Incubating and Breeding Chicks
There are two methods of hatching chicks - natural or artificial. The natural way allows the mother hen to do all the work and bring up her brood until, like most teenagers, they are ready to (or think they can!) look after themselves.
The artificial way is to use a purpose-made Incubator and there are a huge number of these available. Keep the chicks in a Chick Brooder until they are old enough to not need the artificial heat.
A Brooder is simply a secure enclosure to hold the chicks with a Brooding Heat Lamp, or heat source, above them to replicate the heat from the mother hen.
As a guide, with either method: Hen eggs take 21 days to hatch, duck and turkey eggs 28 days, most goose eggs 28 - 30 days.
Natural Hatching with a Mother Hen
Natural hatching under a broody hen is the ideal way to raise a few chicks. It is, however, dependent on having a broody hen at the right time as the eggs you want to hatch. There are some breeds of hens that are more prone to 'going broody' than others e.g. Silkies and Orpingtons love being broody all summer long.
Your broody hen will hatch eggs you put under her, or that she collects and, when hatched, treat them as her own regardless of breed.
If you are using a purpose-made Broody Hen Coop then she will be quite happy on her own sitting on her eggs. Do make sure they are in a fox-proof area or run, in a quiet place away from other stock but still within sight of the other birds. If removed from sight too completely, the other birds will treat her as a newcomer when you return her to the flock.
The individual broody boxes should be at least 16ins (40cm) square and lined with chopped Hemp Bedding, Aubichick Bedding or Easichick Chicken Bedding (please don't use hay, it produces harmful moulds). Dust with a louse powder, and ensure good ventilation.
Don't be tempted to put two Broody Hens together as they will steal each others' eggs and generally ruin a hatch. The broody hen is best taken to the broody box in the dark to keep her sitting and left for a day or so on just a few unimportant eggs to ensure she is still serious. When she has proved that she is 'sitting tight', put the eggs you want to hatch under her, gently, preferably at night, removing the others.
If you want to sit more than one broody at a time, make sure either that you 'sit' the eggs the same day so they all hatch together, or keep the broodies out of sight and sound of each other as the noise of the cheeping will make the other broody get off her eggs if hers are not cheeping.
The broody hen should be taken off the nest once a day to feed, drink and defecate (if she has not done this herself). Doing this at the same time each day will make a quieter bird as she is a creature of habit and may get restless if her regular time has passed.
However, try not to disturb her from 3 days before the hatch is due, feed and water should be left within her reach but out of the reach of chicks. On these final days, the eggs need to be at a perfect temperature and humidity and she will have ceased turning them each day.
As soon as the hatch is finished, which may take from one to three days, empty shells and unhatched eggs should be removed from the nesting box as well as any muck the hen may have produced.
Try not to disturb her while the hatch is on, tempting though it is to see how many have hatched, as her aggressive protective maternal instinct will make her unsettled and she will probably attack you.
Put a water container that the chicks cannot drown in - a small one-litre drinker with pebbles in the saucer works well - next to the nest so that any early chicks can drink. The yolk sac inside their bodies will sustain them for up to 24 hours, but provide chick crumbs in a small feeder anyway. The mother will show them where to take food and water.
This is the use of an Incubator to hatch eggs. Small Incubators are in regular use with many poultry keepers, the advantage being that incubation conditions are instantly available at the flick of a switch. It saves extra space or pens for broodies and takes little electricity to run.
We can recommend the Brinsea Incubator range, they are a British made high-quality incubator and start with the small Mini Eco for just 7-10 eggs.
Technical improvements have greatly improved efficiency, but the best results will be obtained with eggs between 24 hours old and seven days old which have been stored in a cool (10°C or 50°F) place and turned daily. Any dirt on the eggs should be taken off, the idea being to have clean eggs in the first place.
When washing the eggs use water that is just warmer than the egg, so the membrane under the shell expands keeping bacteria out (cold water makes it shrink, drawing bacteria in) and use a purpose-made Egg Wash Liquid or an approved poultry disinfectant such as Virkon S Disinfectant.
The same sanitisers, or Net-tex Egg Wash & Sanitiser, can be used to clean out incubators after a hatch. This is most important for the success of future hatches. Lack of care at this point, to provide a sterile environment, can lead to the death of the chicken at an early age or as they reach the point of lay.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for using the Incubator, especially when adding any water to create perfect humidity. Fertile eggs which do not hatch are frequently sticky inside if the incubation period has been too humid. Try and keep the incubator in a place that does not vary much in average temperature.
