After a few years of keeping chickens, it’s hard not to be tempted to hatch a few chicks. The most important thing to remember is that you need a cockerel. Your laying hens will never produce a fertile egg without Mr Cockerel.
To hatch chicks, fertile eggs need to be incubated and this can happen in two ways…
Mother Nature can take over, making your hen broody and she will happily sit on the eggs until the chicks hatch out. In the absence of a broody hen, you can place the eggs in an incubator to hatch them.
If you have a broody hen she will do all the work for you. She will sit on the eggs for twenty one days, keeping them at the correct humidity and temperature. She will turn the eggs herself twice a day. Mother hen will come off the eggs once or twice a day to feed and then quickly return to the eggs. Be sure that you see your broody hen coming off the eggs at least once a day. Some hens are so broody that they would happily sit on the eggs for the entire three weeks without moving. It is vital that these hens are lifted off the eggs to get food and water. They will eat quickly and return to the eggs, but lifting them ensures the mother stays in good health. After the chicks have hatched she will take care of the chicks, teaching them to eat, groom and forage. Broody hens are incredible mothers and will fight off the most vicious predators to protect their young.
Signs of Broodiness
· The hen will refuse to come off the nest.
· She will lose her breast feathers (allowing her direct contact with the eggs).
· She will squawk and peck at you if you try to move her from the nest.
Many of today’s laying hens have had the broodiness bred out of them. However, pure breeds like Light Sussex and Orpingtons are known for their broody qualities and one of the best broody hens of all is a Silkie. From Spring onwards, some of my Silkies would like nothing more than to sit on eggs for the entire Summer. Once a hen goes broody she will happily sit on any eggs – chicken, duck, turkey, guinea fowl, she will mother them all.
· It takes 21 days of incubation for chicks to hatch.
· Allowing the eggs to build up in a nest can encourage broodiness in some hens.
· If you don’t want to keep a cockerel, you can always buy fertile eggs.
But what if you don’t have this gloriously broody hen in your flock? You can hatch the chicks yourself with the help of an incubator, but there is a lot more work involved.
Incubators come in all shapes, sizes and prices and are widely available online and from farm stores. The more expensive models are very good at replicating a broody hen and will do most of the work for you. Buying a cheaper model will probably mean that you have the job of regulating the temperature and turning each egg twice a day. If you have plenty of free time, this is not an issue.
After your chicks have hatched in the incubator, they must be moved to a brooder (a secure box where the chicks have room to eat, drink and scratch around) when they are dry and fluffy (within forty-eight hours). Here they will stay until they are about six weeks old. Traditionally, chicks stayed under a heat lamp in their brooder but nowadays this has been replaced with an “electric hen” – a hotplate usually 18”x18” which the chicks can stand under for warmth.
· Electric hens are hotplates of varying sizes under which the chicks can stay, thus replicating a chick snuggling underneath the mother hen.
Feeding And Drinking
Chick crumb is a specially formulated feed for chicks. The crumbs are small enough for the chicks to eat easily and contain all the nutrients young chicks require. Chick crumb and water should be readily available in the brooder. Miniature feeders and drinkers are available for young birds. If you don’t have a suitable drinker, put some stones in a shallow dish and then add water. It’s important to add the stones to your dish as chicks will drown very easily. At six weeks your chicks should move from chick crumb to growers pellets because they will be growing rapidly at this stage and will require more nutrients.
The great outdoors
After about six weeks in the brooder, your chicks are ready to make an entrance to the outdoor world. Do this slowly. Start by bringing them out for a short amount of time and build from there. Don’t let them run free or you’ll never catch them, so have an enclosed area ready. After a week or so, they will have adapted well to life outdoors. Introduce them to their coop just like you did with your adult birds (leave them in the coop for 24hours). After that, nature will take over and pretty soon they’ll be eating, drinking, foraging and enjoying dustbaths.
But remember, like all animals, the cute little chicks will grow up. If you hatch a dozen eggs, have you room for twelve more chickens? And do keep in mind that some, or even all, could be male. If these are not issues for you, go for it! Hatching chicks is not only educational for both children and adults, but is truly good for the soul.
This week my recommended book is Freddy Buttons and the Little Lost Hen (€4) – it’s a great story for the little ones and a great way to learn fun facts about chicken and eggs – and be sure to try the recipe!