It’s that time of year again….my FAVORITE time of year (with the exception, perhaps, of Christmas).
It’s chicken hatching season.
I don’t know what it is about hatching and raising our own chickens that gives me such amusement. Perhaps it’s because we are getting ourselves involved in the miracle of life, yet without a ton of extra work or know-how involved.
Here’s the thing. Raising chicks is easy. So easy, in fact, I wish we had started years ago. It’s the raising adult chickens that’s the hard part!
In all fairness, I probably get way too excited about hatching chicks. It’s been the excuse for us skipping out on a lot of social events – “Oh, sorry, we have chicks hatching that weekend, can’t do it” – and the cause of a lot of embarrassing scenarios.
For example, last year I had to have surgery on my sinuses. We’re talking some pretty heavy-duty stuff. Outpatient stuff, but gross stuff. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty, but I do recall waking up from anesthesia and my first thought being, “Ok. I need to recover quickly. We need to get home – there are chicks in the incubator!”
The doctor probably thought I was nuts as I hobbled hurriedly out of there with half a pound of gauze shoved up my nose.
Anywho. Raising chicks (especially if you do it “from scratch”, as we do) is a joy. Here are the ten things you need to do in order to get started.
1. Decide if you are going to incubate or purchase day-old chicks
The first year we raised chickens, we purchased day-old chicks. This is probably the easiest route for beginners, as it allows you to get a flock started without having to worry about all of the intricacies involved in setting up and maintaining an incubator. Chicks usually start around $3 a bird (sometimes with free or reduced shipping) from major hatcheries like Stromberg’s, Murray McMurray, and Meyer’s.
You can also purchase your chicks from a local supplier, such as Tractor Supply. The only downside to this is that these retailers generally have a more limited supply. If you’re looking to start a huge flock – or are interested in certain breeds – that can be a drawback.
We purchased our first set of chickens from a local feed store. Before you get ready to place your order, make sure you have a clear idea of how many you want to raise, with the understanding that some will likely die early on. This is not a matter of if – it is a matter of when. If you don’t lose any on this round of birds, there is a good chance you will at some point in the chicken-raising game.
2. Narrow down the specifics
Keep in mind that when you purchase baby chicks, they must be purchased in minimum quantities of six at a time. This will vary hugely depending on where you live, the time of year the birds are being shipped, and other factors. In many cases, hatcheries will sell you smaller quantities of chicks, but this is rare. The chicks rely on the body heat provided by the group, so you need to keep this in mind before you order.
There are other factors you need to decide on, too. For example, what breed will you raise? Do you want only hens, or are you okay with a straight-run batch of birds? Although straight-run groups will contain indeterminate amounts of hens and roosters (it can be difficult to sex a chick until they are a bit older, a hen-only group will cost you significantly more money.
You also need to choose whether you want your birds to be vaccinated. Chicks can be vaccinated against Marek’s disease, a debilitating viral disease, before leaving the hatchery. Many people forego this in an effort to raise their chickens without vaccines or antibiotics, but it’s worth doing your research to find out if Marek’s is common in your area. Some hatcheries also offer services like debeaking, which is done to reduce cannibalism in closely confined flocks. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you probably raise your chicks with adequate space, so debeaking won’t be something you will need to pursue.
3. Plan out an incubation schedule
Obviously, if you’ve decided to purchase day-old chicks from a hatchery, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you’ll need to determine how and when you are going to set up and operate your incubator.
Now, a lot of purists out there will probably chide me for using an incubator instead of allowing Mama Hen to become broody. However, in our many years of raising chicks, we have never had a lot of success in letting our hens do the dirty work.
There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, we keep roosters throughout the year so that we can have fertilized eggs (which, obviously, you need to have in order for this whole hatching chicks thing to work in the first place). Second, where we live, it’s awfully cold and we start incubating right in the dead of winter. Temperatures frequently drop below zero at night, and frankly, even if a chick did hatch it wouldn’t live long in those conditions.
Plus, a hen has to be very attentive or there’s a good chance that her eggs won’t hatch, or that the chicks will end up with deformities. Perhaps one day we will have the patience to try this out the more natural way, but for now, when we are raising consistently high volumes of birds, it simply does not make sense.