During the incubation process, the eggs must be turned in order for the embryo to develop normally (the hen does this naturally). If turning by hand do so at least twice a day, mark one side of the egg with a cross so you can see whether you have turned them each time.
When turning the eggs make sure you roll them through 180 degrees one way (not end over end) and then next time turn them back again. This is so that the chalazae (strings that hold the yolk stable) do not wind up, potentially damaging the embryo. If the incubator is an automatic turning one, turn off the mechanism 2 days before they are due to hatch, or stop turning them by hand at this time.
A little warm water can be gently misted over the eggs when they start to pip (the diamond-shaped start of the shell breaking) to keep the membrane moist.
The chick pecks its way out of the broad end of the egg by means of the egg tooth which is on the end of its top beak. The egg tooth falls off soon after hatching. Chicks may take two days to hatch or they may all hatch at once. Most small incubators have a window so that you do not have to take off the top to see inside.
In order to make the best use of incubator space (and broody hens for that matter), the eggs can be candled after seven days' incubation. This involves holding a bright torch, or Candler, to the broad end of each egg in a darkened room.
Brinsea Products sell an excellent Candling Lamp. If the egg is infertile you will be able to see just the shadow of the yoke. Rotate the egg slightly to make this move within it. If fertile, a spider shape of blood vessels will be seen on one side with the heart beating in the middle. If there is a ring of blood vessels with none in the centre, then the embryo has died.
If you candle the eggs at fourteen days, and the embryo is growing as it should, the air sac should be quite distinct and sharp from the darker remainder of the egg. If only a small dark area can be seen the embryo has probably died and the border between that and the air sac will be fuzzy.
The air sac gradually gets larger as the hatching date approaches and sometimes the chick can be seen bobbing away from the candling light. Try not to use the light too often as it will disturb the chick.
Rearing Chicks - Day Old to 6-8 Weeks
With modern equipment rearing chickens is a relatively easy process for the small poultry keeper. If you have a broody hen to do it for you, then all you will need to do is to provide her with a baby chick crumb, water and shelter against wind, rain, and sun, preferably with a wired run so that magpies and crows cannot take the chicks.
Baby Chick Feeds need to be in a small chick feeder which they can't tip over or scratch the feed out. Water needs to be in a container that the chicks cannot drown in (chicks can drown in a centimetre of water).
Give a small amount of mixed corn for the hen, out of reach of the chicks. She may break the grain into small pieces for them but the chicks may choke if given whole. Alternatively, give an all-round Garvo Chick Feed to suit both chicks and mum.
Leave the hen with the chicks for about six weeks and then take her away, but don't take the chicks away from their home, or each other, as it will unsettle them. They can be transferred to a larger house and/or run when they are about eight weeks old.
Incubated chicks need a Brooder with an Infra-red Heat Lamp and Infra-red Bulb to keep them warm, or preferably one with a Ceramic bulb (Dull Heat Emitter) - this needs a Brooding Lamp with a GRP fitting - so that they have heat and not light. This avoids feather pecking as they have natural light and darkness. Some of the lighter or more nervous breeds certainly do better with some hours of darkness.
Site the heat lamp in a draught-free place with a generous covering of absorbent bedding on the floor or make a circle using an 8ft (2.4m) length of hardboard about 18ins (45cm) high around it.
We would suggest only a round brooding ring rather than a box (personal experience). The chicks could easily get trapped or squashed in the corner of a box and get cold - round brooders are best. A Plastic Corrugated Roll can be bought inexpensively to make the brooder.
Chick Brooding units are also available to put inside the ring instead of an infrared lamp. These are often far less expensive to run than infrared lamps. The Brinsea EcoGlow Chick Brooder (from Binsea Products Ltd) is a single unit that emits very low heat and is often called an 'electric hen'. It consists of a flat plate on a stand with adjustable height levels so that as they grow you raise the plate. The chicks will huddle under it as they would a mother hen.
Transfer the chicks from the incubator when they have dried and fluffed up. Dip their beaks in the water so they know where to go to get a drink, again in a drown-proof drinker, and place them under the lamp or electric hen.
When using an infrared lamp, turn it on two days before the chicks are due to hatch. It should be far enough off the bedding that the temperature under it is about 39 degrees centigrade.
