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Hatching and Raising Chicks

If you decide to have a go at hatching your own chickens, please take into consideration there will be a chance that one, some or all of the chicks will be cockerels. Cockerels are very difficult to re-home due to the noise issues with early morning crowing. Pure bred cockerels may be easier to re-home for breeding, compared to cross breeds. If you cant keep the cockerels yourself, and re-homing them becomes impossible, you have to be responsible and be prepared to dispatch the birds yourself, humanly. That taken into account if you still want to go ahead and raise your own chicks please read on.

 

Using a broody hen

Hatching chickens takes around 21 days. The easiest and most natural way to hatch chicks is under a broody hen. This way the hen will incubate the eggs by sitting on them, then when they hatch, she will keep them warm until they are fully feathered. The best way to encourage a hen to go broody is by letting eggs build up in the nest box, you could also put dummy eggs in to encourage her to sit. Once you know the broody is sitting tight place six or a dozen eggs under her – depending on her size. Place her somewhere quiet and away from other birds. The rest of the work will be done by the broody & with luck, you should see little fluffy chicks in 3 weeks time.

Hatching using an incubator
Incubators come in all sizes, from ones that will take seven hen eggs upwards. Cheaper incubators are usually manual, this means you have to turn the eggs by hand 2 or 3 times a day until day 18. Another option is a semi-automatic incubator which has an external lever that allows you to turn the eggs without opening the incubator. The best and easiest option (also the most expensive) is an automatic incubator, this will turn the eggs for you (although you will need to switch the turner off at day 18).

Before setting your eggs in the incubator let them rest point down at room temperature for about 24 hours.  Set your incubator up at least 24 hours before you put the eggs in, this allows you to get the temperature correct. Every incubator differs slightly so you will need to read the instructions

An egg being candled

carefully. If you are turning manually, its a good idea to mark a cross on one side of each egg and a circle on the other, in pencil. You will then be able to see clearly to turn the eggs.After 9 days you can candle the eggs with a torch and discard any “clear” eggs or  ones that have formed wrongly. Some eggs, particularly dark-coloured ones, from Marans or Welsummer’s are difficult to candle so you may decide to leave them in and wait and see.

To candle your eggs, simply  hold a small but powerful torch to the ‘fat’ end of the egg, so all the light is focussed inside. You should then be able to see how the egg has developed.

 

 

 

Hatching

An egg that has pipped

Around day 18 onwards you might see the eggs rocking from side to side, you may also be able to hear cheeping or tapping from inside the eggs. This all all good signs that that “pipping” is starting. Pipping is when the chick pecks through the internal membrane, then through the external shell. This can take around 48 hours. It is vitally important that during this stage you DO NOT open the incubator and disturb the humidity of the incubator which can effect hatch rates.Once hatched you can leave the chicks in the incubator for upto 24 hours, they absorb the remains of the yolk , so they don’t need food or water.After this time, the chick should be nicely fluffed up and ready to be moved into a brooder, where you should have a heat lamp set up, water and chick crumb. Sometimes chicks DO get stuck inside their eggs and it is considered bad practice to help them out of their shells. However, I myself have intervened in the past, but in doing so have often ended up with a deformed or sickly chick. When you have moved all your chicks to the brooder, make sure that the clean your incubator thoroughly, ready for next time.


Brooding Chicks

A ‘brooder’ is basically a warm area where you keep your chicks until they have enough feathers to survive on their own.There are various types of brooder – the most common is a lamp on a chain, with either a special red coloured bulb or a ‘dull emitter’ ceramic bulb in it. You hang the lamp up, so the bulb is a foot or 18 inches above the floor and you allow the chicks space to get away from the heat if they want to. Often this is done by making a circle of corrugated cardboard 3 or 4 feet across, with the lamp at the centre. You can also hang your lamp over one corner of a large cardboard box or get special ‘brooder pens’ to keep the chicks in. You can also get a system called an ‘electric hen’ which is a heat-pad for chicks to sit under when they are cold.

 

 

Temperature
If you are using a heat-lamp, the temperature at ground level directly under the lamp should be about 37 degrees centigrade on day 1. Watch how the chicks behave, If they are too hot, they will move away from the heat source. If they are too cold, they will huddle underneath it. You can adjust a lamp or electric hen up and down accordingly. Gradually, over a few weeks, as the chicks begin to feather up,  raise the lamp a few inches at a time and eventually start turning it off during the day. It’s very difficult to give a rule of thumb for this, as it depends on the weather and the temperature of the building your chicks are in. I think the best way is to observe your growing chicks. If it is a warm summer, they will need heat for a shorter time, but if you hatch later on in the season expect to have chicks under heat for longer.

Environment
Your brooder needs to be somewhere dry with a stable temperature, free from draughts and secure from predators. A spare room in the house, shed or garage are all ideal places for a brooder. To start with it is very important for the chicks to have a non-slip surface under their feet as they can develop “splayed legs”.  I have found the non slip rubber drawer lining fantastic for this, and it is machine washable. As the chicks get older move them onto wood shavings.

 

 

Food and water
A good quality chick crumb will provide chicks with all the nutrients they need to start with, and can be fed for the first six weeks of their lives. You can supplement this with leafy vegetables like cabbage or lettuce; or carrots or apples hung up for them to peck at. This keeps them busy and supplements their diet. To start with you should provide them with a shallow dish of water, that they can’t knock over or drown in. A deepish saucer with some pebbles in it will work; or there are special ‘chick drinkers’ that you can buy. After six weeks you should move them on to a ‘growers pellet’ rather than chick crumbs.

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