Incubating and Hatching Chicks

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Incubating and hatching your own chicks is an interesting an educational journey, rewarding and beautiful. If you do not have a hen laying fertilized eggs, one can order fertilized eggs from a hatchery or purchase them locally from a farmer with a rooster (and, of course, a flock of hens).  Now that you have your eggs on the way, what next? Read on and discover the basics of incubating and hatching chicks.

The Importance of Incubation

Within 7-10 days after they are laid, fertilized eggs must be incubated in order for the chicks to develop and hatch. After 10 days, the likelihood that a chick will hatch quickly deteriorates. In this short period of time before incubation, such as when the eggs are shipped from the hatchery to your house, the eggs should be kept in a secure carton at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit (with a range of 40 to 70 degrees). If the eggs must be stored for 3 or more days before incubation, rotate them daily. For best results, arrange for your eggs to arrive 1-2 days before incubation.

Choosing the Right Incubator

There are a wide variety of incubators for sale, both online and at your local farm supply store. If you have the time and some basic construction ability, you can also make your own incubator. A box, heat lamp, thermometer, and reflector shield are all you really need to make an incubator.

Buying your first incubator may lead to the most success, as your temperature gagues are already in place and there is less guess work. Your incubator will control humidity and will maintain the necessary temperature of 99-102 degrees Fahrenheit. Ventilation can be adjusted too.

The Incubation Process

Place your eggs into your incubator on their sides and turn them three times daily. The chicken incubation period lasts about 21 days. The last three days, the eggs won’t need turning.  It may be beneficial to place a cheesecloth under the eggs in the last few days before hatching to make cleanup easier. Once the chicks begin to hatch, wait until they have dried off and fluffed up before removing them from the incubator. Clean and sanitize your incubator completely before putting it away so it will be ready for your next hatching experience.

What Next?

Newly hatched chicks must be kept warm and safe. A cardboard box serves this purpose quite well. The chicks will need access to water, not too deep because they can drown, and food. A heat source is very important and a heat lamp and a thermometer will serve your purposes well. A light bulb works well too. For the first week, chicks need a constant temperature of  90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. Reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week after that until your chicks thrive at room temperature.

During this time, keep your chicks warm and fed. Keep their water clean, keep away predators, and make sure that eager little hands don’t handle them too much. Keep out drafts. Clean their living area. After four weeks, your chicks shouldn’t need the heat lamp any more and may be ready to join your regular flock. Keep an eye out for your growing chickens, keep them safe, and watch them thrive.

What Exactly is a Broody Hen?

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You’ve likely heard the term “broody hen” before. It’s well known within the chicken community that some chicken breeds are excellent broody hens while others are terrible. Yet, exactly what does it mean to be “broody?” Is this something man can influence, or is it something that is genetic?

Broody Chickens Generally Make Excellent Mothers

Broodiness is the natural tendency of a hen to care for her flock of chicks. Broodiness comes and goes in cycles; it is not a constant state of being. When a hen “goes broody,” she experiences a strong desire to care for and protect her eggs. She will rarely leave them, rather sitting on them to protect them.

According to James Kash in his January/ February 2013 Backwoods Home Magazine article “Broody Biddies Make Sense on the Homestead,” “Broodiness is an avian behavior that is frowned upon in the world of agriculture.” Why? Broodiness inhibits egg production. If you want a constant supply of eggs, not chicks, broodiness is not productive.

However, broodiness can also be very beneficial. If you’d like to increase the size of your flock, having a broody hen will do this inexpensively. You also won’t have to worry about incubating your eggs, because the hen will do this. Broody hens can maintain your flock, especially if you use some of your birds for meat. Mother hens are also good protectors of their young and teach them helpful skills, such as foraging. She’ll teach them to eat and drink and keep her chicks warm and safe at night.

How Can You Tell If Your Hen Is Broody?

If you suspect you might have a broody hen on your hands, there are a few signs you can look for to make sure. A broody hen will spend a lot more time at her nest or nesting box and will be very protective of it, fluffing up her feathers, pecking, or even making a growl-like sound. Broody hens tend to be irritable. Allow your hens to nest away from other pets and chickens, because they can be quite mean to any animals (or children!) who come too close. A broody hen may only leave her nest to eat, water, or defecate. She may even pull out some of her feathers. Are you seeing these signs in your birds? If so, you’ve likely got a broody hen on your hands.

Be careful, though, because not all broody hens are good mothers. Some will abandon their eggs or young chicks and if this happens, you’ll need a good stand-by brooder or an incubator to keep these chicks alive.

Some chicken breeds, like Cochins, Silkies, New Hampshire Reds, Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Dorkings, and Old English Games are very likely to become broody. This is a genetic thing and is much more likely in some breeds than in others. Hens cannot be made to go broody. In fact, broodiness is a trait that has been bred out of many chicken breeds because broodiness inhibits egg production and many in the agricultural business consider this a bad thing. The leghorn is an example of a chicken breed that very rarely goes broody.

If you want to increase the size of your flock, choosing a broody breed may be just the answer. Keep in mind that broodiness varies even within a breed and some birds are naturally better brooders than others. With a little bit of research and some luck, keeping broody hens can be hugely rewarding.