If the chicks are too hot they will scatter to the edges, panting. If they are too cold they will huddle in the middle, cheeping loudly. The ideal is to have a small empty circle just under the lamp with the chicks moving freely in and out of the heat.
Rearing Chicks - 8 weeks Onwards
People argue when (and sometimes if) chicks should be given perches. We would suggest not until they move into a larger house i.e. over 8 weeks old.
This does depend on breed, however. Large Breeds may not take to them until much later and after laying has begun. As long as the perches are at least 2ins (5cm) wide there should not be the problem of bent breastbones from perches that are too narrow, and certainly the lighter breeds like perches (Note: Round rods/sticks for perches are not advised).
Don't force the chicks to sleep on the perches, just make sure they are there if they want them. However, for most standard breeds, they should be encouraged to perch from 16 weeks onwards if not already doing so by instinct.
A rearing house needs to be large enough so that all the chicks can shelter in it if the weather is bad, and allow space for a feeder and drinker. If an adult hen house is being used, block off the nest boxes with cardboard (if it is feasible to do so), as roosting in a nest box is a habit that is hard to break later, leading to dirty eggs.
Young chicks should be kept under observation for the whole of their development period. Those with obvious physical defects should be removed at a very early stage.
Take precautions (by putting cardboard to round off corners) when moving stock to new houses so that they do not huddle in corners and get smothered.
Sexing Young Chicks
When chick fluffiness starts to change between 10 and 12 weeks, new, sharply pointed and shiny plumage will be noticed on the backs of the males.
Often you can tell which will be cockerels by their upright stance and attitude.
It is now time to consider separating the sexes and removing the cockerels to a house of their own (or to consider what you wish to do with them).
Breeds vary, but it is also possible to distinguish the sexes by their heads, the cockerels being redder and their heads bigger and bolder than those of the pullets. Again, the legs and feet of males are larger.
The plumage method is the most accurate as birds develop at different rates, except for Silkies, where a wait of at least 14 weeks will be necessary in order to determine from comb development which is which.
Feeding Baby Chicks
Take it as read, that only good quality, proper poultry feeds are used to produce healthy chicks.
Feeding scraps tend to upset their system, which has been proven over many years.
Chicks should be offered chick crumbs of 20-22% protein. Some brands of chick crumbs will contain a coccidiostat. This chemical helps to control coccidiosis and build up immunity to the parasite.
There is some disagreement about the use of coccidiostat in chick crumb and we personally do not use this kind of feed as we prefer a 'drug-free' upbringing. It is a matter of personal choice though.
Chick Crumbs should be fed ad-lib in a purpose-made Chick Feeder to avoid waste. There should be enough space for most chicks to feed at one time to avoid bullying. A Chick Feeder Trough is often a good idea for larger numbers of chicks.
By 8 weeks introduce Growers Pellets over the space of a week. When the birds reach about 16-18 weeks they can be changed, gradually, to Poultry Layers Feeds of 14%-16% protein. This can be fed either as pellets or mash. We recommend pellets are the cleanest way to feed.
Water and Chick Grit should be available at all times from hatching onward. Fresh clean drinking water should always be in a small drinker, preferably with just a shallow narrow saucer so that the chicks can't drown. Chicks drink very frequently and can quickly dehydrate if they run out of water.
Flint grit is needed to assist the gizzard in grinding up the food, especially hard grain. From approx. four weeks before laying commences, Oyster Shell should be provided for calcium and to help the formation of eggshells. Light breeds start to lay at about five months and heavier breeds at about six months.
Large adult fowl will eat about 4-6oz (110g-170g) of pelleted feed per day, bantams need around 2-3oz (50g-85g), according to size.
Mixed Poultry Corn can be scattered morning and afternoon as a scratch feed to keep the birds active. If they are not free-range, small amounts of green feed are always welcomed by the birds. Hang up vegetable leaves to get the most benefit from them.
We hope you find this guide helpful and if you have any queries you can send us a message here firstname.lastname@example.org, we will be happy to help if we can.
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A Guide to Incubation & Chick Rearing ©Flyte so Fancy 2012. Updated 2022. Author: Anne Weymouth (Director, Flyte so Fancy Ltd). Reproduction of part or all of this text is only possible with the express permission of Flyte so Fancy Ltd.