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The Omlet Blog Category Archives: Incubation/Chicks

Chicken keeping for beginners: Choosing adult chickens or baby chicks?

You can buy chickens when they are still chicks, or you can choose ‘point of lay’ hens (also known as started pullets). These are ready-to-go birds that are about to begin laying eggs, and they offer the easiest entry into the wonderful world of chicken keeping.

If you choose to buy chicks or hatch fertilized eggs laid by your own hens, you will have to care for the young birds for the five months before they start laying. They are extremely cute but delicate little things, and easy prey for cats, rats and other creatures that wouldn’t attempt to attack a full sized hen. You will also need to keep them warm, which means investing in special equipment.

Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

So, if you are simply keeping chickens for fresh eggs, you should start with adult birds rather than chicks.

Why buying point-of-lay hens?

This is the entry point for most people who are new to keeping chickens. By checking availability in your local area, you will be able to source birds close to home. The advantages of choosing these older birds pretty much outweigh all other options, and the only reason you would opt for buying or hatching chicks is if you want to look after small birds. For many people, this is a very rewarding activity, but for someone who just wants to look after laying hens, started pullets are the way forward.

Why keeping ex-barn hens?

Another great way to stock your coop is with rescued chickens. Intensively reared hens kept in barns are judged to be past their prime after a year and a half, even though they still have a good 18 months of laying ahead of them. For the majority, this is the end of the road. However, charities such as the Animal Place in California relocate these hens and give them new homes.

All ex-barn hens have great charm and personality. They tend to look rather bedraggled and sad when first rescued from their imprisonment, but with a bit of TLC they will blossom as impressively as the Ugly Duckling!

What do I need to know about buying chicks?

You need to be sure that you buy baby hens and not cockerels. There are no external clues as to what sex a chick is, and any stock sold sight unseen (or ‘straight run’) will be a 50/50 mix of male and female birds. You need the chickens to be sexed to ensure you get hens. If this is not possible, wait for started pullets to become available.

Chicks need special accommodation for the first few weeks, and they can’t simply be kept in a standard coop and run. You can buy brooder boxes to keep them, or you can improvise one using a cardboard box or plastic bin with holes in the side. The important thing is to keep the birds warm and protect them from drafts while ensuring good ventilation.

After transferring your chicks to their brooder, pay close attention to how they behave. If they’re crowded together directly under or adjacent to the heat source, they’re cold. Lower the heat source closer to them or add another. If, on the other hand, they shy away from it, they’re too hot. In this case, the heater or bulb will need to be moved further away.

What do I need to know about chicken brooders?

You will need to provide 6 square inches (39 square cm) per chick in the brooder. Once they are five weeks old they can be moved to a coop and run, where they will need at least two square feet (0.19 square meters) per bird. You can buy brooder boxes to keep chicks in, or can make one yourself using a cardboard box or plastic bin with holes in the side. The important thing is to keep the birds warm and protect them from drafts, while ensuring good ventilation.

The chicks need to be kept in a temperature of 35C (95F) in their first week. The heat should be reduced slightly each week until you’ve reached room temperature. A heater designed for coops and aviaries is the best option. A red heat bulb is another option (not a white one – these produce glare that keeps chicks awake at night and tends to make them irritable and prone to pecking). Standard light bulbs will not do the job.

Very young chicks will need to have their water changed at least twice a day, as they have the ability of turning all liquids to messy soups within a few hours! They also need their bedding changed at least once a week. A chicken wire covering for the top of the brooder is recommended, too. Chicks can easily ‘fly the nest’ if the sides of the brooder are less than 1’5″ high.

Chicks can spend a little time outdoors when they’ve reached two weeks. A large wire cage or some other type of portable enclosure can be placed outside for a few hours a day – but only if it’s at least 18C (65F) and not too windy, and dry. The birds will need food, water and shade, and shouldn’t be left alone for very long. Predators are everywhere when you’re a small chick!

Once they’ve reached four to five weeks, the chicks can be moved permanently into the outdoor chicken run.

Do I want to breed my own chickens?

Another way of keeping chickens is to keep the flock refreshed by hatching eggs from their own chickens. The easiest way of raising chickens is to let nature take its course. All you have to do is provide a nest box for a broody hen. She will provide the right conditions for hatching eggs (although she will not be able to cope with more than a dozen at a time, or fewer with smaller breeds), warming and turning them as necessary. An incubator is the alternative hatching method.

A cockerel will do everything in his power to tread the hens in his flock and fertilize the eggs. If a chicken is broody, she will then sit on the eggs for 21 days (the incubation period), and with a bit of luck these eggs will then hatch.

Rearing chicks is a great hobby, but you need to be dedicated to the job. If all you want is fresh eggs and a flock of healthy and happy adult chickens wait for point-of-lay birds to become available. Also, contacting a local hatchery for more information is always a good move.

 

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This entry was posted in Chickens


Step by Step to Hatching Chicks

As long as your chickens are laying, you can hatch and incubate chicks all year round. However, traditionally the most popular time to breed your own chickens is in the spring.
Hatching and rearing your own chicks from eggs is an incredibly exciting and rewarding process. There is nothing better than seeing your tiny chicks grow up in the knowledge that they are getting the best possible life from start to finish.The incubation period for chicken eggs is usually 21 days. The most reliable way to incubate your fertilised eggs and maximise the chance that they will hatch into healthy chicks is to use an artificial incubator. Here’s our step-by-step guide to hatching chicks:

1. Long Term Plan

Before the hatching starts, you will need to have a plan in place as to what you are going to do with the chickens once they hatch. It is a safe estimate that 25-50% of eggs will not hatch due to either not being fertilized or due to some mishaps during incubation. Among those which will hatch, approximately 50% will be cockerels and 50% will be hens. Everybody wants hens and hardly anyone needs cockerels, so there is a question of what to do with the latter. In many breeds, cockerels do not tolerate each other and they will fight vigorously unless they are completely separated.

