeks before setting.
Alternatively, you can contact a breeder willing to sell you fertile eggs, preferably one not too far away, and choose the breed you would like. Transporting eggs can be risky, and many factors affect the fertility of eggs, so make sure you can go back to the seller for advice. Most breeders are happy to guarantee around seventy-five per cent fertility, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will achieve that rate of hatching. To research the many different breeds available visit www.backyardpoultry.com and find a breeder.
If using purchased fertile eggs, let them settle for twenty-four hours, especially if they have travelled in the post. When you have enough eggs (see below), set them under your hen or in the incubator (according to instructions) all at the same time, so that they also hatch at the same time.
Caring For The Mother Hen
If hatching under a broody hen, there are a few important jobs to do, so that she stays healthy while sitting. Give her a good dusting with Pestene (sulphur and rotenone) powder to prevent lice and mites. This is a non organic treatement. There are a range of natural alternatives if you research online but be aware that they will not be as effective or as quick to act. Hens are more prone to mites while sitting, as these thrive in the warm nest she has made. Dust the rest of the flock too, if they haven’t been treated in the last month. Although the broody hen will get o§ the nest for a quick bite to eat and drink, she will not look after herself as usual. In hot weather, make sure she has fresh water close by, and offer her extra treats to maintain her body condition.
Choosing A Location For A Hen To Sit
Chances are a hen will go broody in a nesting box still in use by other hens. Decide if you need to move her into her own coop. If so, move her in the dark, leaving her to settle before setting the fertile eggs under her. Sometimes disturbing the hen is enough to ‘break’ her broody behaviour, depending on the breed and how long she has been broody. If you decide to leave her where she is, mark the fertile eggs with a felt pen, so that you can easily see and remove any fresh eggs she pulls into the nest.
When deciding how many eggs to set, perhaps the most important question is what to do with the roosters. Don’t assume you’ll be able to give them away, send them to live on a farm, or just dump them to ‘go free.’ If you hatch them you are responsible for them.
Then, consider how many hens you want to add to your flock. Take that number, double it to allow for roosters, then add a couple of spares in case some don’t hatch. And finally, consider the size of your hen. A bigger hen can keep more eggs warm, but a smaller smooth feathered breed won’t be able to spread herself so far. If your hen is a first-time mother, don’t overload her with eggs, as she may not cope with too many chicks. Six to eight eggs is probably enough for most hens.
It takes twenty-one days for chicken eggs to hatch, twenty- eight days for most duck breeds, and up to thirty-five days for Muscovy ducks and geese. While you’re waiting impatiently, borrow a good chook book from the library, research reputable poultry information online and talk to experienced breeders. Start to put together the supplies you’ll need after hatching. Read up on chick vaccinations; you can administer them yourself, but they need to be done as soon as possible after hatching to be effective, and can be difficult and expensive to source. Keep an eye on the incubator; some models are more reliable than others. Keep an eye on your hen to make sure she stays sitting on the nest and is in a healthy condition. Prepare a backup plan, in case the power goes out for longer than a couple of hours.
Checking Egg Quality
After about seven to ten days of incubation you can check the eggs by candling them. Practise on non-fertile eggs first. Buy a small, bright LED torch. Wait until evening, and carefully remove the eggs from the incubator or nest. Then, in the dark, shine the light through the rounded end of the egg: it will look clear, with the shape of the yolk showing. If the shell is dark it will be more difficult to see. When you candle a fertile egg you will see a network of veins spreading out from a central dot – this is a good sign that the egg is fertile. Mark the fertile eggs and, if you are confident, throw out any eggs that are not fertile. Return the fertile eggs to the nest or incubator. You can candle again at about fourteen to seventeen days incubation.
Clockwise above left: Hen and chicks; chicks under heat lamp; Charli in incubator. Photos by Fleur Baker
Setting Up A Brooder Box
Chicks require supplementary heat for up to six weeks after hatching. If raised by a hen, she will care for them and provide warmth and shelter (some breeds make more attentive mums than others). Otherwise you’ll need to set up a brooder box to house the chicks. If you are hatching only a small number of chicks a cardboard box can be used, lined with newspaper and wood shavings. An old-fashioned desk lamp, with a bendy neck, can be positioned over the box to provide heat. You will need to use a sixty watt halogen light bulb, as LEDs and compact fluorescents don’t produce heat. The chicks will need water – use a very shallow water dish (no more than one centimetre deep), with small pebbles or marbles so that they can’t fall in. They’ll also need a shallow feed dish. You can buy chick-sized feed and water dispensers, but you can probably find something suitable in your kitchen cupboard.
You’ll need to provide the proper food for chicks. A commercial ‘chick starter’ has the right levels of nutrients for fast-growing chicks. If your chicks are being raised by a hen, provide a mix of chick starter with her layer ration: she will teach the chicks to peck at the small starter crumble, and take the larger size pellets or grains herself. Make sure there are no water containers the chicks can fall into; hang any adult water dispensers above chick height, and provide a shallow water container for the chicks (see above).
Chick starter also contains a medication called a coccidiostat (not an antibiotic) to prevent coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a protozoan that infests the intestines of all poultry, other birds and many other species. The immature systems of young chicks can become overwhelmed by the organism, resulting in poor health, failure to thrive and death. Keeping the brooder box clean and dry helps to prevent a build-up of coccidiosis. Additional medication can be added to the water if needed. As chicks mature they develop resistance to coccidiosis – by the time they are at laying age they no longer require medicated feed, and can be switched to an adult layer diet.
Looking After Young Chicks
Chicks need fresh water morning and evening, and a regular clean-out of the brooder box. One advantage of a cardboard box is that you can upgrade to a clean larger box after two to three weeks, and dispose of the old box (preferably in the compost). By around five to six weeks old the chicks can go outside in the coop during the day in fine weather, then back inside overnight, to acclimatise gradually.
Supervise your chicks if free-ranging on grass. Young chicks are susceptible to predators such as cats, ravens kookaburras and magpies, and it takes them some time to learn to hide under the shrubbery if threatened. A mother hen will do her best to protect the chicks, but it is not unusual for a chick to go missing if it is free-ranging outside of a secure pen.
By around eight weeks old they should be living outside in the coop, with limited free-ranging. Unless being raised by a mother hen, house them separately from older hens, as they will get picked on and also need time to develop a mature immune system. By now you’ll also have a good idea about how many roosters you’ve raised. Decide now what you’re going to do with them, and resist naming any destined for the freezer. The chicks are then ready to move onto the next range of feed, called ‘pullet grower’, along with a small amount of treats, and fresh fruit and vegie scraps.
By sixteen to twenty weeks old your chicks are no longer cute little fluff-balls, but approaching their adult size and laying age. Move them on to adult layer-pellets or grains, and integrate them with any older hens (be prepared for some argy-bargy). Keep them in a clean, predator-proof environment, with good nutrition and basic health care, and they should provide you with years of enjoyment and productivity.
Fleur Baker runs Book a Chook where she provides chickens for rent and sale to households all over Melbourne. http://www.bookachook.com. She also runs her permaculture design and education business Santosha Permaculture.