Chickens - Breeding & Incubation
by Carole Youngs
If you have a broody hen sitting on eggs:
- Keep a close eye on the calendar, hen’s eggs take 21 days to hatch
- Take her off the eggs at the same time each day for feeding
- Some people advocate not lifting the hen off her nest, preferring to trust her instincts
- Allow her to feed for at least 20/30 minutes
- Make sure she has access to fresh water in the coop at all times
- While she is feeding, turn the eggs through 180 degrees
- Check that the turf-base of the nest remains damp, but not soggy
Caring for the broody hen:
Firstly, keep a note of the date the hen starts to incubate her clutch of eggs (up to 11 for the larger breeds, maximum of 7 for smaller hens). During the process she’ll probably be reluctant to leave the nest, but it’s vitally important that she has the opportunity to eat, drink and defecate. Lift her gently off the nest, preferably at the same time each day, and don’t allow her to return for at least 20-30 minutes (some people advocate not lifting the hen off her nest, preferring to trust her instincts). Offer high-energy mixed grains and make sure that she defecates before returning to the nest to avoid soiling the eggs (and herself, which can lead to flies laying eggs around her vent, leading to ‘fly-strike’). Make sure she has access in the coop to clean, fresh water at all times. A sitting hen is more at risk from attack by red mites and lice, so give her access to a dust bath and treat with a proprietary insecticide to keep her free of parasites.
The hatching process:
Egg incubation times vary slightly according to the size of egg: a large egg will take perhaps a day longer to hatch than a small egg. At around Day 18, you can lightly spray a little warm water onto the eggs; this can make it easier for the chicks to break through the shell. Keep a close eye on the calendar; you should expect to hear some cheeping by Day 20, this indicates that the chicks have pecked through to the air space at the blunt end of the egg. Within a further 6-10 hours, the chicks will have broken out of the shell. If a chick seems unable to manage by itself, it’s questionable whether it’s a good idea to help or not – more often than not, it will be a weak or malformed chick that may not survive. The newly hatched wet chick will quickly dry, and will be up and running and looking for food and water within minutes. It will need the hen for warmth, and hopefully she will fluff up her feathers and tuck them in around her.
Raising Healthy Chicks:
- Once the chicks have hatched their needs are pretty well the same whether hatched by a broody hen or an incubator, though hopefully in the case of the hen, she will do most of the work!
- Housing: A broody coop with a small mesh-covered run that can be moved regularly onto clean, fresh ground if the chicks are to be reared by the hen; a broody box if the chicks have been hatched in an incubator.
- Temperature: The newly hatched chick needs warmth, firstly to dry its down to save getting chilled, and for the next 6 weeks at least, until it grows it’s own feathers. The mother hen will keep her chicks warm by gathering them under her warm down, the incubator chicks will need to be placed in a draught-free ‘brooder box’ where artificial heat is provided by a heat lamp (the ones that provide heat without light are best, so the chicks become attuned to day and night rhythms) or heat pads. Make sure they’re not too hot (moving away from the heat source, gasping), or too cold (huddled tight together under the heat source, heads reaching up towards heat source.
- Health Checks: As soon as the newly hatched chick has dried and fluffed up, it’s a good idea to quickly check that it has no deformities, things to look out for include: ‘Star-gazing’ this indicates a serious disease (Encephalamasia) from which the chick will not recover, so best to humanely cull; ‘Crooked Toes’ meaning the chick cannot stand properly, again, there is no remedy and culling is the best option; ‘Splay Legs’ may be caused by too slippery a surface, so provide a more secure flooring: clean shavings or fine wood-chip – if the chick is still doing the splits, gently tie a piece of soft wool around each leg with a link between.
- Water: Use a small automatic waterer, never a dish that the chicks may fall into and become chilled. Chicks from an incubator should have their beaks dipped into the water; chicks reared by a hen will be taught to drink by the hen.
- Feeding: The newly hatched chick can survive on the yolk sac for up to 48-hours, but offer chick crumbs soon after hatching. The mother hen will show them the food: she’ll scratch the food around, tempting them to eat. They should remain on chick crumbs for about 6-8 weeks, when they can start eating grower’s pellets and wheat (with mixed grit).
- Growing on: As the incubator chicks outgrow their brooder box provide them with a larger area, but gradually reduce the heat as they ‘feather-up’ by raising the height of the heat lamp. Slowly adjust them to less heat by turning the lamp off during the warmest part of the day, and then remove it altogether. You will also need to accustom them to darkness at night if you’ve been using an infrared heat source. If you have an existing flock, it will be at least 6 months before your new ‘growers’ can be introduced. Chicks raised by a hen, however, can join the main flock at about 8-10 weeks, as she will protect them from bullying by the other hens.
Joining the Main Flock
- An established flock of hens has a ‘pecking order’ and will often bully newcomers, especially if they are smaller than themselves
- In an ideal world, the new pullets should be reared separately from the main flock until they have grown to the same size as the established flock, and then carefully introduced
- In all events, plan to introduce them in a way so that they can see one another, but not have physical contact: one way of achieving this is to construct a wire mesh enclosure for the new birds inside the existing run
- Provide a suitable coop to house them in the separate run, and the two groups will gradually get used to one another
- When you want the new birds to join the existing flock, wait for them all to roost, then carry the new hens into the henhouse and gently pop them onto a perch – in the morning the established hens tend not to notice that there are more hens in the house
- Let the newly-enlarged flock out at daybreak (as soon as they become active) so they are all outside with space for the new pullets to escape if one of the older hens tries to bully
- Make sure there is plenty of room in the henhouse – don’t overcrowd as this is a recipe for bullying
- Provide more than one feeding and watering station so there is less competition
- Hang several tit-bits, such as greens or cucumbers, in different places around the run to distract the birds
- There will still be a bit of ‘hen-pecking’ to establish the ‘pecking order’, but this should settle down in a few days
- Be vigilant for serious bullying: once a hen draws blood, she will often go into a pecking frenzy and do serious damage, or even kill her victim – so remove the injured bird as quickly as possible, and try again in a few days time