2. Eggs

First of all, you need to be as sure as it is reasonably possible that the eggs are fertilized, so getting them from a good breeder / farmer is crucial. Eggs of some breeds are quite expensive, so every egg that will not hatch costs you money. A breeder can never give you a 100% guarantee that the egg is fertilized, but an experienced one can be quite confident they are.

The eggs should not have any deformations or bear any other visible defects. Any cracks in the eggshells are a no-go. Any defect of the eggshell might result in the chick having difficulty in hatching, being deformed, or not developing at all.

Once you have the eggs, it is a good practice to wash them with an egg disinfectant. Eggs are porous and the embryos get oxygen and water through their eggshells. If there are any toxins or bacteria on the eggshells, that might endanger the embryos.

3. Keep a Diary


It is a really good idea to keep a diary of hatching. This includes numbering the eggs and keeping a daily record of each eggs weight. A developing egg will gradually lose weight in its 21 days of incubation. It will lose about 10-15% of its original weight over time. When the egg in the incubator is not losing weight it usually means it is not developing.

4. Incubator

Turning

Choose your incubator carefully. Some incubators, such as the Brinsea Mini II Incubator have an Auto-turn mechanism built-in. Auto-turn saves you a lot of time and effort. Every egg during the incubation time needs to be turned every 90 minutes in order for the embryo to be positioned perfectly in the egg. A broody hen naturally turns all the eggs she is sitting on as she moves around the nest, so the turning simulates what naturally happens when a hen takes care after eggs. If the incubator does not have the Auto-turn option, you will need to turn the eggs manually. It is therefore a good practice to mark all eggs with a non-toxic marker just to be sure that every egg is being turned every time you visit them.

Temperature control

A good incubator will be able to keep a steady temperature within. One that we recommend is the Brinsea Mini II Incubator. The optimal temperature for hatching chicks is 37.5 degrees Celsius. A good incubator will set its alarm off if the temperature within drops below or rises above a certain threshold. Temperature in the room where the incubator is placed is crucial here, as it heavily influences the temperature in the incubator. You will be opening the incubator during routine controls of the eggs, so it is really important the eggs don’t get a temperature shock in the process – such a shock might kill the fetuses. We advise keeping a steady temperature of approx. 25 degrees Celsius in the room with the incubator. The room should also be draft free.

Humidity control

A good incubator will be able to provide a good humidity inside. Optimal humidity for the eggs during hatching is around 40-50% but needs to be increased on Day 19 in order to soften the eggshells and help the chicks to hatch out. With some Incubators such as the Brinsea II Mini Incubator, there are two water containers inside. Fill one up every day, and fill both of them from Day 19 onward. You can fill up the water container in the Brinsea without the need to open it which is very useful, since you generally don’t want to open the incubator too often. It is perfectly normal that some condensation starts to build up in the incubator after a few days due to high humidity.

5. Daily routine

Cooling

Day 7 is an important threshold. First of all, you need to start cooling the eggs for half an hour a day. It’s best to do this around the same time each day. A good incubator has a fan and you can set an automatic cooling time. If not, you need to cool the eggs down manually by taking them out of the incubator. The cooling temperature should not be shockingly different – a difference of 2 to 5 degrees Celsius will do.

Developing eggs keep their own temperature when exposed. That is how a hen tells the difference between a developing and a dead egg. When the hen gets off the nest to eat and drink, the dead eggs will go cold almost instantaneously. The hen will then get rid of the dead eggs from the nest.

Candling

You also need to start candling the eggs on Day 7 at the latest. Candling will show you which eggs are developing and which are not. If an egg does not show any signs of development on Day 7, it will not hatch. It is essential to take out any eggs which stop developing as they will start to decompose if left in the incubator. From Day 7 onward you should continue candling on a regular basis. It’s not necessary to do it every day, as you won’t see any significant progress on day-to-day basis, but it is a good practice to do it every third or fourth day. Weighing and candling combined are usually good indicators if the egg is developing or not.

From Day 7 up to Day 19 tasks should continue in a routine manner: daily cooling, weighing, and occasional candling.

6. Hatching

Day 19 marks the next important stage. You need to stop turning the eggs and cooling them, and lay out a hatching mat in the incubator (so the chicks won’t slip on the incubator’s surface on their first day of life). You also need to increase the humidity inside up to at least 65%. When using the Brinsea Mini II Incubator you can achieve this by filling up the second water container inside.

At some point during that period the eggs will start wiggling: the chicks will be moving around the egg to position themselves perfectly to hatch out. You might feel the temptation to check on the eggs often, but at this time it is best to leave them be and inspect the eggs every 6 hours or so.

Around Day 20 the chicks should peck out a small hole in their eggshells to catch their first breath of fresh air. It’s best to leave them be. Do not help them by making the hole bigger or breaking the shell apart. They will do it themselves in their own time. In that time they will also consume all the nutrients in their eggshells, so it is vital for them to stay inside for the time being.

Most of the chicken breeds hatch on Day 21 with only a handful of breeds hatching on Day 20 or 22. Do not help the chicks in hatching, they should be able to do it themselves – it’s their first test of strength. Only give a helping hand when a chick is really late (in comparison with its companions in the incubator) and/or the eggshell is really thick and the chick is evidently struggling to get out for a prolonged period of time.

Once the chicks hatch out, leave them in the incubator for another 24 hours. They should be well fed having eaten all the nutrients from their eggs. Apart from that, the incubator provides them with the optimal temperature and humidity.

Now watch our eggcellent egg hatching video to see how easy it is to hatch chicks!

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This entry was posted in Chickens