We’re so glad that you’ve made the decision to join the urban farming movement and start your very own chicken flock. Perhaps you intend to expand your flock and are looking at ways to do so. While most chicken owners take the ‘easy’ way of expanding their flock through simply purchasing new chickens, there are those who decide to go the natural way and have their flock naturally reproduce and grow. In this article, we will give you the main considerations you need to look at in hatching eggs and raising your newborn chicks.
Two options when it comes to this: you can either buy fertilized eggs or have your flock produce its on eggs. Of course, you will need to have a rooster in your flock for the latter so this may or may not be appropriate for you as roosters crow a lot and are quite aggressive. If you opt for the second option still, you can just leave a few eggs with the hens and hope that it turns out ok. While this is the easiest way, the success rate will be rather low and you will also need to have a breed that will look after eggs as some breeds have had this instinct bred out. For example the Urpington and Wyandotte breeds are great mother hens but the Leghorn breeds are not.
The other option is using an incubator which will allow you to hatch the eggs indoors with no mother hen required. While it is possible to build your own incubator, we cannot recommend this option unless you have a large degree of experience in hatching chicken eggs. You can purchase an incubator on the market; just make sure to read the manual carefully and in detail as even the slightest change in temperature and humidity can be the difference between success and failure.
Of course, even if your incubator is perfect, your eggs may not necessarily be fertile, the rooster in your flock notwithstanding. This is why some people prefer to just purchase fertilized eggs directly but even those don’t have a 100% success rate. There is a method of checking to see whether your eggs are fertilized or not and this process is known as candling. By shining a narrow beam of light at the eggs (after a few days in the incubator) you should be able to see a mass forming inside it; if the egg is totally clear it means there is no embryo and you should just eat the egg.
In a basic incubator you will have to manually turn the eggs thrice daily, although more advanced incubators can do this automatically. The eggs will take about 3 weeks to hatch; after hatching leave the newborn chicks in the incubator for 24 hours to get acclimated to their new surroundings. Don’t worry about food or water; newborn chicks don’t need those for about 3 days.
Newborn chicks should not be placed in your chicken coop for at least two months so you will need a separate enclosure for that time period. During this time period, you are going to need a brooder; for this we recommend a small animal cage such as those made for rabbits or guinea pigs. It has to accommodate both the chicks as well as their feeder and waterer.
For bedding we recommend using wood shavings; don’t use sawdust as it is too fine and chicks may end up eating it. For heating, chicks need external heating at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use either a heat lamp or a 100W incandescent light bulb with a reflective shade. The behavior of the chicks will tell you all you need to know about the temperature; if they are huddled close to the heat source then it’s probably too cold and conversely if they are huddled as far from it as possible then it’s too hot.
For the first week leave the temperature at 95 degrees and adjust it down by 5 degrees with each subsequent week. By the time it reaches room temperature in about 5 weeks, the chicks should already have mature feathers and thus external heating won’t be necessary any longer.
When it comes to food and water it is important that you use a very shallow dish for water to prevent them from drowning. While you can use a simple shallow dish for both food and water, we recommend hanging feeders to avoid a huge mess. And as for the food, you’ll need to buy what is known as chick ‘mash’ or crumbles as they can’t eat the proper adult chicken feed yet.
After a couple weeks in the brooder you can start letting them outside to roam and explore and get used to their surroundings. When they’re fully feathered, you can move them into your normal chicken coop. Don’t surprise your old chickens with the chicks though; give them plenty of interaction before moving them permanently into your coop.