For us, ordering from a hatchery was going to be too cost-prohibitive over time, particularly when raising hundreds of birds every year, so we decided to, as my husband jokingly refers to it, “roll our own.”
So we turn to our trusty incubator to get the job done for us. There are plenty of different incubators on the market, but we have had great success using the Hovabator Deluxe. For an affordable price, this incubator includes an automatic egg turner (taking almost all of the guesswork and labor out of the job) along with an egg candler and a digital thermometer and hygrometer.
We weren’t super impressed with the quality of the thermometer that came with the incubator, so we purchased our own, but we still got out of the whole deal with less than two hundred dollars’ worth of start-up fees.
This incubator has lasted us into our third year of incubation with nary a problem. There are plenty of other options you can choose from, of course, and I won’t claim to be an expert on all the different models available. However, this one can hold up to 42 eggs, and we have a phenomenal hatch rate that just keeps on getting better.
Stay tuned for a full review of incubators and all of their benefits, but for now, just know that there are tons of incubators you can choose from, with prices ranging from less than $50 to well over $1000. You can even DIY an incubator (I’ve never tried this – I can’t make any claims as to its effectiveness) but no matter what you do, your incubator needs to meet a few basic parameters.
First, your eggs need to be kept at 99.5 degrees at all times. While a wee bit of fluctuation is okay, temperatures that run consistently high or low can kill the embryo. Second, it needs to maintain adequate humidity. 40 to 50 percent is required for the first 18 days, while 65 to 75 is needed in the final days leading up to the hatch. It needs to be well-ventilated, allowing oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to exit. Some of the better incubators have built-in fans to help circulate warm air, and you can add fans if desired, too.
Once you’ve purchased your incubator, figure out when you would like to start hatching chicks. It will take three weeks from the time you put the eggs in the incubator until the day the chicks hatch. Keep in mind that they won’t all hatch at once – in some cases, it can take up to 72 hours for your batch to fully cycle through. You will need to factor in extra time for setting up, tearing down, and cleaning your machine, too.
4. Let’s get ready to incubate!
Again, if you decide to go with day-olds, you can skip this step. However, for everybody else, the next major process in raising baby chicks is starting to incubate. If you already have hens from which you are collecting the eggs, monitor them closely for a few weeks prior to egg collection to determine how often they are laying. Now, as you already know, a hen can lay an egg without the presence of a rooster. However, you have to have a rooster if you plan on hatching your own chicks. This is pretty basic biology, but it’s something that, for some reason, many people tend to forget.
If you have roosters around, there’s a pretty good chance the eggs will be fertile (of course, there’s always the possibility of infertility in your flock, but this is relatively rare). If you don’t already have chickens, you can typically purchase fertilized eggs from a nearby farmer or check out Craigslist for a good deal.
Try to avoid jostling your eggs too much, and don’t allow the eggs to experience major fluctuations in temperature or humidity. Pick eggs that are clean and well-formed, and do not, under any circumstances, wash them. The eggs have a natural coating that is vital for the embryo to survive.
In an ideal world, you would transfer your eggs directly to the incubator as soon as they pop out of Mama Hen’s bottom. Unfortunately, unless you raise massive quantities of birds, this often isn’t possible.
It usually takes us a day or two to collect all of the eggs we need to run a full incubator. If you need to store eggs while you wait for more to be produced, just make sure you store them at temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees, with roughly seventy-percent humidity. You can store them for up to ten days without having to worry too much about the embryos being viable.
Where we live, up in the great white north, we try to get the incubator loaded as quickly as possible. Like I said, it takes us a few days to collect enough eggs, but we also have the challenge of dealing with frozen eggs. We end up having to throw out a lot of our eggs (read: feed them to the pig) because they split and explode in the few hours they are in the nest box before we get home from work to collect them.
Before you load the incubator, make sure you spend some time playing around with your incubator. This is especially true if it is your first time using the incubator. Incubators are incredibly finicky, and if you don’t take the time to learn about your specific model, you will lose a lot of otherwise healthy embryos. Turn on the heat source and measure the temperature and humidity over the period of at least a day, adjusting as needed to create the ideal environment.
