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Well, if you have started out keeping chooks the usual way, you probably purchased a chicken that had already matured enough to start laying fresh eggs for your household. However, with a higher level of chook-keeping confidence, your might be considering taking the next step and hatching your own chickens from eggs.
Now a little word of advice hatching eggs requires special equipment, time and a bit of resilience as not all your eggs are likely to hatch. That said, it can be very rewarding to add to your brood in this way, particularly if you have young ones around your farm who will delight in learning about the life cycle (not to mention the unbearable cuteness of the new fluffy baby chicks).
To be able to hatch chicks from eggs requires a fertilised egg. There are two ways to get to this point the 'old fashioned' or 'newfangled' way.
The old-fashioned way to get fertilised eggs is to have a rooster amongst your flock. For this you will either need your own rooster or to borrow one. Don't be too ambitious and try to cover a large flock of hens with one rooster (even these handsome fellows get weary) and keep basic animal husbandry in mind, for example don't select a rooster that has fathered any of your brood.
The newfangled way is to purchase already fertilised eggs from breeders in person, or via mail. This is an option for those who don't want to keep a rooster because of noise and other factors, or who are prohibited from doing so due to council or shire restrictions. We have done both - with varying degrees of success!
There is a greater risk in getting eggs delivered, as you don't really know how they have been treated before or during delivery. You will have the best success buying from a local breeder with a good reputation, and if you are able to collect them this gives you the advantage of seeing the parent hens and rooster to double check the eggs come from healthy stock and are the breed you want.
You should choose healthy eggs, of an average size and oval shape and without any bumps, thin or rough shells. Use a damp cloth to gently wipe off excess dirt and manure.
For a fertilised egg to develop into a chick, it must be either incubated for a period of twenty-one days or allowed to hatch under a broody hen.
To hatch your eggs without relying on a hen, you will need an incubator. You can start out with a simple and cheaper manual incubator, but you will need to turn the eggs 3 times a day to stop the yolk sticking to the inside of the shell and help the embryos develop properly. You can keep track of which way is up by marking each side of the eggs with a unique mark.
If you are not going to be available to turn the eggs regularly for 19 days straight, you will need an automatic incubator, which will do the job for you.
Not every egg you select for incubation will be viable. At the 7 day mark, you can check which eggs are developing an embryo through a process known as candling. By looking at an egg in a dark room with a bright beam of light (such as a strong LED torch or a 'candler' ) behind it, you should be able to see a mass forming inside. If the egg is clear, there is no embryo inside and it should be discarded.
Candle the eggs again around day 18, just before you stop turning them. At this stage, you should be able to make out a dark shape and may see some movement from the embryo.
Around the 19 to 22 day mark, things get exciting. The chicks will begin to peck at their shell (known as pipping) with the pointy end of their upper beak, the egg tooth.
Try to resist the urge to help the chicks out of their shells, as you will do more harm than good. It can take around 24 hours for each chick to fully break free of its shell.
Once the eggs have started to hatch, the chicks can stay in the incubator for at least another day before they need to be removed to a brooder. This gives their down time to dry out and gives the chicks a change to gain strength. They don't need food or water for nearly 3 days, so take your time to get them out.
Not all your chickens will hatch so it is best to have this expectation from the start. Generally an 80% hatching rate is considered good, but it can be much lower if you have got you eggs via the post.
Once out of the incubator, the new hatchlings need to be housed in a brooder, which is a kind of nursery for chicks. This can be as basic as a cardboard box or a small cage designed for guinea pigs or rabbits, lined with a combination of wood shavings and shredded paper.
Sawdust should be avoided as chicks will ingest it and become sick. The brooder needs to have enough room for the chicks, their feeder and water dispenser. It's best to use these special devices to hold food and water to avoid food being tracked around or baby chicks drowning in water bowls.
The hatchlings need to be fed with mash or a high protein starter chicken feed, which should be phased out by around 6 weeks old.
The temperature in the brooder should start at 33 C, and gradually reduced down to the ambient temperature. A heat lamp attached to the side of the brooder and fitted with an automatic temperature guage and timer is the easiest way to keep the temperature consistent.
The brooder should be large enough to comfortably house the chicks until they are around six weeks old and ready to move into the coop. From about 2 weeks of age, you can start acclimatising the chicks by letting them out of the brooder in warm weather for short periods of time.
Once the new chicks have grown feathers in place of their new born down, by about 6 weeks of age, they are ready to move gradually to the chicken coop. Take time to introduce your existing chickens to the newcomers by letting the chicks explore the chicken pen for short periods before they move in permanently. The additiona of an antibiotic like Baycox Poultry will ensure that your flock will remain free of common bugs like Coccidiosis.
Hatching your own chicks from eggs can be hard work but quite rewarding and a cost-effective way to grow your brood, not to mention an eggs-citing eggs-periment (sorry, we couldn't resist). Will you try hatching your own chicks on your small farm?
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