A Basic Guide to Incubation and Chick Rearing
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 of course is to use a purpose made incubator , and there are a huge number of these available, then keep the chicks in a '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 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 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 using a purpose made Broody Coop /Box then she will be quite happy sitting on her eggs but do make sure they are in a foxproof area or run, in a quiet spot away from other stock but still within sight of the other birds. If removed 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 16" (40cm) square and lined with Chopped Hemp Bedding or Non-dusty clean woodshavings (not hay, it produces harmful moulds), dusted with a louse powder, and have 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 very 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 each day to feed, drink and defecate. 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. Try not to disturb her though from 3 days before the hatch is due, and 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 sat 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 and 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 (pebbles or marbles in a shallow dish work well) next to the nest so that any early chicks can drink. The yolk sac inside their bodies will sustain them for up to 48 hours, but provide chick crumbs in a small feeder anyway. Mother Hen 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 from our website, 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 best results will be obtained with eggs which are between 24 hours old and seven days old and 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 ideal 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 Powder or an approved poultry disinfectant such as Virkon S Disinfectant . The same disinfectant can be used with safety to clean out incubators after a hatch, or a special Hatchery Sanitiser Liquid. This is most important for the success of future hatches. Lack of care at this point to provide a sterile environment can lead to death of the chicken at an early age or as they reach point of lay.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for using the incubator, especially with adding any water to create perfect humidity. Fertile eggs which do not hatch are frequently sticky inside as the incubation period has been too humid. Try and site the incubator in a place which 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 which 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. The latter is better, but not always possible. Most small incubators have a window in so that you do not have to take off the top to see inside.
In order to make 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. Two available from our site are the Chicktec Egg Candling torch and the Brinsea Ova-View Candler. 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 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 embryp has probably died and the border between that and the air sac will be fuzzy. The air sac gradually gets larger as hatching date approaches and sometimes the chick can be seen bobbing away from the candling light.
Rearing - 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 chick crumbs, water and shelter against wind, rain, and sun, preferably with a wired over run to start with so that magpies and crows cannot take the chicks. Chick crumbs need to be in a container or chick feeder which she can neither tip over nor scratch out. Water needs to be in a container that the chicks cannot drown in. Put some mixed corn feed for the hen out of reach of the chicks. She may break the grain into small pieces for them. Leave the hen with the chicks for about four weeks and then take her away, but don't take the chicks away as it will unsettle them or set them back and they need all the encouragement they can get. They can be transferred to a larger house and/or run when they are about eight weeks.
Incubated chicks need an infra-red heat lamp (Brooding Lamp) to keep them warm, preferably one with a ceramic bulb (Dull Emitter) 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 wood shavings on the floor or make a circle using an 8' (2.4m) length of hardboard about 18" (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 so round is best. Plastic Corrugated plastic rolls can be bought inexpensively to make the brooder.
Chick Brooding units are also available to put inside the ring instead of the infra red lamp. These are often far less expensive to run than an infra red lamp. The Brinsea EcoGlow Chick Brooder is a single unit that emits a very low heat and is often called an 'electric hen', it consists of a flat plate on a stand with adjustable height levels so as they grow you raise the plate. As it is a contact brooder the chicks need to be able to touch it with their bodies to get the most heat benefit. The chicks will huddle under it as they would a mother hen.
If using an infra-red lamp , turn it on two days before the chicks are due to hatch. It should be far enough off the shavings so 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. 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.
Rearing - 8 Weeks Onwards
People argue when (and sometimes if at all) chicks should be given perches. We would suggest not until they move into a larger house. As long as the perches are at least 2" (5cm) wide there should not be the problem of bent breastbones from perches which are too narrow, and certainly the lighter breeds like perches. A rearing house needs to be large enough so that all the chicks can shelter in it if the weather is bad, plus space for a feeder and drinker. If an adult house is being used, block off the nest boxes with cardboard, as roosting in a nest box is a habit hard to break later, leading to dirty and often partly incubated eggs.
Young chicks should be kept under observation the whole of their development period. Those with obvious physical defects should be removed. Take precautions (by putting cardboard to round off corners) when moving stock to new houses so that they do not huddle in corners and smother.
When chick feathers start to drop between 10 and 12 weeks, new, sharply pointed and shiny plumage will be noticed on the backs of the males. It is time now to separate the sexes with the cockerels removed to a house of their own.
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 are which.
It is suggested that only good quality feeds are used to produce healthy chicks. Feeding scraps tends to upset their system, which has been proven over many years. Chicks should be offered chick crumbs of 20-22% protein. Some chick crumb 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 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.
Crumbs should be fed ad lib in a purpose made chick feeder or chick trough to avoid waste. There should be enough trough space for most chicks to feed at one time to avoid bullying. At about 6 weeks introduce grower's pellets over the space of a few days. When the birds reach about 16-18 weeks they can be changed, gradually, to a layers' feed of 16% protein. This can be fed either as pellets or mash. The mash can be fed dry (but may be wasteful and also sticks to the beak and as a consequence quickly fouling the water). When mixed as a wet mash it should have enough water added so that when pressed in the hand and then released it should crumble away. Pellets and dry meal can be fed via ad lib hoppers or troughs but wet mash must always be freshly mixed as it quickly goes rancid.
Water and flint grit should be available at all times from hatching onward. Flint grit is needed to assist the gizzard in grinding up the food, especially hard grain. From four weeks before laying commences, oyster shell should be provided to help the formation of egg shells. Light breeds start to lay at about five months and the heavier breeds at about six months.
Large fowl will eat about 4-6oz (110g-170g) per day, bantams need around 2-3oz (50g-85g), according to size. Mixed Corn can be scattered morning and afternoon as a scratch feed to keep the birds active. If they are not free range, green feed is always welcomed by the birds, but hang up vegetables to get the most benefit from them.
I hope you find this guide helpful and if you have any queries you can email us using the link below, Phillip or I will be happy to help if we can.
by Anne Weymouth
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©Flyte so Fancy 2010. Author: Anne Weymouth. Reproduction of part or all of this text is only possible with the express permission of Flyte so Fancy Ltd.