Once conditions are exactly where you want them, place the eggs on their side in the incubator, shut the lid, and keep an eye on your temperature and humidity. That’s all there is to it! Our specific brand of incubator requires that we add water every other day to keep the humidity up. You will likely also need to add water at day 18.
Some models of incubators may require you to turn the eggs yourself. Drawing an X on one side of the egg can help you keep track of which eggs have been turned. You will need to do this three times a day (at minimum) and you should stop at day 18. We have an automatic turner that does this work for us, but we still need to remove the turner for the last three days of the incubation cycle.
5. Throw a birthday party
I will never forget the day our first batch of chicks hatched. I was so excited, I created a Facebook event for the day and called it our “Chicken Hatching Party.” We invited over a dozen of our friends, and we all sat around and drank beer and snacked while the chickens hatched.
I really don’t know why I haven’t been invited to hang out with any A-list celebrities yet…isn’t this party scene the pinnacle of sophistication and glamor?
Anyway. I was a bit disappointed at first because it really does take quite some time for your chickens to hatch (and whatever you do, don’t count them first!). In the final days before hatching, you might notice the eggs moving around a little bit. The fetus is becoming active! Your chick will eventually peck a small hole in the membrane of the shell – this is called pipping – and it will take its own sweet time as it “unzips” itself from the shell.
Be patient, and don’t try to help the bird out. It knows what it’s doing! In some very rare – very, very isolated – conditions, you may need to help forcibly evict the bird. But 99.99999 percent of the time, the chick can handle it on its own.
Once the chicks have hatched – again, this can take a few days – you can move them to their new home. Try to avoid moving your chicks one at a time. They need time to dry off in the incubator and can live for several hours off the nutrients in the egg yolk.
6. Move your chicks to their new home
Here comes the really fun part – caring for your cute and cuddly new chicks! Actually, to be honest, they are pretty cute (at least for the first few weeks) but they aren’t all that cuddly. In fact, you should try to avoid picking them up and handling them too often, as this can make them sick and stunt their growth.
There is little you need in order to keep your chicks happy and well-cared for. Start with a draft-free brooder pen. We built our own brooder out of scrap OSB boards. This is probably not the best building material, but at the time, we were broke teachers trying to scrape by the first time. Our brooder measures about 4’ by 8’, but you definitely don’t need to have a brooder this large.
You don’t even need to build one from scratch. You can purchase a commercial brooder pen or even repurpose an old plastic tote or something of the like. Just keep in mind you want something that will provide decent ventilation and also keep your chicks protected from outside sources (such as moisture, foot traffic, and, yes, your super-intelligent dog).
The birds will also need a source of heat. Over the last few years, I laid awake many nights worrying about our brooder catching on fire. Although we recently built a small barn, we have always kept our brooder in our basement, where it is out of the reach of the dog and can maintain a steady temperature. We heated our brooder with a red brooder heat lamp to both keep the temperature above 92 degrees as well as to reduce pecking behavior among the chicks.
This has always terrified me. Although we keep a cover on our brooder, all you have to do is Google “chicken brooder fires” to keep yourself up at night. Remember how I mentioned my surgery earlier in this post? Before that surgery, literally, while we were sitting in the waiting room, my husband and I were watching horror stories. The images of entire homes going up in flames were enough to inspire us to splurge on the greatest impulse buy of our lives.
We now use a Premier Chick Heating Plate from Premier 1 Supplies. This plate mimics the heat of a mother hen and rides low to the ground, providing your chicks with a place to hide beneath as well as a source of ambient heat. This plate is safe to use with significantly reduced fire risk. It creates temperatures up to 125 degrees and uses less electricity (only 66 watts per hour).
You can adjust this heating plate as the chicks grow. It is a bit (okay, a lot) pricier than your standard heat lamp, but it’s much safer and we’ve already recouped the costs in our lower electric bill. Plus, there’s the peace of mind aspect, which cannot be monetized. We also noticed (and this could be purely anecdotal) that our birds feather out much more quickly when they have access to this kind of heat versus a traditional heat lamp. We still supplement with a red light bulb to eliminate pecking behaviors, but we’re huge fans of the Heating Plate as an alternative to heat lamps.
As for bedding, you can use any material you’d like. Keep in mind that slippery materials can cause health problems as your chick’s feet develop, and paper products can sometimes be ingested. We use wood shavings, but for the first few weeks of our chick’s lives, we cover the shavings with a thin layer of paper towels. This prevents them from accidentally eating the wood shavings, which they have done in the past. Once they’re older, they’ve figured out the difference between shavings and food, so you can remove the towels.
You can move your chicks to the brooder once they’ve fluffed out (aka dried) and they are moving around on their own. Before you leave them to their own devices, dip their beaks in water. This teaches the birds where to go to drink.
7. Maintain a regular feeding and watering schedule
Your chicks can be fed and watered using paper plates and bowls, or you can use commercial waterers and feeders. If you want to use a DIY method of feeding and watering, keep in mind that while these are inexpensive solutions, they will lead to a lot of food and water waste. Ideally, you should use materials that are designed for use with baby chicks. This is especially true in regards to waterers – it is not uncommon for baby chicks to drown in waterers when they fall into the pools.
If you need to use a larger waterer, simply put rocks in the base to avoid this. Beyond that, there’s not anything special that you need to do. Feed your chicks a chick starter (we like the crumble and don’t try to skimp by using broiler feed or feed designed for game birds. These mixtures are specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of baby chicks.
8. Keep an eye out for problems
Monitor your chicks very carefully for any problems in the first few weeks of life. In general, chicks are pretty resilient, and any deaths early on are typically caused by shipping stress (if you purchase started birds). Genetic abnormalities can also cause problems, as can disease. However, disease is highly unlikely to manifest this early on.
One of the biggest preventable problems in baby chicks is pasty butt. This condition is fun to say and has induced many a giggle at family parties, but it’s actually quite serious. Pasty butt is essentially a build-up of fecal matter – or, as the French say, poop – around your chick’s bottom. You can easily remove this using warm water, a damp rag, or even olive oil in particularly challenging cases. Just make sure you’re gentle, as pulling too hard can cause bleeding that can result in cannibalism.
9. Tidy up every now and then
Once your chicks begin to grow, they’ll begin to eat – a lot. And what happens when your birds start to chow down? They poop. And they poop a lot.
Pigs get a bad rap for being the dirtiest animal, but in my expeirence, chickens actually take first prize. They poop indiscriminately, covering every square foot they come into contact with. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that – I don’t think you’ll be potty-training your birds any time soon.
However, maintaining hygienic conditions can help keep things sanitary and healthy. In our case, raising chicks in the basement, we absolutely have to keep our brooder clean or the entire house begins to stink. As your chicks grow, you may find yourself changing out the bedding every other day. Just remember, if you put that bedding in a compost bin, you’ll reap the benefits in a few months, when you can use it as super nutrient-dense compost for your garden!
10. They grow up so fast
But you won’t be crying and waving at them in your rearview mirror as they drive away – we can guarantee that. By the time your chicks are ready to go outside, you’ll know it. They will start to seriously stink, and they’ll begin to try their wings. More than once we’ve found a young chicken wandering aimlessly around outside of the brooder.
Generally speaking, you need to wait a minimum of four weeks before introducing your chicks to the outside world. That’s a minimum. If it’s cold outside or if there’s snow on the ground, you’re probably going to need to double that time. Your chicks need plenty of time to develop feathers, which is usually around week 11 or 12.
Consider, too, the environment in which you will be moving them. Very small birds can often make their way through fencing that adult chickens cannot fit through. You need to keep in mind predator concerns and also how your other birds will react to them.
And that’s all there is to it! Feeling henpecked by all this advice yet? See what I did there? Hopefully, this guide helps you as you begin your journey raising your own baby chicks. What tips would you include for a first-timer? Be sure to chime in with your tips, as well as tricks to make the process just a little bit easier and more enjoyable.
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